BY Vince Cooper

BY 1979 Laurie Cunningham’s sparkling form at West Bromwich Albion had played a major part in helping establish Ron Atkinson’s Baggies as one of the First Division’s top teams.

Now also a regular member of the England set-up, there were rumours that a number of England’s other top teams, along with some continental giants, were casting envious eyes towards The Hawthorns.

In the summer of 1979 Laurie picked up his second England cap, and appeared in a second goalless draw, when England played in Stockholm as part of the Swedish F. A’s 75th anniversary celebrations. He then appeared as a late substitute in Austria four days later but had no real chances to turn around a 4-3 deficit.

That proved to be his last game as a West Bromwich Albion player. His form throughout the campaign, and in particular during The Baggies’ run to the UEFA Cup quarter-final, put Laurie firmly on the Real Madrid radar and as is almost always the case, the Spanish giants got their man.

On 28 June 1979, Real finally clinched his signing, seeing off interest from English and other overseas clubs. Albion had offered Laurie what manager Ron Atkinson described as a ‘much improved contract’ but once it was revealed that Real were prepared to pay a £150,000 signing-on fee it was clear that The Hawthorns club were going to lose their star so they started negotiating the fee with the Spaniards instead.

Laurie after agreeing to join Real

Those negotiations took place at Atkinson’s home where, because of the language barrier the offers were written on pieces of paper. The opening offer from Real was £250,000. When it was handed over, the West Brom manager’s dog barked. “Even the dog knows that’s not right” quipped Big Ron. Albion countered with £1.5 million and the two clubs went back and forth. 

Albion eventually accepted an offer which director John Gordon said: “Has certainly broken the British record”.

“When it’s all added up Real will pay much more than a million for Laurie”. Gordon insisted.

Laurie signs on the dotted line in Spain

Cunningham said that the move wasn’t strictly money-motivated. “I decided it was time to try something different”, he said. “I know I can learn a lot and they will be able to show me a few tricks I don’t know”.

A new ‘home’

Laurie quickly got used to his new lifestyle and after being chauffeur-driven to meet the press at the Bernabeu he said: “My first task is to learn Spanish.

“I think I will get the gist of it in about three weeks. I’m good at languages”.

At the Bernabeu

After a couple of nights in a hotel Laurie was whisked off to Holland with his teammates for pre-season training leaving girlfriend Nikki alone in Madrid. “I was left on my own for three weeks” Nikki would later recall, “I didn’t really understand what was happening. I was only 19 and couldn’t speak a word of Spanish”.

Laurie and Nikki on the dancefloor

Nikki and Laurie had met, appropriately, on the dance floor of the Tottenham Royal Ballroom and after going through the dating ritual, had become a couple by the time of his move to Spain, one which thrust them firmly into the spotlight. “Fans would stand a couple of feet away and stare silently”, she says of their early days in Madrid.

Laurie made his Real debut during that training camp when the team travelled to Brussels and lost 1-0 to Anderlecht in a friendly. More pre-season action soon after saw his first goal for the club, against AC Milan.

The nickname first given to him by Frank McGhee of the Daily Mirror ‘The Black Pearl’ was soon taken up by his new fans as Cunningham made an almost instant impact although there was a small faux pas in his first training session in the Spanish capital.

With 20,000 fans looking on, Cunningham nutmegged club captain Camacho. Teammate Vicente Del Bosque quickly pulled him aside and said: “Don’t ever do that again”.

Real 1979-80

After they had taken part in the initial Santiago Bernabeu Trophy, staged in honour of the club’s late President, Real began the 1979-80 league season with a home match against Valencia.

Valencia, who Cunningham had of course already memorably torn apart whilst at West Brom (“he was like George Best out there” then-manager Atkinson said of the performance in Spain) had a big star of their own at the time in Argentine World Cup winner Mario Kempes and it was ‘Los Che’ who took the lead through Enrique Saura after 28 minutes.

Then the first Englishman to play for Real took over, showing off his searing pace and full array of skills, and scoring twice to turn the match around. Santillana added a third late on for Real and their season, and Cunningham’s time in Spain, had started with a flourish.

