Within the centre of a small east London park, only a stone’s throw from Leyton Orient’s stadium, is a statue of a person with arms outstretched, his left foot raised delicately on tiptoes.
The soccer at his boots makes his career clear, however the posture could possibly be that of a dancer – maybe even a trapeze artist.
Balletic is one phrase continuously used to explain Laurie Cunningham, an electrical winger who glided effortlessly throughout the boggy pitches of the Seventies, swaying previous defenders with poise and goal.
Cunningham was the primary Briton to hitch Actual Madrid, and one of many very first black gamers to characterize England. He was typically subjected to racist abuse.
Those that recall seeing him play discuss with a whispered air about greatness. Spain’s former supervisor Vincente del Bosque, Cunningham’s team-mate at Madrid, described him as “the Cristiano Ronaldo of his period”.
And but he might need achieved a lot extra.
Cunningham was an other-worldly expertise whose brilliance was checked by accidents and dangerous luck. He was a pioneer for black footballers who not often noticed himself as a task mannequin. He was a person who moved in extraordinary methods, whose life was sadly minimize brief by a tragic accident.
Raised in north London by Jamaica-born mother and father, Cunningham is commonly described as being quiet and introverted off the pitch, in distinction to his flamboyant footballing model and love of dancing.
After becoming a member of youth facet Highgate North Hill in 1968, he rapidly established himself as an amazing expertise, but in addition a boy of grit who may take the agricultural challenges slung his means.
Arsenal confirmed curiosity and Cunningham was given a trial, adopted by a schoolboy contract in 1970. However the Gunners performed a inflexible ‘give and go’ model that left little room for Cunningham’s buccaneering gallops. It had simply gained them the double. He was launched in 1972 with the notice: ‘Not the appropriate materials.’
Cunningham’s prospects hung within the steadiness. He was picked up by Leyton Orient – then within the second tier, and recognized simply as Orient. His debut got here, on the age of 18, on 3 August 1974 in a pre-season pleasant in opposition to West Ham.
“We misplaced the sport 1-0,” recollects one Orient fan, “however he simply ran and ran and ran, dribbling throughout Upton Park. He was already a phenomenon.”
Cunningham stood out off the pitch too; he was a lover of dancing, trend, portray, structure and wine. A lot of his time away from the sport was spent on the dance ground, honing rigorously choreographed strikes in venues comparable to Crackers and the Tottenham Royal a number of occasions every week.
He was a person who moved at his personal pace, which may vary from the lackadaisical – he was continuously fined by Orient for being late – to the turbo-charged. It was rumoured he’d pay the fines with prize cash from dancing contests.
Three years with Orient yielded 75 appearances, 15 targets and a switch to West Bromwich Albion. There, his expertise shone like by no means earlier than – in typically appalling circumstances.
If racism in soccer nonetheless rears its ugly head at present, it is incomparable to what was seen in British stadiums within the Seventies. Bananas, cash and even ball-bearings had been hurled at these with black pores and skin. They had been common targets of verbal and bodily abuse. Within the overwhelming majority of circumstances, it went solely unpunished.
Brendon Batson, Cunningham’s team-mate at WBA, defined how the Nationwide Entrance could be ready for them at away video games, the place they’d arrive with no safety and could be spat on.
Cunningham was frequently one of the best participant on the pitch, a truth that might enrage the abusers even additional. He performed his recreation, typically slaloming by means of half the opposing crew earlier than bursting the web.
“Defenders like myself had been actually simply there to kick individuals largely,” says Viv Anderson, who in 1978 grew to become the primary black participant to win a senior England cap. “The aptitude gamers, like Laurie, acquired essentially the most stick.”
On 27 April 1977, Cunningham pulled on the white shirt of England himself, in an Underneath-21s pleasant in opposition to Scotland at Bramall Lane – a recreation gained 1-0 because of his purpose. He’d go on to play six occasions for the senior England facet.
