Saturday, 13 October 2012

Unsung Hero - Laurie Cunningham

Ok, Pub Quiz............
Who was the first black player to play for England? Viv Anderson? Wrong! It was Laurie Cunningham, first player black player to play for England @ any level (Under 21) and in a competitive match.
First English player to play for Real Madrid then? John Charles? Wrong! He was Welsh.......Laurie led the way again on the England front when he went to Spain in 1979.

The Mighty O's of Leyton must have rubbed their hands with glee as Arsenal turned away the Archway schoolboy and @ Brisbane Lane Cunningham soon honed his blistering wing play, creative spark and deadly finishing that was to make up his game. Inevitably this sort of talent didn't go unnoticed and it was West Bromwich Albion who came calling with a chance for Laurie to take the next step up in his career.

When Big Ron came bowling into town in '78 he would not only turn the teams fortunes around but unite Cunningham with two fellow black players, Cyrille Regis & Brendon Batson christening them "The Three Degrees"*
With attitudes different back then (although after recent events you wouldn't know it!) having three black players in one team was a revelation for a football team, but this was no gimmick as they could play a bit too. West Brom arguably played the best football of their existence during that period and it was one particular performance during the UEFA Cup that changed Cunningham's footballing destiny forever.

The 90 minutes he put in against the Spanish side of Valencia promoted him on a bigger stage, attracting Real Madrid in the process. One of the rumours @ the time suggested that Cunningham heard of their interest and popped in to see the President @ the Bernabeu while on his holiday to hurry the deal through!
With the deal sealed in Big Ron's living room the former Baggie made an instant impact in Spain, it was also at this time that his first England call up came.

At the age of 22 he won the League & Cup double in Spain and was earning rave reviews, but then the injuries set in. These along with the pressure of putting in top quality performances that had become expected of him week in week out stated to take it's toll.
After four years abroad and with his fall down the pecking order he was eventually reunited with Big Ron this time on loan @ Man Utd only an injury prevented him from playing in the '83 FA Cup final, but it was to be the '88 FA Final that would prove to be his swansong from the English game after coming on as a sub for Wimbledon in their historical win over Liverpool.

Now a bit of a journeyman footballer Cunningham was on the verge of resurrecting his career in Spain with Rayo Vallecano after firing them to promotion, but alas he was tragically killed in a car accident before he could see that through.

Although never really reaching his full early potential, he was an inspiration to many a black football fan who saw his performances and decided to give it a go themselves a generation of players did just that........
*an all black girl group big in the seventies...........ask yer Dad!

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