THE PIONEER. THE LAURIE CUNNINGHAM STORY. PART THREE
BY Vince Cooper
AFTER the disasters, both personal and professional, of the 1981-82 season, Laurie Cunningham was hoping to move his career forward as the 82-83 campaign got underway.
Personally things definitely improved with new girlfriend Sylvia restoring the stability that had been missing from his personal life following former girlfriend Nikki’s return to England.
But the injury problems which all began with that undiagnosed broken toe continued to plague Laurie. Knee problems continued to trouble him and the scar from previous operations acted as a target for defenders. He didn’t make a single start for Real who had replaced Vujadin Boskov, a known fan of the player, with club legend Alfredo Di Stefano who didn’t appear to hold the same high opinion of the Englishman.
The result was that the player was relegated to Real’s reserve team Castilla and some sections of the Spanish press cruelly started called him; ‘the biggest fiasco ever to have been signed by Real’. It was all a big change from that first season in Spain and clearly a fresh start was needed.
That fresh start came and it was thanks to Laurie’s former boss Ron Atkinson.
With Ron Atkinson and Bo Derek in Madrid
Big Ron had moved on to Manchester United and, just before the March 24th transfer deadline he flew out to Spain and negotiated to take his former star player from Real on a two-month loan deal.
Laurie played for United’s reserve team just over a week later, scored against Sheffield Wednesday after just seven minutes but admitted afterwards: “I’m shattered”.
He made his first-team debut at Old Trafford against Watford and, in front of 43,048 fans, scored with what was described as a ‘breathtaking’ overhead kick.
In Manchester United colours
After the match, which United won 2-0 Atkinson enthused: “He is the most beautifully-balanced player I’ve ever had.
“He could play on snow and nor leave footprints”.
There were glimpses of the magic but the legacy of the toe and knee troubles was that those flashes of brilliance were seen less often than before.
He played just five times for United with the Watford strike the only goal. Ron Atkinson was said to be debating between Cunningham, Alan Davies and Ashley Grimes for the left wing position in the 1983 F. A. Cup final against Brighton but, wary of Cunningham’s injury history he chose Davies with Grimes as sub for both the final and the replay which they won 4-0.
After those five starts for United he returned to Spain and for the 1983-84 season Real again sent Laurie out on loan, this time to La Liga rivals Sporting Gijon where Vujadin Boskov, his former coach at the Bernabeu, was now in charge.
Laurie made 34 starts as the team from North West Spain finished 13th in La Liga. There were only four goals but he showed he hadn’t lost a sense of the big occasion, scoring both in probably Sporting’s biggest win of the season, a 2-0 triumph over Atletico Madrid at the El Molinon.
Both Boskov and Cunningham left Spain at the end of the season. The Serbian coach went to Serie A where he took over at Ascoli.
It was in Italy where Boskov would go on to enjoy his finest moments as a coach. In 1991 he led Sampdoria to the Serie A title and a year later he guided the same team to the European Cup final where they lost 1-0 to Barcelona.
Laurie, meanwhile, was off to France when Real allowed him to leave for Olympique de Marseille on a free transfer in the summer of 1984.
Playing in France
It wasn’t a great season for OM. They finished just one place above the relegation places. But the Englishman did his bit. He proved that he had recovered from the injury problems that dogged him at Real, at least well enough to make 33 starts and he found the net eight times to finish joint second top scorer with Dutch right-winger Tscheu La Ling behind French international Bernard Zenier who got 11.
But it was still clear that he was not and never would be, the player who dazzled at West Bromwich Albion and in his first season in Spain and the superstar who was had become something of a journeyman. The real difference wasn’t his overall fitness but a loss of the searing pace which made him such a threat on the break.
In October 1986 Marseille decided he was surplus to requirements and allowed him to return to England, joining Leicester City on an initial six-week loan.
Laurie Cunningham of Leicester City
Laurie had to wait for an opportunity at Filbert Street but he finally got a chance towards the end of November when chosen to replace Mark Bright and play alongside Alan Smith against league leaders Manchester United. And he played a full part in his team’s shock 3-0 win.
He made the third goal for Smith and said after: “It’s great to be back in English football”, before adding; “especially to win”.
The loan deal was extended for another month but he struggled to maintain top form until an improved display in a shock win at champions Everton on the day his loan deal expired encouraged Gordon Milne to pursue yet another extension. And the City boss professed himself ‘delighted’ when he managed to pull off a deal that would last until the end of the season, so long as nobody met Marseille’s valuation.
“To get a player of Laurie’s calibre at no real cost is a tremendous boost for us” said Milne
Those wins against Manchester United and Everton in two of the four matches he had clearly convinced Milne that Cunningham still had something to offer and the player said: “At least I know what’s happening and now I’m desperate to get fully fit and get back to playing the way I know I can”.
