The electrical trailblazer who met a tragic finish in Madrid


Laurie Cunningham, pictured in 1975
Laurie Cunningham, pictured at Orient in 1975

In the centre of a small east London park, only a stone’s throw from Leyton Orient’s stadium, is a statue of a person with arms outstretched, his left foot raised delicately on tiptoes.

The soccer at his boots makes his career clear, however the posture could possibly be that of a dancer – maybe even a trapeze artist.

Balletic is one phrase continuously used to explain Laurie Cunningham, an electrical winger who glided effortlessly throughout the boggy pitches of the Nineteen Seventies, swaying previous defenders with poise and function.

Cunningham was the primary Briton to affix Real Madrid, and one of many very first black gamers to signify England. He was typically subjected to racist abuse.

Those who recall seeing him play discuss with a whispered air about greatness. Spain’s former supervisor Vincente del Bosque, Cunningham’s team-mate at Madrid, described him as “the Cristiano Ronaldo of his period”.

And but he might need achieved a lot extra.

Cunningham was an other-worldly expertise whose brilliance was checked by accidents and unhealthy luck. He was a pioneer for black footballers who not often noticed himself as a job mannequin. He was a person who moved in extraordinary methods, whose life was sadly reduce quick by a tragic accident.

Short presentational grey line

Raised in north London by Jamaica-born dad and mom, Cunningham is usually described as being quiet and introverted off the pitch, in distinction to his flamboyant footballing type and love of dancing.

After becoming a member of youth facet Highgate North Hill in 1968, he rapidly established himself as an incredible expertise, but in addition a boy of grit who might take the agricultural challenges slung his approach.

Arsenal confirmed curiosity and Cunningham was given a trial, adopted by a schoolboy contract in 1970. But the Gunners performed a inflexible ‘give and go’ type that left little room for Cunningham’s buccaneering gallops. It had simply received them the double. He was launched in 1972 with the word: ‘Not the proper materials.’

Cunningham’s prospects hung within the stability. He was picked up by Leyton Orient – then within the second tier, and recognized simply as Orient. His debut got here, on the age of 18, on 3 August 1974 in a pre-season pleasant in opposition to West Ham.

“We misplaced the sport 1-0,” recollects one Orient fan, “however he simply ran and ran and ran, dribbling throughout Upton Park. He was already a phenomenon.”

Cunningham stood out off the pitch too; he was a lover of dancing, style, portray, structure and wine. Much of his time away from the sport was spent on the dance flooring, honing rigorously choreographed strikes in venues akin to Crackersexternal-link and the Tottenham Royal a number of instances every week.

He was a person who moved at his personal velocity, which might vary from the lackadaisical – he was continuously fined by Orient for being late – to the turbo-charged. It was rumoured he’d pay the fines with prize cash from dancing contests.

Three years with Orient yielded 75 appearances, 15 targets and a switch to West Bromwich Albion. There, his expertise shone like by no means earlier than – in typically appalling circumstances.

Laurie Cunningham, pictured in 1975
Another picture from Orient in 1975 – Cunningham dressed to impress

If racism in soccer nonetheless rears its ugly head immediately, it is incomparable to what was seen in British stadiums within the Nineteen Seventies. Bananas, cash and even ball-bearings had been hurled at these with black pores and skin. They had been common targets of verbal and bodily abuse. In the overwhelming majority of instances, it went solely unpunished.

Brendon Batson, Cunningham’s team-mate at WBA, defined how the National Front could be ready for them at away video games,external-link the place they’d arrive with no safety and could be spat on.

Cunningham was repeatedly the perfect participant on the pitch, a truth that may enrage the abusers even additional. He performed his sport, typically slaloming by means of half the opposing staff earlier than bursting the online.

“Defenders like myself had been actually simply there to kick folks principally,” says Viv Anderson, who in 1978 turned the primary black participant to win a senior England cap. “The aptitude gamers, like Laurie, received probably the most stick.”

On 27 April 1977, Cunningham pulled on the white shirt of England himself, in an Under-21s pleasant in opposition to Scotland at Bramall Lane – a sport received 1-0 because of his aim. He’d go on to play six instances for the senior England facet.

But his actual breakthrough season got here in 1978-79, alongside Batson and Cyrille Regis in a scintillating Baggies staff that solely fell away from title rivalry within the closing weeks of the season to complete third.