However his actual breakthrough season got here in 1978-79, alongside Batson and Cyrille Regis in a scintillating Baggies crew that solely fell away from title rivalry within the closing weeks of the season to complete third.
This was not the primary time three black gamers had performed collectively in British soccer, however Batson, Cunningham and Regis had been the primary to frequently achieve this. They grew to become referred to as ‘the Three Levels’ – a time period coined by supervisor Ron Atkinson in reference to the favored American soul group.
“Everyone sat up and took discover after they beat Manchester United 5-3 at Outdated Trafford in December 1978,” says Anderson.
“To go there and do what they did, with three black gamers within the crew, everyone simply thought: ‘wow.'”
Batson recollects: “There was a whispering marketing campaign about black gamers at the moment, that they had been lazy, lacked bottle, did not just like the chilly and could not sort out – which was all garbage.
“Now black gamers had been coming to the fore. There was an actual breakthrough, nevertheless it wasn’t a subject of dialog between us at West Brom.
“Possibly on the time, we did not realise the actual influence we had been making outdoors of our little bubble. However on later reflection we did; we had been a visual presence and encouragement for different black gamers who aspired to make it in skilled soccer.
“I do know the black group took nice delight in seeing the three of us being profitable within the recreation.”
Cunningham was actually making an influence. On the finish of that 1978-79 season, disagreements over wage led to him sending out letters to Europe’s high golf equipment stating his availability. He discovered one already had a eager curiosity: Actual Madrid.
Cunningham grew to become the primary British participant to hitch the Spanish facet, arriving in a £950,000 deal – a membership report for each Albion and Actual. There was a feverish pleasure that this younger man from north London would possibly nicely be one of many recreation’s greats.
His arrival on the Bernabeu in 1979 got here at a time of nice change in Spain. Francisco Franco’s 36-year dictatorship had ended together with his dying 4 years earlier and, whereas the nation was experiencing a speedy liberalisation, there have been components of life at Madrid that had been slower to vary. In Completely different Class, Dermot Kavanagh’s biography of Cunningham, his then-girlfriend Nikki Hare-Brown, a white lady, says there have been tensions over their relationship.
On the pitch, issues started nicely. Cunningham scored on his first look in opposition to AC Milan in a pre-season pleasant, and twice extra on his full league debut in opposition to Valencia, earlier than the primary of a collection of accidents put him out for a number of weeks.
In his first Clasico, on 10 February 1980 on the Nou Camp, he was spectacular. It’s a recreation not remembered for Actual’s 2-0 win however reasonably the extraordinary Englishman on the wing.
“He was electrical,” Barcelona defender Migueli recalled years later. “He drove us loopy together with his dribbling, his bursts, his pace.”
Even the house assist started applauding the person sporting the hated white of Actual Madrid. A number of months later, they had been topped league champions for a twentieth time, including the Copa del Rey, too.
Damage had restricted Cunningham’s involvement, however there had been sufficient to persuade the Actual Madrid trustworthy that he would quickly ship regularly.
As a substitute, that 1979-80 season would show to be the top of his whole profession. He was on receiving finish of a vicious stamp off the ball by Actual Betis’ Francisco Bizcocho in November, successfully ending his 1980-81 marketing campaign. When pictures emerged of him dancing in a nightclub with a plaster forged, the vultures started circling. The newspapers who had so lauded him simply 9 months earlier now portrayed him as a playboy who did not take his expertise critically.
The 1m pesetas high quality (price round £20,000 at present) handed down by the Madrid hierarchy was the most important in La Liga historical past. Cunningham publicly accepted it, however privately he was seething.
Then, after six months out injured, he was frantically rushed again to play within the European Cup Last in opposition to Liverpool. One Madrid director reportedly advised him his very future on the membership rested on his participation.
The sport that passed off on 27 Could 1981, between two of essentially the most illustrious groups in soccer historical past, was one of many worst in dwelling reminiscence. The Parc des Princes pitch, which had hosted a rugby match the day prior to this, offered the turgid setting for a match of few possibilities and even fewer moments of real high quality.
