Laurie Cunningham: An electric trailblazer, Real Madrid's first British player

Laurie Cunningham, pictured in Orient in 1975
A statue depicting a man standing in the middle of a small park in east London, with his arms extended and his left foot gently on tiptoes, can be found just a stones throw away from Leyton Orient's stadium.

His profession is clearly evident by the football in his boots, but his posture could also be that of a dancer or trapeze artist.

Balletic is a common term to describe Laurie Cunningham. She was an electric winger who glided seamlessly across the 1970s' boggy pitches, passing defenders with poise.

Cunningham was also the first Briton to join Real Madrid and the first black player to represent England. Cunningham was often the victim of racist abuse.

People who remember him playing talk with a whispered air of greatness. Vincente del Bosque (Cunningham's former Madrid manager), described him as "the Cristiano Ronaldo" of his time.

He could have done so much more.

Cunningham was a rare talent, but his brilliance was hampered by bad luck and injuries. Cunningham was a pioneer in black football and was rarely seen as a role model. His life was tragically cut short by an accident that saw him move in remarkable ways.

Cunningham was born in London to Jamaican parents. He is known for being introverted and quiet off the pitch. This contrasts with his exuberant style of footballing and passion for dancing.

He joined Highgate North Hill youth side in 1968. He quickly became a remarkable talent but also a boy full of grit who was able to take on any agricultural challenges that were thrown his way.

Arsenal was interested and Cunningham was offered a trial. This was followed by a schoolboy agreement in 1970. Cunningham's buccaneering adventures were not allowed by the Gunners, who had a strict 'give-and-go' policy. They had just won the double. In 1972, he was released with the note: "Not the right material."

Cunningham's prospects were in jeopardy. Leyton Orient, then in the second tier and still known as Orient, picked him up. At 18 years old, he made his debut in a friendly against West Ham on 3 August 1974.

One Orient fan recalls, "We lost the match 1-0." But he ran and ran, dribbling everywhere in Upton Park. He was already a celebrity."

Cunningham was also a standout on the pitch; he loved fashion, dancing, painting, architecture, and wine. Cunningham spent a lot of time off the pitch on the dance floor, perfecting his moves at venues like Crackers external-link or the Tottenham Royal several times per week.

He was a man who could move at his own pace, and was often fined by Orient for being late. Rumours circulated that he would pay the fines using prize money from dance contests.

Three years spent with Orient resulted in 75 appearances, 15 goals, and a transfer from West Bromwich Albion. His talent was evident in these circumstances, which were often quite tragic.

Another photo taken at Orient in 1975 - Cunningham dressed for impress

It's not surprising that racism in football is still a problem today. But it's nothing like what was witnessed in British stadiums during the 1970s. People with dark skin were subject to bananas, coins, and even ball bearings. They were often the targets of verbal abuse and physical violence. It went unpunished in the vast majority cases.

Brendon Batson was Cunningham's WBA team-mate. He explained that the National Front would be waiting at away games.

Cunningham was often the best player on the pitch. This would anger the abusers even more. Cunningham played his game and often beat half of the opposition team before scoring.

"Defenders like me were really there to kick people most of the time," says Viv Anderson. Anderson was the first black player to earn a senior England cap in 1978. "The flair players like Laurie got the most stick."

Cunningham donned the white shirt of England in an Under-21 friendly against Scotland at Bramall Lane on 27 April 1977. His goal won the game 1-0. Cunningham would go on to play six more times for the senior England team.

His breakthrough season was 1978-1979 when he played alongside Cyrille Regis and Batson in a brilliant Baggies team, which only lost third place in title contention during the final weeks.

Although this was not the first occasion that three black players played together in British soccer, Regis, Cunningham, and Batson were the first. The nickname "The Three Degrees" was given to them by Ron Atkinson, a manager who was inspired by the American soul band.

The Three Degrees meet: Cunningham (Valerie Holiday), Batson, Helen Scott and Regis Ferguson

Anderson says that everyone noticed after Manchester United beat Manchester United 5-3 at Old Trafford, December 1978.

"To go there to do what they did with three black members of the team, everyone just thought, 'wow!'

Batson recalls that there was once a whispering campaign that black players were lazy, lacking bottle, couldn't handle cold, and didn't want it.

"Black players were now coming to the forefront. It was a breakthrough but not a topic of conversation at West Brom.

"Maybe we didn't realize the true impact we were having outside of our bubble at the time. We did, however, realize that we had an impact on the lives of other black professional football players.

"I am sure the black community took great pride seeing us all succeed in the game."

Cunningham certainly made an impact. After the 1978-1979 season, Cunningham was having disagreements about his salary and sent letters to Europe's top clubs to confirm his availability. Real Madrid was the one he found with a keen interest.

Madrid has only six British players - Cunningham is the first and most fondly remembered.

Cunningham was the first British player to sign for the Spanish team. He signed a 950,000 deal, which was a club record both for Real and Albion. It was obvious that Cunningham, a young man from North London, might be one of the greats in the game.

In 1979, Spain was experiencing great change. His 1979 arrival at Bernabeu arrived at this time. Francisco Franco's dictatorship of 36 years had ended four years before his death. However, Madrid was still experiencing rapid liberalization, and there were aspects of Madrid life that took longer to change. Dermot Kavanagh's biography on Cunningham's then-girlfriend Nikki Hare Brown, a white woman, is called Different Class. It describes tensions in their relationship.

