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“... Cunningham is a black c*nt …”
by Shaun Smith
Twenty-one years ago this month saw the untimely death of a sublime footballing talent who became the first English footballer to sign for Real Madrid. The above hate-filled but unwittingly back-handed compliment to his skills was spray painted by rival fans on a wall at The Hawthorns in the mid-to-late late 1970s and remained there for years afterwards, almost as an epitaph to the West Bromwich Albion playing career of Laurie Cunningham .....
Imagine Wayne Rooney undertaking ballet classes? Unthinkable for a professional footballer. But Laurie Cunningham did. Not to mention paying off club fines at Orient by doing dance demos at a discotheque. Cunningham came to be regarded as one of the most naturally gifted players in the country, playing on the right-wing for a West Bromwich Albion team under Ron Atkinson noted for its free-flowing football style as well as the inclusion of three black players (Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson) at a time when racism at football was rife. He also became the first black player to represent England at under 21 level, as well as the first to represent the full England side in a competitive match.
A watershed game in Cunningham’s career in this country and still talked about to this day was actually broadcast on ITV4’s Big Match Revisited as recently as last year. 30th December 1978: Manchester United 3 West Bromwich Albion 5. His blistering pace and delicate balance and footwork, honed with the aid of ballet practice, helped take United apart and that match, allied with two outstanding UEFA Cup performances against a Valencia side that included Mario Kempes and Rainer Bonhof, supposedly brought him to the attention of Real Madrid. To confirm this, Cunningham took the bizarre step of flying out to Madrid on his own in the summer of 1979 and turning up at the Bernabeu unannounced to ask if Real really were interested and if they would like to sign him. They were and did so to the tune of £950,000. Not that Real Madrid was the first continental side to have noticed him. When Johnny Giles signed him for West Brom from Orient two years previously, the other two sides reported to also be in the hunt were Hamburg (three months before they signed Kevin Keegan) and Saint Etienne. For a Division Two player at that time, it was unheard of.
Cunningham’s first season in Madrid saw him live up to the hype of the Spanish press and the expectation levels of the Real faithful. A brace on his debut against Valencia in a 3-1 victory and a goal against Barca in the Bernabeu guaranteed instant approval. The return fixture in the Camp Nou saw him rip the backside out of the home team’s defence as Real took the points with a 2-0 win and he received a standing ovation from the Catalan side’s cules. With Cunningham in top form, Real Madrid completed the Primera Liga/Copa del Rey double and also progressed as far as the semi-final stage of the European Cup before losing to – ironically - Hamburg.
Despite his success with one of the giants of European club football, his international career never really took off. The feeling was that playing abroad meant that his performances were overlooked though part of the fault could be laid at his own door. Cunningham had failed to have a release clause for international duty included in his contract and Real refused permission for him to play for England on several occasions. The following season started well but then a broken toe requiring an operation saw his love affair with Real begin to sour. The club fined him for celebrating the operation’s success in pure Cunningham-style with a visit to a discotheque. A freak accident during further nightclub dancefloor activity then aggravated the toe injury, followed by the same again via a training ground tackle. The press openly criticised him, claiming his playboy lifestyle and interests in architecture, fashion, clubbing and cars were of more importance to Cunningham than his football career ....
He played in the 1981 European Cup Final loss against Liverpool in Paris but then missed the bulk of the following season with a thigh injury. He won a further Copa del Rey medal against Sporting Gijon but it was to be his last honour with Real. 1982/83 saw the signing of Johnny Metgod to join Uli Stielike as the two permitted foreign players at the Bernabeu. Cunningham spent the season on the sidelines until Manchester United took on loan in April 1983. Ron Atkinson’s team reached the FA Cup Final and a now injury-prone Cunningham was named as substitute. He told Atkinson privately that he didn’t feel he could do the team justice and asked to be left out, a request described by the long-leather wearer as “typical of a supreme professional”.
The following season was spent on loan to Sporting Gijon but at the end of it Cunningham was released on a free transfer by Real, having by now lost the electrifying pace that had been his trademark. His career path then took the route of some kind of mad Intertoto Cup draw - Olympique Marseille, Leicester City, Rayo Vallecano, a Marvin Gaye-style exile in Belgium with Charleroi, Wimbledon (and an FA Cup winners medal thanks to a half-hour cameo off the bench against Liverpool) and a return to Rayo Vallecano for the 1988/89 season which ended with him scoring the goal that secured Madrid’s “third” club’s promotion to the Primera Liga. Sadly, he never got to return to the Bernabeu with them. On the morning of 15th July 1989, Cunningham was tragically killed in a car crash in Madrid. He left behind his Spanish wife and a son. And for those fortunate enough to have seen him at his peak, memories of not just one of the trailblazers for black footballers but also one of England’s most naturally gifted yet under-rated players of the post-war era ....
Laurence Paul "Laurie" Cunningham (8 March 1956 – 15 July 1989)
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