Cunningham, clearly unfit and struggling, handed by means of the 90 minutes like a shadow. He would later describe the sport as “horrific”. A well-taken 83rd-minute purpose by Alan Kennedy was sufficient to settle the competition as Madrid missed out on the trophy they craved essentially the most.
The next season noticed issues sink even additional. A problem throughout coaching led to a different prolonged lay-off, nevertheless it was what occurred again in London that introduced Cunningham’s footballing struggles into sharp perspective.
Cunningham’s older brother Keith was staying with him in Spain when the pair acquired information that Keith’s accomplice and her two youngsters from a earlier relationship had been murdered of their condominium – against the law that went unsolved for 28 years.
Madrid formally remained supportive, giving Cunningham compassionate go away to return to England and miss the beginning of the season, however the writing was on the wall. The arrival of Netherlands worldwide Johnny Metgod, at a time when Spanish groups may solely area two outfield gamers, pushed him farther from rivalry. A painful break-up together with his long-term accomplice left him adrift and people closest to him described a interval of nice unhappiness.
“At occasions I believed he wanted one other 12 months or two years at West Brom, however you do not flip down Actual Madrid,” Batson says. “He was solely 23 when he went and I am undecided he had individuals round him in the identical means.”
A mortgage transfer to Manchester United, and a reunion together with his previous West Brom supervisor Atkinson, in the end proved unsuccessful, and when he withdrew from rivalry for the FA Cup closing in 1983, it was clear that Cunningham’s confidence and religion in his personal physique had been rocking.
The next 5 seasons had been a patchwork of mortgage strikes and brief contracts that took him to Sporting Gijon, Marseille, Leicester Metropolis, Rayo Vallecano and Wimbledon. There have been memorable moments alongside the best way, not least the Dons’ inconceivable FA Cup victory in opposition to Liverpool in 1988, through which he got here on instead, and Rayo’s dramatic closing day promotion to La Liga in 1989. However that mesmeric dribbler with the ferocious tempo was by no means fairly the identical.
Off the sphere too, life was tumultuous. Two relationships resulted in two youngsters, solely one in every of whom remained a part of his life. A collection of failed monetary investments and long-standing issues with a home within the hills outdoors Madrid performed out over the backdrop of a soccer profession that was fading a lot quicker than anybody had hoped.
Cunningham’s story ended tragically on 15 July 1989.
Early within the morning, after spending the night time at a celebration on the O Madrid pizzeria, he was driving down La Coruna motorway outdoors town with an American, Mark Latty, beside him.
As they approached a roundabout, Cunningham accelerated previous a slower automobile however did not see one other automobile by the facet of the highway with a flat tire. Cunningham, who was not sporting his seatbelt, misplaced management. His automobile hit a lamppost and flipped a number of occasions. Cunningham was taken to hospital however pronounced useless shortly after. He was 33. Latty survived the crash.
A toxicology report would place Cunningham thrice over the drink-driving restrict. Regis later revealed that that they had been concerned in an identical accident close by only a few years earlier than.
“If we hadn’t had our seatbelts on, we’d have died,” Regis mentioned.
Most gamers won’t ever be honoured with a statue outdoors the stadiums they as soon as graced. Laurie Cunningham has two: the primary outdoors Leyton Orient’s house, the second outdoors The Hawthorns, alongside Regis, who died aged 59 in 2018, and Batson, now 68.
He’s remembered as a footballing ballerina who dazzled with the ball at his toes, whereas quietly reworking what was attainable for black footballers.
“I take a look at wingers now and I nonetheless examine them to Laurie Cunningham,” says Anderson, his former England team-mate. “He may do issues different gamers may solely dream of.
“His soccer was forward of its time. You take a look at the pitches he used to play on and the abuse he acquired… in the event you put him on a degree enjoying area with everyone else he’d be close to the very high.”
Batson provides: “It was tragic what occurred to Laurie, however what pleasure he introduced if you noticed him play. I feel we had been all fortunate to have seen one of the best of him.”