The story of the electric but tragic Laurie Cunningham at Real Madrid

The story of the electric but tragic Laurie Cunningham at Real Madrid

Having grown up winning dance tournaments throughout South London’s many discos, Laurie Cunningham was always ready to steal the limelight if the moment arose. In the end, the most significant thunder-stealing moment of his life came not on a dancefloor but rather on a football pitch. On 6 December 1978, Cunningham upstaged one of the world’s finest footballers, Mario Kempes.

Inspired by the relentlessly fast winger they possessed in Cunningham, Ron Atkinson’s stellar West Bromwich Albion side of the late-1970s knocked strong pre-tournament favourites Valencia out of the UEFA Cup, with a 2-0 victory in the second leg of the third round. 

By this time, Cunningham was already a household name in Britain. His dazzling performances at Leyton Orient and West Brom saw him become the first black player to represent England at under-21 level in 1977. Furthermore, at West Brom, under the tutelage of Atkinson, next to Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson, he formed one-third of the famous Three Degrees strikeforce that took English football by storm.

However, outside the UK he was a relative unknown. Luckily for him, Spanish public television broadcast the UEFA Cup tie live. It just so happened that the Real Madrid hierarchy, along with the rest of the country, took notice as Cunningham’s sheer pace and light-footed trickery stunned the Valencia defence. 

Real Madrid wanted a marquee signing, a player who would aid their domestic dominance, and provide the extra star quality needed to bring back the trophy that Madridistas have always seen as a birthright: the European Cup. By outshining Kempes and Valencia that night, Cunningham convinced Los Blancos that he was the hero for the job. 

After a prolonged negotiation period, Real Madrid made Cunningham’s transfer official on 1 July 1979, for a club-record fee of 110 million pesetas – so reported an El País article published at the time – making Laurie the first British player to sign for the Spanish giants and the second black player to do so; the first being Brazilian World Cup-winning midfielder Waldry ‘Didi’ Pereira, whose short stint at the club came 20 years earlier.

Cunningham’s career with Los Blancos got off to a blast. In his first few games he took all within his stride; long, alarmingly quick strides. One of his Madrid colleagues is quoted as saying that Cunningham was so fast, “he made it look as though other players were going backwards.”

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On his Primera División debut at the Bernabéu, he once again put Valencia to the sword. A brace from the Londoner saw Real Madrid overturn the visiting side’s early lead before Los Blancos went on to win 3-1. Two weeks later, he scored again on his second appearance at the Bernabéu, this time in a 3-1 defeat of eternal rivals, Barcelona.

Cunningham’s performances helped Real Madrid snatch the title away from unlucky runners-up Real Sociedad, whose only defeat that season came in the penultimate round. The champions scored a total of 70 goals in their 34 games that season; Laurie contributing eight from the 29 matches he played.

His defining moment of that season, though, and perhaps the event for which he is most widely remembered on Spanish shores, occurred on 9 February 1980, this time in a 2-0 away victory against Barcelona. For the entire match, Cunningham inspired his side with a display of skill and speed. Poor full-back Rafael Zuviría, along with the rest of the Barça backline, simply couldn’t cope with the winger. 

In the 63rd minute, a sumptuous piece of play from Cunningham provided the second goal. He left Zuviría for dead again, steaming past the full-back before putting in a perfect cross with the outside of his right boot, which was finished off by striker Santillana.

The Camp Nou was so impressed by the Englishman’s performance that many of the Barça fans began to applaud. This significance of this moment should not be undersold – a Real Madrid player receiving an ovation in Barcelona. It was an iconic occasion in the history of the game. It is probably the most telling endorsement of Cunningham’s ability to entertain a crowd with his immense talent.

Despite some exceptional performances, and finishing his first season in Spain with a League and Cup double, there were always questions surrounding Cunningham’s attitude and desire. Quite often, he was accused of not justifying his price tag and being too inconsistent. Ex-Real Madrid player and manager Vicente Del Bosque stated that while Cunningham was one of the most gifted players he ever came across, he might have “lacked the competitive spirit required at Real”.

The doubts lingered into the following season and Laurie’s situation was not helped when he broke his big toe playing against Real Betis in November. This was the first in a series of unfortunate injuries that would torment the winger for the rest of his time in the Spanish capital.

To make matters worse, on the night of the Betis game, Laurie was found in a Madrid nightclub wearing his cast. He was severely reprimanded by the club’s hierarchy; unfairly so, according to many. The media spectacle created by the incident perplexed and disheartened Cunningham. He had been discharged by the club’s doctor and didn’t expect to be punished for spending his own time as he wished. But dedication, or at least the image of appearing unequivocally devoted and utterly professional, has always been tantamount to Real Madrid’s philosophy as a club. In their eyes, the photos of Cunningham in the disco painted the player, and more importantly the club, in an unseemly light. 

On a grander scale, these were crazy, passionate times in the capital. Cunningham’s stay in Spain coincided with the Movida Madrileña, a counter-cultural movement that swept the capital in the aftermath of dictator General Franco’s death. It was characterised by New Wave music, dancing, heavy drinking, drug use, freedom of expression, sex and a heck of a lot of neon.

For a man who famously loved to express himself through dance, it would have been hard for Cunningham to avoid getting caught up in the spirit of a city learning how to express itself again after 40 years in chains. By all accounts, Cunningham was thoroughly professional and barely drank on his nights out. He just liked to dance.

Along with the broken toe, Laurie suffered a knee ligament injury and endured a series of botched operations that kept him out for the rest of the season, until the European Cup final versus Liverpool. He was in no condition to compete, he hadn’t played a worthwhile match since the game against Betis. But the Madrid’s hierarchy and manager Vujadin Boškov were desperate for him to line up against his compatriots. Their idea being that his presence alone would be enough to rattle the Liverpool defence. Suffice to say, the plan didn’t work. Liverpool won 1-0, Cunningham was predictably underwhelming, and his Real Madrid career was all but over.

In the 1981/82 season he only managed three further appearances, all of which came after Christmas. Back then, Spanish sides were restricted to only two foreign players. Therefore, when John Metgod signed in July 1982, there was no way back into the team for Laurie. He was duly sent out on loan, first of all to Manchester United and then to Sporting Gijón, before being permanently sold to Marseille for the 1984/85 campaign.

As the injuries and failed operations – which the player said cost him two years of his career – had stripped him of his pace, Laurie struggled to reinvent himself. His career became nomadic. From 1984 until 1989 he travelled all over Europe, playing for five different clubs in three different countries; Marseille, Leicester, Rayo Vallecano, Charleroi and Wimbledon. His final season as a footballer was back in the Spanish capital, a second stint with Rayo.

Unfortunately, in July 1989, not long after Rayo achieved promotion back to the Primera, Cunningham was involved in a car accident that ended his life. He was just 33 years of age.

Laurie’s time at Real Madrid was bittersweet. Although he won trophies, received ovations and broke down barriers, nagging injuries and media pressure prevented him from becoming the superstar that his incredible talent deserved. As for what else he may have added to his legacy in his later headache, tragically, we will never know.

By Dan Parry @DanParry_

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