Two weeks later Laurie scored in the first ‘El Clasico’ of the season, a 3-2 win over Barcelona.

Real suffered a blip in November when they lost 4-0 to Real Sociedad after a Uli Stielke sending-off at the Atotxa and the Basque club would push them all the way in what became a head-to-head for the title.

In the second ‘El Clasico’, played in February, Laurie, returning to Spain just days after helping his country beat the Republic of Ireland 2-0, produced a performance that lived long in the memory of those who witnessed it.

In Real colours

Real Sociedad were still hotly pursuing Real at the top of the table when Cunningham and his teammates took to the pitch at the Camp Nou with the Catalan fans hoping their team could put  a major dent in their greatest rivals’ hopes.

Goalmouth action against Barcelona

Instead, the final whistle saw those same fans rise as one to give the Englishman a standing ovation after he had spent the previous 90 minutes running their defenders ragged, playing a huge part in the 2-0 which edged them closer to the title.

In fact the La Liga race went all the way to the final day where a 3-1 win over Athletic Bilbao confirmed Real’s 20th title and third in a row – by a single point over a Sociedad side that had suffered only one defeat all season.

The domestic double was duly completed with a 6-1 thrashing of their second team, Castilla in the Copa Del Rey but, as ever, Real’s season was judged on their performance in the European Cup.

Here again, Laurie excelled. He scored against Levski Spartak in the first round and then again against Porto in the second to help set up a quarter-final clash with Celtic.

Celtic v Real Madrid

The Scots outplayed Real at home and were unlucky to only record a 2-0 win but in Spain it was a different story.

Real won 3-0 and Cunningham had a hand in all three goals; his corner, taken with the outside of his right boot from the right wing, was prodded home by Santillana and then a cross from the left led to the second from Uli Stielike. He then played a part in a team move that led the 86th-minute winner for Juanito.

In the semi-final Real beat SV Hamburg 2-0 at the Bernabeu to take a lead to Germany. Cunningham scored in the second leg but the home team, inspired by another Englishman in Kevin Keegan, got five to advance to the final where they lost 1-0 to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest.

A toast to the good life in Madrid

Still, the domestic double, a European semi-final, 12 goals in 41 appearances across all competitions and that standing ovation at the Camp Nou was a great haul from his first season overseas and Real fans were convinced that, at still only 24, they had a future great to rank alongside the likes of Di Stefano, Puskas and Gento, to cheer.

Vujadin Boskov

He also had praise from Real coach Vujadin Boskov who called him; ‘the best player in Europe’ ringing in his ears as he headed into the close season with the prospect of an even bigger stage on which to display his skills.

But the summer of 1980 proved a disappointing one for Cunningham as well as for English football.

Despite having shown his ability to overcome the tight man-marking which England would undoubtedly face at the European Championships in Italy, manager Ron Greenwood chose Garry Birtles, who had made one brief substitute appearance for his country, over him as the final member of his European Championship squad.

Ron Greenwood

Greenwood cited a worry over Cunningham picking up an injury in the yet-to-be played Copa del Rey final as the reason for his exclusion. The final official squad had to be submitted to UEFA on 3rd June and Real’s match against Castilla was on the 4th.

The England manager included FC Koln’s Tony Woodcock – whose team had qualified for the cup final in Germany to be played on the same night – and said: “I just could not gamble on putting both Woodcock and Cunningham in the squad and run the risk of them getting injured”.

So it was Laurie who was left out and he looked on as his country suffered an early exit from a tournament marred by poor attendances and crowd trouble.

Back in Spain the pressure was still on Cunningham, as the new season got underway.

Some newspaper reports of the lifestyle enjoyed by him and Nikki were less than complimentary and on the pitch Real club legend Di Stefano seemingly ignored the previous campaign and said: “He’s got to produce the goods this season”.

In many respects he was expected to carry ‘Los Merengues’. Beset by financial problems, this wasn’t the free-spending Real of the past and future with almost all of the players not called Cunningham having come up through the ranks at the club.

