Laurie Cunningham played for Real Madrid and was the Cristiano Ronaldo of his day who inspired a generation of footballers to silence racists on the pitch

Black History Month

In the third part of a series on influential black athletes, talkSPORT.com looks at the dancer-turned-winger-turned Real Madrid star

Quiet off the pitch and explosive on it, Laurie Cunningham really was the first among equals.

He was the Cristiano Ronaldo of his day, as Vicente Del Bosque, Spain’s World Cup winning manager and his former Real Madrid teammate, said.

Cunningham made his name at West Brom and eventually attracted the attention of Real Madrid

Cunningham made his name at West Brom and eventually attracted the attention of Real Madrid

If his style seemed almost balletic, it was because he spent time ‘training’ on the dance floor where he used to win competitions at local nightclubs – prize money from which was used to pay fines for being late to his day job.

And that elegance eventually earned him a move to Real Madrid, making him the first Englishman to play for the club.

The path to the Bernabeu was cleared via a stint at West Brom, helped by a display against Valencia in the UEFA Cup, which included a waltz past Carrete to place the ball perfectly at Tony Brown’s feet in a 2-0 win.

Cunningham was an expert dancer, as he demonstrates here to Helen Scott of The Three Degrees

Cunningham was an expert dancer, as he demonstrates here to Helen Scott of The Three Degrees

At Real Madrid, Cunningham won a league title and played Liverpool in the 1981 European Cup final

Icon Sport – Getty

At Real Madrid, Cunningham won a league title and played Liverpool in the 1981 European Cup final

West Brom paid Leyton Orient around £100,000 for his signature in March 1977 and in the Midlands he became known as one third of the ‘Three Degrees’ along with Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis, who inspired a generation of young black footballers.

Former Arsenal striker Michael Thomas was one of many aspiring footballers who watched Cunningham’s rise from precocious talent at Brisbane Road to Real Madrid superstar who was given a standing ovation by Barcelona fans.

“Laurie was my man, being from London,” he told talkSPORT’s Coming In From The Cold.

Cunningham played with Regis at West Brom and became known as the Three Degrees, along with Brendon Batson

Popperfoto – Getty

Cunningham played with Regis at West Brom and became known as the Three Degrees, along with Brendon Batson

“Beautiful to watch. He was like a ballerina when he played.”

Paul Parker, who played for Manchester United and England said Cunningham, Regis and Batson made such an impression on the black community.

Kevin Campbell, who grew up in 1970s Brixton, added it really did mean something to see players like Cunningham be the best player on the pitch.

“As a black kid coming up you could relate to these guys. That was the most important thing that people in the inner cities could relate to them.”

Real Madrid paid £950,000 for Cunningham in 1979 and lit up the Bernabeu with his skilful displays on the wing

Getty Images – Getty

Real Madrid paid £950,000 for Cunningham in 1979 and lit up the Bernabeu with his skilful displays on the wing

At a time when the National Front had an ugly presence at games, Campbell, Parker and Thomas were one of many youngsters who watched them silence constant racist abuse hurled from the terraces with pure magic.

After all, It’s not often a Real Madrid player is recognised by their La Liga rivals. Barca fans, though, know class when they see it and in 1980, Cunningham was applauded by the Camp Nou faithful for one of his many fantastic performances.

His impact in Spain was immediate, having joined for £950,000 in 1979. There he won a league title and two Spanish Cups, however, it was also in Madrid where he picked up a series of injuries that eventually took their toll on his career.

After Madrid, he had short spells at, among others, Man United, Marseille, Leicester and Wimbledon where he made an appearance against Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final win.

He returned to the Spanish capital in 1988 to play for Rayo Vallecano, but Cunningham’s tale ended in tragedy a year later when he was killed in a car crash at the age of 33.


Black History Month on talkSPORT

Listen to episode three of Coming In From The Cold: The History of Black Footballers in the English Game



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