Remembered by West Bromwich Albion as a ‘natural born player’, Laurie Cunningham was the first black player to play for England Under-21s. He was also the first English player to transfer to Real Madrid, 24 years before David Beckham.
Laurie Cunningham was born 8 March 1956 in Holloway, London, the son of a Jamaican racehorse jockey. He was turned down by Arsenal, he went on to play for Leyton Orient, becoming a professional player on his 18th birthday. Small in stature, he described himself as ‘a little titch’ when first joined Orient. He later signed to West Bromwich Albion for £110,000 from Orient.
Part of ‘The Three Degrees’, with Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis, Cunningham played an important role in the furthering of black footballers in England, his presence in the game helping to work against stereotypes and prejudice and change public attitudes to black players. ‘Laurie Looks Great’ proclaimed a 1976 the Sun newspaper headline.
A more introverted and shy personality than Brendon Batson, Laurie Cunningham sometimes struggled with the attention received from the press. On the pitch however he was more of an extrovert - playing forward and being a charismatic goal scorer who possessed speed, grace, pace, balance and a high level of trickery. He has been remembered as someone who couldn’t help being an individual and a non-conformist. He took ballet classes and was known to pay off fines by going out and performing dance demos at a local discotheque. Ballet helped him to develop understanding of body movement and balance.
Tragically, Laurie died in a horrific car accident in Madrid, July 1989. However the impact that he made on football and breaking the mould for black players' involvement lives on.