That new season started well enough. Laurie scored in Real’s opening two wins in La Liga. There were three more league goals, including the only one in a home win over Sporting Gijon along with a pair of strikes in victories over Linfield and Honved in the first two rounds of the European Cup.

Although his team were proving inconsistent in league action, Cunningham still appeared at his best as the calendar flipped to November.

But just 10 minutes into a 16th November match at Real Betis everything changed. Betis left-back Biosca stamped on Cunningham’s ankle in an off-the-ball incident. The club doctor diagnosed bruising and said there was no need for a scan. He missed the win against Hercules but was back in the line-up for the match against Barcelona a week later.

Laurie was conspicuously quiet as Real were beaten 3-0 and when the injury was re-examined he was found to have a broken toe.

Under the knife

An operation followed and he was told to rest. He went, with Nikki and some friends, to well-known Madrid nightclub Pacha and amid reports, vehemently denied by Laurie, that he had been dancing (hard to imagine how he managed to while on crutches) was heavily fined by the club.

Not just fined but also widely criticised including by his own club President.

Luis De Carlos said: “It’s the first time in 80 years that one of our players has defied doctor’s orders. He needs disciplining”.

Not just fined and criticised but also ordered to write an open letter in Marca newspaper reassuring his commitment to the club.

The whole affair seemed to have a major impact on the player, with friends who visited him at his Spanish home talking of a changed personality. “You could see the change in him”, said one. “His whole philosophy of life had changed. I never saw him smile once”.

And the physical problems didn’t make life any easier. The surgery on the broken toe failed to ease the problem forcing him back under the surgeon’s knife in March.

In action against Liverpool

Laurie made one more surprise appearance at the end of the season when Real reached the European Cup final. After intensive treatment he was deemed fit and, such was his importance to the team, picked to play against Liverpool.

Real lost 1-0 and the returning winger, although he tried manfully to lift his team, looked very much like a player who hadn’t played a competitive match in five months.

The loss completed a disappointing season for Real as well as for Cunningham. The club saw their three-year hold on the Spanish League come to an end when they finished runners-up to Real Sociedad and were knocked out in the Copa del Rey quarter-final when Sporting Gijon shocked them 3-2 at the Bernabeu.

Relaxing in Spain

The following season was even worse for club and player.

Still hampered by the toe problem which was now exacerbated by knee ligament issues caused when he was fouled by a teammate in training and which would require more surgery, he made just two league starts, three in the Copa Del Rey (where he scored in a penalty shootout which Real won) and two more in the UEFA Cup. Here, Cunningham scored his only goal of the season in the 3-1 quarter-final first leg win over Kaiserslautern. He then became the second Real player sent off 32 minutes into the return as his team lost the return 5-0.

Fouled by two defenders as he tried to make a run at the German defence Laurie kicked out at the second and was immediately shown a red card.

An awful season for Laurie was compounded by his personal life falling apart in the summer of 1982.

Nikki, unable to cope with the constant attention from the Spanish media, returned to England. She wanted Laurie to come with her but with another three years to go on his Real contract that proved impossible.

Keith Cunningham went out to Spain in July 1982 to visit his brother as he prepared for the new season.

Whilst Keith was there, his girlfriend Norma Roberts, along with two of her three daughters was tragically murdered at her home in North London. The killer was not brought to justice for 28 years and was only arrested thanks to the efforts of Peter Law, a journalist who was researching a biography of Laurie.

The killer mixed in the same social circles as Keith and Norma, and on hearing that he would be away in Spain, went to the home the couple shared, raped and murdered her then killed her two daughters (the third was staying with her step-grandparents). In 2010, he was convicted and it was ordered that he spend the rest of his life in jail.

The third daughter, Rhodene, moved in with Keith and Laurie’s parents and was raised by them.

So, the free-spirited winger who been idolised by fans for his exciting play suffered devastating injury and personal tragedy within a few short months.

Part three of ‘The Pioneer’ will cover Laurie’s later career including a reunion with Ron Atkinson, an F. A. Cup winners medal and his own tragic end.