Things started well on the pitch. Cunningham scored his first goal against AC Milan in a preseason friendly. He also scored twice against Valencia on his full league debut, just before he was forced to withdraw due to a series injuries.

He was stunning in his first Clasico on the Nou Camp's 10 February 1980. Real's win of 2-0 is not what will be remembered, but the exceptional Englishman on his wing.

Migueli, a Barcelona defender, recalled that "he was electric" years later. "His speed, his bursts and his dribbling drove us insane," Migueli, a Barcelona defender, recalled years later.

Even the home support started applauding the man in the hated Real Madrid white. They were named league champions for the 20th consecutive year, and added the Copa del Rey.

Cunningham was limited by injury, but the evidence was enough to convince Real Madrid fans that he would return on a regular basis.

That 1979-80 season would be his greatest. Real Betis' Francisco Bizcocho, who was stamping off the ball in November, ended his 1980-81 campaign. The vultures started circling after photos of him dancing at a nightclub wearing a plaster cast were published. Nine months ago, he was praised by the newspapers. Now, he is being portrayed as a playboy who doesn't take his talent seriously.

The Madrid hierarchy handed down the 1m pesetas fine, which is worth around 20,000 today, as the biggest in La Liga history. Cunningham accepted it publicly, but privately he was furious.

After six months of being out injured, he was then rushed to get back in time to take part in the European Cup Final against Liverpool. According to one Madrid director, he was told that his future in the club depended on his participation.

This game, which took place between two of the most famous football teams of all time, was among the worst ever played in modern memory. Parc des Princes, the site of a previous rugby match, was the perfect setting for this match, with few chances and very few moments of genuine quality.

Cunningham was clearly not fit and struggling. He lasted the 90 minutes like a shadow. Cunningham would later call the game "horrific". Madrid was denied the trophy they desired most by Alan Kennedy's well-taken goal in the 83rd minute.

Things plummeted even more in the following season. Cunningham's football struggles were put into sharper perspective by a training problem that led to another long layoff.

Cunningham representing England in a qualifier for the 1982 World Cup against Romania. Cunningham was not part of the tournament squad.

Cunningham's older brother Keith was in Spain with him when he received the news that Keith's ex-partner and their two children had been murdered in their apartment. This crime went unsolved for over 28 years.

Madrid was supportive and granted Cunningham compassionate leave so that he could return to England, but the signs were there. He was further removed from contention by the arrival of Johnny Metgod, a Dutch international. This happened at a time Spanish teams were limited to two outfielders. He was left feeling alone after a painful split with his long-term partner. Those closest to him describe a time of great sadness.

Batson says that he thought at times that he would need another year at West Brom. But, you can't turn down Real Madrid. He was 23 years old when he left and I don't think he had the same people around him.

Cunningham was able to move on loan to Manchester United and see his former West Brom manager Atkinson again. However, it proved infeasible and Cunningham pulled out of contention for the FA Cup final 1983. It was evident that Cunningham had confidence in his body and was rocking.

He was involved in a series of loan moves and short-term contracts over the next five seasons, which took him to Marseille, Leicester City and Rayo Vallecano, as well as to Sporting Gijon and Marseille. Memorable moments were shared along the way, including the Dons' unlikely FA Cup win against Liverpool in 1988 where he was substituted and Rayo's dramatic promotion to La Liga in 1989. The mesmerizing dribbler at the fast pace was not the same.

Life was also turbulent off the field. Two marriages resulted in two kids, but only one of them remained in his life. Over the background of a football career that was rapidly fading, a series of failed financial investments as well as long-standing problems with a Madrid house in the hills were the events.

Cunningham (far left) celebrates with the 1988 Wimbledon team - FA Cup Winners

Cunningham's tragic story ended on 15 July 1989.

After a night at O Madrid's party, he was driving along La Coruna highway outside of the city early in the morning with Mark Latty (an American).

Cunningham was speeding past a slower vehicle as they approached a roundabout but did not see another car with a flat tire at the other side of the road. Cunningham lost control of his car because he was not wearing a seatbelt. Cunningham's car crashed into a lamppost, and the car flipped multiple times. Cunningham was quickly taken to the hospital and declared dead. He was 33 years old. Latty survived the crash.

Cunningham was found to have three times the legal limit for drink driving by a toxicology report. Regis revealed later that Cunningham had been in a similar accident just a few short years prior.

Regis stated, "If we hadn’t had our seatbelts up, we would have been dead."

Many players will not be honored with a statue outside of the stadiums that they once occupied. Laurie Cunningham owns two statues: one outside Leyton Orient’s home and one outside The Hawthorns. Regis died in 2018 at the age of 59, while Batson is now 68.

His legacy is that of a footballing ballerina, who was dazzling with the ball at her feet while quietly changing what was possible for black players.

Anderson, Anderson's former England team-mate, says that he still thinks of wingers as Laurie Cunningham. Anderson said that Anderson could achieve things that other players only dreamed of.

His football was way ahead of its time. Look at his abuse on the pitches where he played. If you put him on the same playing field as everyone else, he would be very close to the top.

Batson says, "It was tragic that Laurie died, but what joy it brought him when you saw his play." We were fortunate to have seen the best from him, I believe.

Cunningham, as seen in Madrid in 1979

Laurie Cunningham as a young boy, with his mom Mavis and father Elias

Cunningham is surrounded by West Brom supporters in 1978

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