Before David Beckham, there was Laurie Cunningham...

Dermot Kavanagh with the Laurie Cunningham portrait that captured his imagination

Dermot Kavanagh with the Laurie Cunningham portrait that captured his imagination - Credit: Archant

New exhibition in Finsbury Park explores Cunningham’s historic football career - and fashion sense

He was arguably the most historic footballer Islington has ever produced, and yet Laurie Cunningham very much remains a “forgotten hero”.

But Dermot Kavanagh hopes this will be corrected after his Cunningham exhibition, Different Class, launched on Monday.

Born in Brookside Place, Archway, in 1956, Cunningham grew up in Lancaster Road, Finsbury Park.

After progressing from Leyton Orient to West Bromich Albion, he was the first black player to represent England at under-21 level, at a time when racism poisoned the terraces.

And in 1979, he became the first Englishman to play for Real Madrid.

A historical player? No doubt. All this, up to Cunningham’s death aged 33 in a car crash in 1989, is covered in the exhibition at Park Theatre in Finsbury Park.

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But for 50-year-old Dermot, Cunningham’s sporting achievments don’t even scratch the surface of his story.

Years before David Beckham, Cunningham was one of football’s original style icons. He was the London soul boy who loved to dance in bespoke suits and vintage clothing.

Dermot, of Axminster Road, Holloway, launched Different Class as part of an ongoing biography on Cunningham.

And he said: “I saw a picture of him wearing a Great Gatsby-style suit and he just looked great, so photogenic. I was intrigued: you could see the popular culture in him.

“With that and his football achievements with England and Madrid, I just knew there was a story to tell – and then I saw he was born in Archway as well.

“He was so much more than a footballer, you can see that with his artistic side and his fashionable side.

“You would assume he was extrovert and flashy, but those who I’ve spoken to so far have said he was modest, even wary. That might have been a reflection of his upbringing in a tough part of Finsbury Park.

“When doing research for a book, you pick up useful nuggets, so I thought these could be used for the exhibition. It ranges from photos – fashion and football – to a piece of racist hate mail a journalist received after running a report on him.”

Dermot, assistant picture editor at the Sunday Times, calls Cunningham a “forgotten hero”, and explains: “After his bad knee injury (in the early 1980s) he wasn’t the same in the later part of his career.

“He ended up as ‘boots for hire’. So the way his career petered out probably explains why more hasn’t been made of him, as well as him going to Madrid before the time when football was so widely covered on TV.”

The exhibition runs until November 23, and Dermot is confident it will resonate with the community: “I think he should be seen as an inspiration to teenagers across Islington, and I am hoping schools will get involved by taking classes to visit.

“Consider that he got rejected by Arsenal at 14, and nine years later he was playing for Real Madrid at 23.

“Even if you don’t like football, there’s a great message there.”