This was not the primary time three black gamers had performed collectively in British soccer, however Batson, Cunningham and Regis had been the primary to repeatedly achieve this. They turned often known as ‘the Three Degrees’ – a time period coined by supervisor Ron Atkinson in reference to the favored American soul group.

The Three Degrees meet The Three Degrees: Cunningham, Valerie Holiday, Batson, Helen Scott, Regis and Shiela Ferguson
The Three Degrees meet The Three Degrees: Cunningham, Valerie Holiday, Batson, Helen Scott, Regis and Sheila Ferguson

“Everybody sat up and took discover after they beat Manchester United 5-3 at Old Trafford in December 1978,” says Anderson.

“To go there and do what they did, with three black gamers within the staff, all people simply thought: ‘wow.'”

Batson recollects: “There was a whispering marketing campaign about black gamers at the moment, that they had been lazy, lacked bottle, did not just like the chilly and could not sort out – which was all garbage.

“Now black gamers had been coming to the fore. There was an actual breakthrough, nevertheless it wasn’t a subject of dialog between us at West Brom.

“Maybe on the time, we did not realise the actual influence we had been making outdoors of our little bubble. But on later reflection we did; we had been a visual presence and encouragement for different black gamers who aspired to make it in skilled soccer.

“I do know the black group took nice delight in seeing the three of us being profitable within the sport.”

Cunningham was actually making an influence. At the top of that 1978-79 season, disagreements over wage led to him sending out letters to Europe’s high golf equipment stating his availability. He discovered one already had a eager curiosity: Real Madrid.

Laurie Cunningham, lining up for Real Madrid in September 1979
Only six British gamers have represented Madrid – Cunningham was the primary and continues to be remembered fondly

Cunningham turned the primary British participant to affix the Spanish facet, arriving in a £950,000 deal – a membership file for each Albion and Real. There was a feverish pleasure that this younger man from north London would possibly nicely be one of many sport’s greats.

His arrival on the Bernabeu in 1979 got here at a time of nice change in Spain. Francisco Franco’s 36-year dictatorship had ended along with his loss of life 4 years earlier and, whereas the nation was experiencing a speedy liberalisation, there have been parts of life at Madrid that had been slower to vary. In Different Class, Dermot Kavanagh’s biography of Cunningham, his then-girlfriend Nikki Hare-Brown, a white girl, says there have been tensions over their relationship.

On the pitch, issues started nicely. Cunningham scored on his first look in opposition to AC Milan in a pre-season pleasant, and twice extra on his full league debut in opposition to Valencia, earlier than the primary of a sequence of accidents put him out for a number of weeks.

In his first Clasico, on 10 February 1980 on the Nou Camp, he was spectacular. It is a sport not remembered for Real’s 2-0 win however slightly the extraordinary Englishman on the wing.

“He was electrical,” Barcelona defender Migueli recalled years later. “He drove us loopy along with his dribbling, his bursts, his velocity.”

Even the house help started applauding the person sporting the hated white of Real Madrid. A couple of months later, they had been topped league champions for a twentieth time, including the Copa del Rey, too.

Injury had restricted Cunningham’s involvement, however there had been sufficient to persuade the Real Madrid trustworthy that he would quickly ship frequently.

Instead, that 1979-80 season would show to be the top of his total profession. He was on receiving finish of a vicious stamp off the ball by Real Betis’ Francisco Bizcocho in November, successfully ending his 1980-81 marketing campaign. When pictures emerged of him dancing in a nightclub with a plaster forged, the vultures started circling. The newspapers who had so lauded him simply 9 months earlier now portrayed him as a playboy who did not take his expertise critically.

The 1m pesetas nice (price round £20,000 immediately) handed down by the Madrid hierarchy was the most important in La Liga historical past. Cunningham publicly accepted it, however privately he was seething.

Then, after six months out injured, he was frantically rushed again to play within the European Cup Final in opposition to Liverpool. One Madrid director reportedly informed him his very future on the membership rested on his participation.

The sport that happened on 27 May 1981, between two of probably the most illustrious groups in soccer historical past, was one of many worst in residing reminiscence. The Parc des Princes pitch, which had hosted a rugby match the day before today, supplied the turgid setting for a match of few possibilities and even fewer moments of real high quality.

Cunningham, clearly unfit and struggling, handed by means of the 90 minutes like a shadow. He would later describe the sport as “horrific”. A well-taken 83rd-minute aim by Alan Kennedy was sufficient to settle the competition as Madrid missed out on the trophy they craved probably the most.