It didn’t exactly go to plan. Laurie made another nine appearance as well as two as a sub as the Foxes just about avoided the drop, only confirming their survival on the season’s final day when a 2-0 win over Newcastle United coupled with Ipswich Town’s loss against Sheffield Wednesday meant that they finished a point clear of the Portman Road club.
Leicester didn’t pursue a deal for Laurie at the end of the season and he was again left in limbo before eventually returning to Madrid.
This time it wasn’t to Real but for a one-year contract with Segunda Division Rayo Vallecano. He started 32 matches and scored three times to help his new team finish in mid-table in Spain’s second tier.
Allowed to move on again, he joined Charleroi but once more injuries scuppered hopes of a revival and he played just one game for the Belgians before a return to England, and to what might have appeared the unlikeliest of destinations.
Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’ played a type of football that, on the face of it, was the complete antithesis of Laurie’s style, a hard-hitting, tough-tackling style that would have seemed at odds with the Londoner’s silky skills.
But Bobby Gould and Don Howe saw a role for him in South West London and he joined on loan in February.
Laurie played his part as Wimbledon battled their way to an F. A. Cup final against Liverpool, a match that became known as ‘The Culture Club’ vs ‘The Crazy Gang’.
Wimbledon took the lead shortly before half-time at Wembley and Cunningham was introduced into the game after 56 minutes as substitute for Alan Cork.
About to enter the action at Wembley
Shortly after his introduction The Dons conceded a penalty when Clive Goodyear was harshly adjudged to have fouled John Aldridge. Dave Beasant saved Aldridge’s spot kick and the South London team held on for a famous win, with Laurie, who played his part in a superb Dons rearguard action, collecting an unlikely Cup-winners’ medal.
With Wimbledon and the F. A. Cup
There was to be no long-term deal for Cunningham at Plough Lane and he returned to Madrid for the’88-‘89 season, rejoining Rayo Vallecano.
Laurie and Hugo Maradona
It proved to be an excellent move. Rayo, with Diego Maradona’s brother Hugo starring in midfield and Laurie at his creative best, were the Segunda Division’s top scorers and were promoted to the top flight after finishing runners-up to Castellon.
Having helped the club back into La Liga, Laurie was looking forward to the chance to pay another visit to the Bernabeu. During his promotion-winning campaign with Rayo, he went to watch a European match at the famous ground with former boss Ron Atkinson.
Atkinson recalls Laurie telling him: “I’m going to come back here next year and show them what they’ve missed”.
Tragically he would never get the chance. On the morning of the 15th of July 1989, Laurie was driving to training when he rounded a bend, swerved to avoid a car with a flat tyre, lost control and crashed into a lamppost. Not wearing a seatbelt his chest hit the steering wheel and he died.
Laurie with Sylvia
He was 33 years old and left behind wife Sylvia, who he had married a year before, and one-year-old son Sergio (who would go on to become a promising young player in the Atletico Madrid academy before his own football career was cruelly cut short by a knee injury).
So, Laurie’s life tragically ended before his football career did and the player known to be as shy and introverted off the pitch as he was flamboyant and extrovert on it would never get to see the impact his career had on young black footballers all over England.
During his early days of playing, when he was suffering racist taunts and abuse from crowds all over the country, Laurie was quoted as saying: “If I can get through this maybe it will lead to others getting a fair chance”.
That ‘fair chance’ might well have been a few years away but there is no doubt that the respect he was held in by black players of future generations created aspirations in them and a belief that they too could make it to the top. That legacy lives on.
In a television documentary ‘First Among Equals’ which was made in 2013, Ian Wright said of Laurie: “When I was playing football on the estate he was the one I was trying to be like”, whilst Les Ferdinand added: “He was always doing something amazing, we just used to marvel at it and go ‘wow’.”
Those who were lucky enough to witness the early stages of Laurie Cunningham’s career can testify that he was a special and unique talent, a real ‘one-of-a-kind’ player. That he had managed to shrug off the racist abuse he received in those early years shows that he had the character to match the skill.
It is such a pity that the cruel injuries when still at his peak robbed him, and indeed football fans everywhere of a supremely skilful footballer.
During the famous 5-3 win for West Brom at Old Trafford in the 1978-79 season, commentator Gerald Sinstadt described Laurie as having; ‘pace, grace and control’, but beyond his undoubted skills on the pitch the late Laurence Paul Cunningham brought so much more to football.
The statue in Coronation Gardens, Leyton and Blue Plaques both where he used to live and outside Leyton Orient’s ground are fitting tributes to a man who truly deserves the title; ‘The Pioneer’.