22 Apr 19
The Scottish Sun
ALL too often the footballing maverick is defined by the same criteria; wine, women, song and, if time allows, some game-changing displays on the pitch too.
But Laurie Cunningham was different.
Laurie Cunningham was the English pioneer who tragically died aged 33
In a career that took him from Brisbane to the Bernabéu, the flying left-winger bewitched fans across the continent with his almost balletic grace on the ball.
And while his life was tragically cut short, Cunningham will forever be remembered as one of football’s great pioneers, a player and a man who overcame everything the nasty side of football, and society, could throw at him…
He didn’t quite get what it meant to be a professional footballer…
Having been rejected as a schoolboy by Arsenal, Cunningham finally signed his first professional contract with Leyton Orient in 1974.
The following day he failed to show up for his first training session.
Then, on the next day, he wasn’t there again so the club sent someone round to his house where they found him still fast asleep in his bed.
With threats of fines for lateness hanging over him, Cunningham soon managed to drag himself out of bed.
He wasn’t only good at football…
One of the principal reasons for Cunningham’s initial tardiness was his fondness for music and dancing and he would often take part in dancing competitions across London, using the prize money to pay any fines he had picked up at Orient.
Cunningham’s natural aptitude for dancing was such that he was once even offered a part in a ballet company and his suppleness on the dancefloor also proved beneficial to his football.
“That comes with dancing,” he once said. “I love soul music.”
Flying left-winger Cunningham was also known for his skills on the dance floor
In 1979, he became only the second black player ever to wear an England shirt
At West Brom, Cunningham played alongside Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson
He made headlines…
Cunningham’s performances for Orient were such that a big move was inevitable.
It duly came in 1977 when West Brom paid £100,000 for his services and alongside Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson, he became part of the group then manager Ron Atkinson called ‘The Three Degrees’.
With Cunningham in the side, the Baggies became one of the most attractive sides of the decade, although they fell short of winning any silverware.
But there was personal recognition for Cunningham.
He became only the second black player to wear an England shirt at any level and, in 1979, the second black player to earn a full cap when he played against Wales in the Home Internationals.
He would go on to win six caps for his country.
He was a style icon…
In a decade known for its sartorial vagaries, Cunningham always cut a dash, standing out from the crowd in fur coats, fedoras and leather trousers.
But then he was always knew what he liked.
He liked wine, but only the good stuff.
He had a particular penchant for king prawns.
And he was a stickler for etiquette.
In short, he had standards.
Cunningham earned a full England cap in 1979 in a game against Wales
Cunningham stood out from the crowd with his style, wearing fur coats and leather trousers
He was a true pioneer…
In 1979, Laurie Cunningham became the first ever British player to join Real Madrid, leaving West Brom for a fee of £950,000.
And he hit the ground running at the Bernabéu, scoring eight goals in 29 league games and helping Madrid to win the La Liga and the Copa del Rey.
Nicknamed ‘The Black Pearl’, he soon became one of the stars of Los Blancos and received the ultimate recognition for his talents in February 1980 when he received a standing ovation from Barcelona fans after a dazzling display that saw Real claim a 2-0 victory.
In 2005, the Spanish newspaper AS ran a 25th anniversary piece on that game under the headline ‘The Man Who Ran Riot in the Nou Camp’.
But he lived life on the edge…
During his time in Madrid, Cunningham was visited by his old West Brom teammate Cyrille Regis and the two caught up in the way they always did – by drinking all day.
On the journey home, however, Cunningham momentarily fell asleep at the wheel of his Renault 5 GTI and the car hit a barrier, rolled over and skidded along the road on its roof.
“When that happens and you are upside down, hearing the horrible screeching sound of metal against concrete and seeing the sparks – you think there is going to be a massive impact,” Regis said later.
“But if we hadn’t had our seatbelts on we would have died.”
Cunningham was the first ever Brit to join Real Madrid, for a fee of £950k in 1979
The winger became known as ‘The Black Pearl’ at Madrid as one of the stars of the team
He rose above the terrace taunts…
As a black player in the 1970s, Cunningham was subjected to the kind of racist abuse that might have done for lesser men.
And it came from all sides, both on the pitch and off it.
Cunningham’s answer was to let his feet do the talking.
“I’m the natural target, but I don’t let it get to me,” he said.
“I’d be doing what they want. There’s no way I’d ever be ashamed of being black but it’s more important that other professionals seem to have stopped calling me things.”
And how about this for strength of character…
In one game against Millwall at The Den, Cunningham had run the gauntlet of abuse from the home crowd but, in the last minute, popped up to score the winner.
He gave them the Black Power salute.
Cunningham tragically died aged 33 in a car crash on the outskirts of Madrid
He struggled with injuries…
As his career came to an end, the years of being kicked by opponents unable to contain him caught up with Cunningham.
His last club was Wimbledon, a team known for their roughhouse approach to the game and one seemingly at odds with the way in which Cunningham played the game.
And while he managed a substitute’s appearance in the Don’s giantkilling FA Cup win over Liverpool in 1988 it wasn’t long before he called time on his playing career.
“There were days when you saw him low,” recalls his wife Sylvia. “When a man has been so high and then has to settle for less it shows.”
He’ll always be remembered…
On the morning of July 15, 1989, Laurie Cunningham was killed in a car crash on the outskirts of Madrid.
He was 33.
Today, he is remembered as one of the finest players that England has ever produced, black or white.
There’s an English Heritage plaque outside his childhood home in North London that says it all:
An English Heritage plaque outside his childhood home in North London says it all
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