Remembering the legacy of Laurie Cunningham

Updated: March 8, 2014

It has been a difficult week for West Bromwich Albion Football Club. On Thursday, they saw star striker Nicolas Anleka handed a five game ban by the Football Association following his now-infamous quenelle goal celebration, while on Saturday they fell to a crushing 3-0 home defeat to Manchester United.

Now languishing just one place above the drop zone and without a win in nine games, it is probably stating the obvious to suggest the Baggies are in desperate need of some inspiration.

Ironically, the match against United marked what would have been the 58th birthday of one of West Brom’s most revered former players, Laurie Cunningham, whose career took him from lower league football to the Santiago Bernabeu in the space of five short years.

Cunningham was also the first black player to play competitive football for the English national team and helped break down the barriers of racism and prejudice that blighted the game during the 1970’s. Tragically, Cunningham also lost his life at just 33 following a car crash in the Spanish capital, Madrid.

Born in London in 1956, Cunningham was playing for Leyton Orient by the age of seventeen, having already suffered rejection by north London giants Arsenal. The teenager impressed during his time at Brisbane Road however, and former Leeds United legend Johnny Giles took him to West Bromwich Albion in 1977, where he formed a devastating partnership with another black player, Cyrille Regis.

It was under Giles’ successor, Ron Atkinson, that Cunningham really began to make a name for himself however. Atkinson famously christened Cunningham, Regis and new signing Brendan Batson the ‘Three Degrees’ as West Brom began to emerge as a legitimate force in the English game. Cunningham’s performances had already been rewarded by a number of England under-21 caps, however, in 1979 he became the first black footballer to play a competitive match for his country after coming on as a substitute against Wales.

It was a pivotal moment in the history of English football and the three West Brom players took a massive step in the battle against racism that was endemic in British football grounds at that time. In 1979 Real Madrid announced their interest in acquiring his services, and at the age of 22-years-old, Cunningham become their first-ever British import after a £950,000 switch. A memorable first season subsequently followed, as Cunningham finished as the club’s third highest goalscorer.

Despite his impressive form in La Liga, the move to Spain proved detrimental to Cunningham’s England career, and he went on to earn a criminally-low six caps for his country. Despite this disappointment however, Cunningham continued to perform at club level and was, by now, an established player at the Bernabeu. Things began to deteriorate however and, after suffering injury and a dip in form, he was fined by his employers after a number of disciplinary problems.

Eventually Cunningham returned to England and a short, unsuccessful loan spell at Manchester United before going back to Spain to play for Sporting Gijon. His later career failed to reach the heights of its magnificent early days and Cunningham drifted from club to club as his struggled to settle.

In 1988, Laurie Cunningham returned to Madrid when he signed for modest Rayo Vallecano, then playing in the segunda division. His first season back in Spain proved a great success as he helped guide the club to promotion and a return to the primera division.

Cunningham, who had a Spanish wife and young child, finally seemed happy as he prepared for life back in the top flight and a return to the Santiago Bernabeu. He was destined never to play another game of football. On the morning of 15 July 1989, the 33-year-old player was tragically killed in a car crash on the outskirts of Madrid.

Laurie Cunningham was a pioneer and paved the way for black players of later generations to achieve their goals in the professional game. He broke new ground and was a remarkable individual, succeeding against the discrimination and prejudice that existed during the 1970s and 80s.

Most of all however, Laurie Cunningham was a wonderful, wonderful footballer.

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