Laurie Cunningham liked to dance. Actually, Laurie Cunningham liked to perform. When you are the first black player to play for England and are a part of an all-black trio (alongside Cyril Regis and Brendon Batson) in a very racist 1970s English league, it is inevitable that the spotlight falls on you. But few handled it better than Laurie did.
The trio, who played together at West Bromwich Albion, were nicknamed The Three Degrees, after a famous all-female vocal group of the same name. Just like their namesakes, West Brom’s Three Degrees were true entertainers and Cunningham was just about the pick of the bunch.
CUNNINGHAM THE TRAILBLAZER
There is no denying that racism is still very much a part of English football, as shown by the events post the national team’s Euro 2020 final defeat, but to compare it to the 1970s would be a fallacy. There were few people to look to, if any, in football for help in dealing with discrimination, both explicit and implicit. It was in this sea of racist prejudices and practices that Cunningham dived into, lighting the flare for many to follow.
💫 Exhilarating winger
🥁 Part of 'The Three Degrees'
🔑 A gate-opener for black footballers
🏴 @England international
⚪️ 1st Brit to play for Real Madrid
🏆 FA Cup winner with the 'Crazy Gang'
😢 Laurie Cunningham tragically passed away #OnThisDay in 1989, aged 33. pic.twitter.com/rwhSbhFMy0
— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) July 15, 2021
It wasn’t that he was just the first black player to play for the Three Lions. He was also the first Englishman, of any colour, to play for Real Madrid, opening the path that the likes of David Beckham followed. Cunningham was the godfather to Beckham in more ways than one. Mr. Posh Spice was a stylish man only off the field but Laurie was flamboyant both on and off the green.
Because you must not forget, that Laurie Cunningham liked to dance. And he did not stop even after stepping onto the grass. A classic left winger with mazy dribbling skills and a wand of a left boot, the Englishman was a crowd favourite wherever he went. Everyone loves a player who gets the fans off their seats and that is exactly what he did.
Real Madrid were convince of buying him after an exceptionally good game vs Valencia where his pace and dribbling enamoured the crowd so much that even the Valencia fans were egging him on to take on their defenders.
🏴 Happy #StGeorgesDay! 🌹
Here's the late Laurie Cunningham – the first black player to represent England at any level – scoring for @realmadriden in #ElClasico back in 1979. 💜⚽️#StayAtHome #LaLigaHistory pic.twitter.com/7nQa7YRD3S
— LaLiga English (@LaLigaEN) April 23, 2020
It is not easy to overlook the bipartisan nature of Spanish football. Only truly special players like Ronaldinho and Andres Iniesta have managed to melt the hearts of Madrid’s supporters while playing for Barcelona. And before them, on the other side of the divide, was Cunningham. In the 1980 Clasico at Camp Nou, the Englishman ran circles around Barcelona’s full back Rafa Zuviria. Even the Blaugrana faithful conceded defeat and gave ovations to the Real Madrid man.
Those blessed with insatiable skill are also often cursed with the knowledge of its existence. George Best was one. Diego Maradona another. Laurie Cunningham too fell in that category. He played for the biggest clubs and turned in some exceptional performances but his legacy often remains confined to that of a cult icon. He does not have a place in the pantheon of footballing greats.
"Love Rayo, hate racism". Laurie Cunningham. pic.twitter.com/JGiXw5YTnT
— Sid Lowe (@sidlowe) December 20, 2013
That is in part down to an innate laid-back attitude but a large part of it is also down to injuries. A few months after that performance against Barcelona, Cunningham broke his toe in a game against Real Betis. His toe was wrapped in a plaster cast and he was given the all-clear by the team doctor after some time. And Laurie Cunningham loved to dance and so he went dancing, to celebrate his discharge.
Which was the beginning of the end for his footballing career. He was banned for two months, time he would have spent out on the touchline anyway because of the injury but the blooming honeymoon soon turned into a sour marriage headed for divorce with Real Madrid. Cunningham never really recovered from his injury and many believe that Madrid’s doctors botched up his treatment.
He went on to play for Manchester United, Sporting Gijon, Marseille, Leicester City, Rayo Vallecano and Wimbledon but his time at each club was fleeting and his inlfuence dwindling. At Wimbledon he was part of the ‘Crazy Gang’ that would win the FA Cup in 1988 even though he was not the star attraction. Cunningham died tragically in a car crash at the age of 33 in Madrid.
32 years ago today we lost the great Laurie Cunningham 💙✨ pic.twitter.com/NIc8IYGCbo
— West Bromwich Albion (@WBA) July 15, 2021
In just 33 years, Cunningham broke major multiple barriers, pushing English and European football into new uncomfortable areas. There are many ways to eulogize him but 32 years on since his death, in his relaxed, well-dressed manner he would want people to remember the singular most important thing – Laurie Cunningham liked to dance.