Laurie Cunningham is not up there with the household names of footballers who have done so much to change the face of the game we all love such as the likes of Diego Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidanne and Leo Messi, who have scaled the heights in their own way.
But few could have achieved what Cunningham did in his tragically short life – he was killed in a car crash on the outskirts of Madrid in 1989. The genius left winger enjoyed his best moments on the field at West Bromich Albion, where he formed a formidable trio with Cyril Regis and Brendan Baston in the 1970s.
However, his legacy is one of breaking down racial barriers and inspiring generations of black footballers to reach their dreams. The son of a Jamaican racehorse jockey, he was released at a young age by Arsenal and spent three years at Leyton Orient before his switch to the Midlands in 1977. He flourished under manager Ron Atkinson along with his two strike partners and the trio soon became known as the ‘Three Degrees’ in tribute to the American soul group.
At a time when casual racism was a problem in football, the three black players helped West Brom play some of the most attractive attacking football seen, which went some way towards slowly breaking down perceptions and allowing more black players to try and make their mark in the game. So impressive were Cunningham’s performances that we was selected by England manager Ron Greenwood in 1979 to become the first black player to represent England in a competitive fixture.
Albion’s UEFA Cup run hadn’t gone unnoticed by the big boys, and Cunningham was signed by Real Madrid that summer to become the first Englishman to represent the club. He hit the ground running in Spain, scoring a brace on his debut and terrorising fierce rivals Barcelona at home and away. Indeed, he is one of the few Los Blancos players to ever get a standing ovation at the Nou Camp for his display. A league and cup double followed, and his was Madrid’s third highest scorer in his first season.
His second season in the Spanish capital saw the beginning of his career start to unravel. Injuries prevented him from playing much and he was affected psychologically as well. A fall out with the Madrid hierarchy soon saw him shipped out on loan to Manchester United but injuries and a love of partying meant he would never hit the heights again as he had done at West Brom and the early days with Los Blancos.
He began a journeyman’s path through Europe, representing Marseille, Leicester City, Rayo Vallecano, Sporting Charleroi, and Wimbledon. Unable to settle again in England, and married to a Spaniard, he moved back to Madrid for another spell with Rayo. Cunningham is still held in great affection in the Vallecas suburb of Madrid because he scored the goal that sent Rayo into La Liga in 1989.
Tragically he would never be able to represent the club in the top league, as a few weeks after scoring that goal, he was killed in a car crash at the young age of 33. His former strike partner Regis believes his story should never be forgotten.
“For the third generation of 16 and 17-year-olds, their heroes are Thierry Henry and people like that. But Laurie has a focal place in history because he inspired so many black players and that story deserves to be told. This guy broke down a lot of barriers so that they could play football,” he said in an interview earlier this year.