Laurie Cunningham: The Belief | left wingers of the 70s

Laurie Cunningham West Bromwich Albion

So we arrive at Laurie Cunningham. There are plenty who would say the perfect one to finish on. Perhaps he could be called the professionals’ winger. I can see that. What a footballer does for a team does not always seamlessly transfer to the fans. They, with their issues can have many contributors going on in this sphere. That suggests there was baggage going on with him. As far as this series goes, and for Orient, West Brom and Real Madrid fans specifically and football fans generally, I would surmise there was none. That can’t be said of the media at the time who got huge mileage out of this unique black footballer in perhaps less enlightened times.

Laurie Cunningham travelled from Leyton Orient to Real Madrid via West Bromwich Albion. It is not a well-travelled road. The road simply didn’t exist almost 40 years ago until Laurie ‘Paul’ Cunningham made that journey. Visit the statue outside Brisbane Road for the start of the journey. There is much written about Laurie Cunningham. He was an interesting guy and made a huge contribution to West Brom’s most exciting period in the late 70s.

Buy a stunning Laurie Cunningham poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop
Buy a stunning Laurie Cunningham poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop

Yes, as I have alluded so much print and comment was around his skin colour and that of his other two West Brom colleagues, Brendan Batson and Cyrille Regis. At the end of the day, they comprised a stylish but solid and diligent right-back, a physical force but skilful centre-forward, and a winger who took the breath away but complemented the team naturally and extraordinarily.

Most of us became aware of him at Orient. This mix between flair and ruthless deadly efficiency in East London slowly wound its way into the nation’s footballing consciousness. The back story is of this socially aware but shy kid from Archway who needed to be mentored and cared for by manager George Petchey. How he could not really organise himself to be anywhere on time and paid for his sleeping-in fines by winning dancing competitions is not your everyday football story.

The story gathered momentum from there with Cunningham being sold to West Brom in March 1977 for £100,000 to solve Orient’s financial problems. Manager Johnny Giles who bought him was an absolute football man to his bones, and was as key to his footballing development as Petchey had been to his general development. Like Clive Woods and Eddie Gray, he had long-distance running in him and was as natural a footballer as they come. This factor more than anything is the reason so many ex professionals wax lyrical about him.

He had a high visual aesthetic about him in his style. In this series I try and compare those selected to each other; not in a meritocratic sense as each player brings his own thing to his team, but just simply how they were different in a football sense and yes….in personality and make-up too. For in doing this series we have seen each player’s individualities and how they translate into their play in different ways.

Up to now, every player to me has had a very distinct and separate personality. This more than continues with Laurie Cunningham. Yet, in some ways he follows a subtext with his fellow wingmen. On the pitch taking myself back a few decades, my memories of him include a few things. Yes, of course, he had all the attributes of the man who can exploit space flankside and open up a defence. Balance and belief emanated from him on and off the pitch. A goal-scoring ratio of one every four to five games was impressive and significant also.

Like many in this series he inhabited the right side as much as the left but you just couldn’t pigeon-hole him. Obviously capable of tearing people up on either side, he juggled football intelligence equally alongside a ready to rip subterranean burst of pace. A burst of pace that you knew was there in the same way you know a shark has that power and speed – inherent and ready to be called on as and when.

He was a winger but he had that offensive player’s sense of weakness in the opposition more than others in this series. He was not as wide a player as some of the others as a result of this keen sense of an opposition’s fault line. He could do as much damage with explosive central finishing, a killer simple pass between the lines or running expansively and directly with the ball in the chamber with the safety catch off. He would be one of the better players mentioned so far with regard to the ball in the air. My other memory of him is how he effortlessly kept the ball permanently out of reach of defenders by skill, body shape and a fairly long range of stride once he got moving. Attributes of gold.

He was just not orthodox in any shape or form. Absolutely his own man he became a great friend of Cyrille Regis on and off the pitch for obvious reasons, footballing and otherwise. Regis memorably said that he always ensured he stayed off the dance floor when Laurie was on it. The rhino and the cheetah is an image perhaps. The ‘rhino’ if that fits, had a telling quote about him too –

“He was the most watchable footballer I’ve seen. His balance and he way he moved, it was beauty.”

They were an unforgettable mix allied to Ally Brown’s supplementary finishing in that WBA front line. The arrival of manager Ron Atkinson who was personal flamboyance and footballing expression attached to a cigar helped him no end. Atkinson memorably said he could run over snow “leaving no footprints” though some of you may remember Don Revie saying that about Eddie Gray.

From 1977-1979 the West Midlands had it all. Like a few others he had his golden match namely away to Valencia in 1978 where he had not only the Valencia fans in awe of him, but the whole of Spain. Mario Kempes, Argentina’s golden World Cup hero was eclipsed in his own stadium by this kid from North London.

Then he goes to Real Madrid in 1979 as if it is the most natural thing in the world. For a player such as himself it actually was. But sometimes fans just look at footballing ability in moves like this but forget the rest. It was a natural move for him not just on footballing ability but on balls, chutzpah and belief. You don’t just rock up to Real Madrid without a certain iron rod of confidence as a person or as a player.

But as is a theme of this series, it just did not carry. The first black player to get an England U-21 cap he only earned six senior caps. His career at Madrid was fractured by knee injury and the restricted foreign player rule where only two foreign players were allowed. He moved out to Sporting Gijón and in the eighties was present at clubs such as Marseille, Leicester and Rayo Vallecano. His old manager Atkinson even took him for a few loan appearances at Manchester United. Unbelievably he won an FA Cup winners’ medal with Wimbledon in that fabled win v Liverpool in 1988. In the 80s he just about managed 143 appearances over seven years which shows how his injuries reduced him.

For many his death in a car crash aged just 33 in 1989 was no surprise in the same way that some rock stars were never destined to have a long life. Some stars shine too bright to sustain indefinitely. Was he the Jimi Hendrix, the Marc Bolan and Amy Winehouse of football? Was he always going to be? Some felt his star was such off the pitch as much as on it that such an end was inevitable. A moot and debatable point but early death does add a certain glamour to those who carry it in the first place.

We’ll let Viv Anderson who faced him more than a few times cement it down with the last tribute.

His name should be up there with the best. Because he was.”

Laurie Cunningham – classic winger …classic footballer. Just class.