Perhaps it’s a sad indictment of the human personality, but a tragic early death heightens our fascination. James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana…the list goes on. In football, one of the more flamboyant, entertaining figures of the 1970s and 80s suffered the same dreadful fate. Laurie Cunningham will always be remembered with a poignant regret.
Cunningham was an iconic figure in British football before his link with the Spanish game. As the wave of immigration from the British Commonwealth in the 1950s flourished twenty years later, with second generation black Britons and their established parents becoming a significant element of society. This inevitably brought teething pains, and racism, both overt and more subtle, became an issue.
Perhaps the arena where this sore was most open was football. As black players began to appear on the pitch, the levels of vile abuse hurled at them multiplied. Viv Anderson, George Berry, Garth Crooks and an increasing number of others were subjected to the most moronic chants from supporters incapable of understanding change or accepting anything they perceived to be different from themselves. But it was at West Bromwich Albion that the colour bar was challenged most robustly.
Traditionally a medium-sized club, oscillating between the first and second divisions of the English game, West Brom flourished in the 1970s under the management of Ron Atkinson. The flashy Scouser, who would go on to manage Atletico, introduced a stylish brand of football to The Hawthorns, sweeping sides away with the pace and power of their attacks. And central to that identity were black players. Brendan Batson was an athletic overlapping full back, Remi Moses a midfield enforcer, but the two truew stars were at the sharp end. Cyrille Regis was a centre forward full of muscle and explosive speed, armed with a vicious shot, and he was supplied by the mercurial Cunningham.
Cunningham was a slippery winger, agile, nimble and stylish. He’d failed to make the transition from youth team to first team at Arsenal but had re-established himself in East London at Layton Orient, where he caught the eye of WBA boss Johnny Giles. While the wily Irishman was the one to sign him, it would be Atkinson who cashed in on his talent.
Atkinson’s West Brom dazzled and delighted fans of the English game, and soon their reputation would spread, with significant consequences for Cunningham. A UEFA Cup run took them to Valenciafor a third round tie, where Spanish aficionados would have their first chance to enjoy his genius.
Los Che took an early lead at home in the first leg, but that was as good as it got for them. Cunningham inspired an attacking performance which ought to have yielded more than one goal, scored inevitably by Cunningham just after the break.
It didn’t matter: WBA won the second leg 2-0 with Cunningham setting up the second. More importantly though,he had shown he could perform at the highest level. As Atkinson would later tell BBC Sport:
“At that time, for a short spell I reckon we were the best team in Europe. We didn’t put any restrictions on Laurie – I just told him to get the ball at his feet and go and do damage with it.
“For that 1978-79 season, especially around the time when we beat Valencia in the Uefa Cup, I’ve never worked with a better player. I had Bryan Robson for years and at Atletico Madrid I had Paulo Futre, who was a European footballer of the year, but Laurie could live with any of those.”
Furthermore, he had bewitched the Spanish football community with his performances. It was Real Madridwho pounced, after a transfer negotiation which can only be described as old school: knowing Los Merengues had seen his impressive performance against Valencia but concerned they hadn’t made their move, he went under his own steam to the Bernabeu in the Summer of 1979 and contacted the club himself, sparking off a bizarre negotiation…at Atkinson’s house!
Apart from the host, The Baggies were represented by their chairman Bert Millichip, while Santiago Bernabeu’s successor Luis de Carlos was also on Atkinson’s sofa!
“They started bidding at £250,000 and we started at £1.5m” explained Atkinson. “Nobody spoke the same language except for the translator so we would write a figure on a piece of paper, show it to them and they would cross them out and put in their offer. That’s how we did it.
“When they offered £250,000 my dog barked and I told them ‘look, even the dog knows that’s not right’.”
They finally settled on a fee of £950,000 and the 22-year old Cunningham became the first player Real Madrid had signed from an English club.
His debut came against poor old Valencia, and again he put Los Che to the sword, scoring two and setting up the other in a 3-1 win. He scored in the home Clasico and put in a brilliant performance at the Nou Camp which earned him an ovation from the Barca fans as Real won 2-0. A league and cup double was secured, and Cunningham was also prominent in a run to the semi-finals of the European Cup, where they crashed out 5-3 to Hamburg. Even then though, Cunningham emerged with credit, scoring the consolation in a 5-1 away loss with a sublime finish.
Like Steve McManaman after him, a move to Los Merengues did nothing to help his international prospects. Partly it was a case of “out of sight, out of mind” in the days before television coverage of Spanish football in the UK, but there were also darker reasons. Cunningham’s club and country were constantly at war over his availability, and the player’s failure to secure a release clause in his contract didn’t help matters. He wasn’t selected for the 1980 European Champuonship squad despite his stellar debut season for Real, and would win only six caps in his career.
The next season saw him start impressively, but a broken toe would prove to be a turning point in his career. His recovery wasn’t straightforward; his decision to celebrate an operation on the toe with a visit to a disco permanently damaged his relationship with the club. Aggravating the injury at another disco probably didn’t help the club’s mood either, and the press were unleashed on him and his lifestyle.
He returned for the end of the season, and was able to put in a decent performance in the European Cup final defeat to Liverpool. The following season he picked up a thigh injury which ruined his campaign, although he did manage to win another Spanish Cup final and put in another ttrademark fine European performance, scoring in a 3-1 win over Kaiserslautern. However, he was sent off in the return match, ensuring he would be remembered for playing a notorious role in a 5-0 thrashing which is considered Real’s worst night in Europe.
The writing was on the wall at the end of the season. Spanish sides were only allowed two foreign players then, and when Dutch midfielder Johnny Metgod was signed to play alongside Uli Stielike there was no room for Cunningham. He was loaned out to Manchester United, where injury prevented him from playing in the FA Cup final to cap an unhappy spell under his former boss Atkinson, and then Sporting Gijon. He managed to avoid injury at El Molinon, but never really impressed. Injury had robbed him of his pace and his spark.
Finally released by Real Madrid, he would yo-yo between Northern Europe and Spain for a spell, seeking the sort of satisfaction he enjoyed at West Brom. He found some form at Rayo, but it was an isolated spell of happiness. Injury hindered spells at Marseille and Charleroi, while stints in England at Wimbledon, where at least he finally played in an FA Cup final, and Leicester City fizzled out. It just wasn’t working out for him. The magic had gone.
In 1988 he went back to Rayo Vallecano, then in the Segunda. It seems he had found a place where he could find himself: once more his performaces provoked hopes of a renaissance. Perhaps able to relax more in at a lower level, or maybe inspired by the renowned passion of the Vallecas crowd, he helped Rayo clinch promotion to the top flight, scoring the goal which clinched promotion.
But there his story ended. In the Summer after Rayo’s promotion he crashed his car on the outskirts of Madrid and was killed. He was just 33.
Like all cult heros, there was a rebellious side to Cunningham, and tales of his off-pitch antics abounded. Supposedly he was utterly incapable of turning up for training at Orient on time, but would raise the funds to pay off the stream of fines by winning disco dance competitions! It’s certainly true that the Ballet Rambert, having seen his lithe performances on the pitch, asked if he would be interested in a career change!
It was said that his love of the high life was the cause of his failure at Real Madrid. he enjoyed the night life of Madrid too much, and wasn’t able to balance the new world of possibilties he had encountered with his responsibilities as a player. But we’ll never know the truth of that, or whether his return to the primera with Rayo might have marked an upturn in his fortunes. A key figure in the battle to break down racial barriers in British football, he sadly never had managed to fully bewitch Spanish football.