Laurie CunninghamThree Degrees of Separation
Laurence Paul 'Laurie' Cunningham (8 March 1956 – 15 July 1989) was one of the greatest footballers that England have ever produced. A precocious and extraordinarily quick winger, he was skillful, creative, and captured the imagination of the millions who watched him.
Born in Archway, London, Cunningham started in schoolboy football somewhat modestly, being turned down by Arsenal before joining Leyton Orient in 1974. He went on to join West Bromwich Albion in 1977, where, under manager Johnny Giles, he teamed up with another black player, Cyrille Regis, and the following year (under Ron Atkinson) with Brendon Batson.
Atkinson collectively referred to Cunningham, Batson and Regis, somewhat clumsily as 'The Three Degrees' after the legendary U.S. Motown soul singers. They were outstanding in every sense of the word - English football fans had never seen three black players in a top-flight team, producing such exciting and dynamic performances.
As a trio they exploded onto the scene, making a huge impact on both sport and wider British culture. Their achievements are all the more remarkable given the racial abuse they suffered from crowds around the country. 1970s Britain was an incredibly tough environment for Cunningham and his 'Three Degrees' colleagues to forge their footballing reputations. Nevertheless, they would often silence abusive crowds, all too commonplace at the time, by tearing apart many First Division defences.
It was Laurie who really stood out from the crowd. He could play on both wings and though he only graced the Hawthorns for two seasons, he managed to achieve cult status with his smooth footwork, graceful balance, lightning pace and outstanding agility.
In the summer of 1979, at the age of 22, he became the first British player to be transferred to Real Madrid. Signing for a fee of £950,000, he was also the first black player 'Los Blancos' ever signed. Cunningham more than justified his fee, scoring twice on his debut and helping his new team win the League and Cup Double. He also produced a series of stunning performances in the European Cup and inspired them to the 1981 Cup final. It was in the Spanish capital where the injury jinx that blighted the rest of his career began.
Tragically, Cunningham's life was cut short in a car crash in Spain in July 1989. Still only 33, he had just helped Madrid's unfashionable Rayo Vallecano reach La Liga for the first time – the latest pitstop on a remarkable journey that also took in Manchester United, West Bromwich Albion, Marseilles, Leicester City, Charleroi and even Wimbledon's legendary Crazy Gang.
He was as noted eccentric. In addition to his cavalier displays on the pitch, Laurie loved fashion and soul music, and would regularly enter and often win dance contests, and actually reaching the point of being offered a contract with a professional ballet troupe.
Unfortunately, he was often overlooked to represent his country on a regular basis (making a total of six caps), what Laurie did on the pitch, and the changes that he helped bring about on and off it, left a lasting impact inspiring a generation of black footballers to follow him.
Laurie was the first black player to pull on the Three Lions shirt in a competitive match – a Home International against Wales on 23 May 1979, the same year of his big move to 'Los Blancos'.
'Laurie was one of the most exciting and elegant players this country has ever produced - he was a beautiful player to watch.' Cyrille Regis
'I don't think his qualities were any less than Cristiano Ronaldo.' Vicente del Bosque