The following season noticed issues sink even additional. A problem throughout coaching led to a different prolonged lay-off, nevertheless it was what occurred again in London that introduced Cunningham’s footballing struggles into sharp perspective.

Cunningham playing for England in a 1982 World Cup qualifier against Romania
Cunningham enjoying for England in a 1982 World Cup qualifier in opposition to Romania. He wasn’t a part of the match squad

Cunningham’s older brother Keith was staying with him in Spain when the pair obtained information that Keith’s companion and her two youngsters from a earlier relationship had been murdered of their house – against the law that went unsolved for 28 years.

Madrid formally remained supportive, giving Cunningham compassionate depart to return to England and miss the beginning of the season, however the writing was on the wall. The arrival of Netherlands worldwide Johnny Metgod, at a time when Spanish groups might solely subject two outfield gamers, pushed him farther from rivalry. A painful break-up along with his long-term companion left him adrift and people closest to him described a interval of nice unhappiness.

“At instances I assumed he wanted one other 12 months or two years at West Brom, however you do not flip down Real Madrid,” Batson says. “He was solely 23 when he went and I’m unsure he had folks round him in the identical approach.”

A mortgage transfer to Manchester United, and a reunion along with his previous West Brom supervisor Atkinson, in the end proved unsuccessful, and when he withdrew from rivalry for the FA Cup closing in 1983, it was clear that Cunningham’s confidence and religion in his personal physique had been rocking.

The following 5 seasons had been a patchwork of mortgage strikes and quick contracts that took him to Sporting Gijon, Marseille, Leicester City, Rayo Vallecano and Wimbledon. There had been memorable moments alongside the way in which, not least the Dons’ unbelievable FA Cup victory in opposition to Liverpool in 1988, wherein he got here on in its place, and Rayo’s dramatic closing day promotion to La Liga in 1989. But that mesmeric dribbler with the ferocious tempo was by no means fairly the identical.

Off the sphere too, life was tumultuous. Two relationships resulted in two youngsters, solely considered one of whom remained a part of his life. A sequence of failed monetary investments and long-standing issues with a home within the hills outdoors Madrid performed out over the backdrop of a soccer profession that was fading a lot quicker than anybody had hoped.

Wimbledon celebrate winning the 1988 FA Cup
Cunningham (far proper) celebrating with the Wimbledon staff of 1988 – FA Cup winners

Cunningham’s story ended tragically on 15 July 1989.

Early within the morning, after spending the night time at a celebration on the O Madrid pizzeria, he was driving down La Coruna motorway outdoors town with an American, Mark Latty, beside him.

As they approached a roundabout, Cunningham accelerated previous a slower automotive however didn’t see one other car by the facet of the highway with a flat tire. Cunningham, who was not sporting his seatbelt, misplaced management. His automotive hit a lamppost and flipped a number of instances. Cunningham was taken to hospital however pronounced useless shortly after. He was 33. Latty survived the crash.

A toxicology report would place Cunningham 3 times over the drink-driving restrict. Regis later revealed that that they had been concerned in the same accident close by just some years earlier than.

“If we hadn’t had our seatbelts on, we’d have died,” Regis mentioned.

Short presentational grey line

Most gamers won’t ever be honoured with a statue outdoors the stadiums they as soon as graced. Laurie Cunningham has two: the primary outdoors Leyton Orient’s house, the second outdoors The Hawthorns, alongside Regis, who died aged 59 in 2018, and Batson, now 68.

He is remembered as a footballing ballerina who dazzled with the ball at his ft, whereas quietly reworking what was doable for black footballers.

“I take a look at wingers now and I nonetheless evaluate them to Laurie Cunningham,” says Anderson, his former England team-mate. “He might do issues different gamers might solely dream of.

“His soccer was forward of its time. You take a look at the pitches he used to play on and the abuse he obtained… should you put him on a degree enjoying subject with all people else he’d be close to the very high.”

Batson provides: “It was tragic what occurred to Laurie, however what pleasure he introduced once you noticed him play. I feel we had been all fortunate to have seen the perfect of him.”

Laurie Cunningham, pictured in Madrid in 1979
Cunningham, pictured in Madrid in 1979
A young Laurie Cunningham, pictured with his mum Mavis and dad Elias
A younger Laurie Cunningham, pictured along with his mum Mavis and pa Elias
Laurie Cunningham with West Brom fans
Cunningham is mobbed by adoring West Brom followers in 1978
Laurie Cunningham
Cunningham made 114 appearances for the Baggies, scoring 30 targets



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