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This is the best Englishman to play for Real Madrid that you’ve never heard of

Laurie Cunningham might not be a name familiar to the modern football fan, but he should be.

The London-born flying winger carved out a remarkable career that saw him go from East London club Leyton Orient all the way to the very top, spending five years at Spanish giants Real Madrid.

Unbelievably talented, stylish on the pitch and impossibly cool off it, injury ravaged a career of a player that was destined for the top.

Cunningham’s career spanned 15 years until his life was cruelly taken in a car crash when the star was just 33 years old.

March 8 2017 would have been Cunningham’s 61st birthday.

But why was he such a special player, and how should he be remembered? Here’s 10 reasons why…


1 He was the first black player to play for England at Under-21 level

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There was a bit of debate until May 2013 about whether Cunningham was the first black player to play at any level for England, until Benjamin Odeje was named as officially the first.

Odeje played for England schoolboys, while Cunningham’s appearance against Scotland in 1977 saw him become the second black player to play for England at any level.

2 He was the first English player to play for Real Madrid

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Not just that, he is still only one of five English players to play for Los Blancos. Cunningham moved from West Brom to Madrid for an incredible £950,000 in 1979, making him the first British player to make the move to the famous club.

The other four English players to play for Madrid are all very recognisable to the younger fan – Steve McManaman, David Beckham, Michael Owen and Jonathan Woodgate.

But it was 15 years between Cunningham’s departure from Madrid until McManaman’s arrival – an impressive feat for any player at that stage.

3 He is only one of two players to receive a standing ovation from the opposition fans in an El Clasico fixture

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February 10 1980 will be a day that will go down in history for El Clasico. That was the day Laurie Cunningham wowed the Nou Camp faithful with a performance so brilliant in Madrid’s 2-0 win, they gave him a standing ovation afterwards.

The only other player to receive an ovation like that from the opposition fans in an El Clasico? Barcelona’s Ronaldinho. You may have heard of him.

4 He had to overcome horrific racism throughout his career

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Being a black player in the 1970’s was often marked with horrendous abuse, with players just having to deal with anything hurled at them on the pitch.

However, there are many reports of Cunningham, during his time at West Brom, silencing racist crowds through his sheer skill.

5 He has been compared to Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo

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His fellow former team-mate Cyrille Regis once said: “Laurie was like Cristiano Ronaldo in the way he used to take people on. He had his style, his grace and his pace. He ran on his toes, he was balletic with his amazing tricks and pace.”

It is sentiment echoed by former Spanish manager Vincente Del Bosque, who said: “I don’t think his qualities were any less than Cristiano Ronaldo.”

Whilst his ex-manager, Ron Atkinson, compared him to a certain Thierry Henry. Sadly, we are not blessed with the vast swathes of internet footage now available to modern players to prove just how good he was.

6 He was part of West Brom’s ‘Three Degrees’

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West Brom, once upon a time, were one of the best teams in Europe. At the heart of it were Cunningham, Regis and Brendan Batson – three black players who earned the moniker the ‘Three Degrees’.

The team went onto compete in European football, and it was Cunningham’s performances against Valencia that alerted the likes of Real Madrid.

7 He was unbelievably cool

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<em>Credit: Evening News/REX/Shutterstock</em>

You have to remember this is in an era when not all footballers were celebrities – but Cunningham was one of the coolest players to step foot on the pitch.

Off the field, his disco-dancing antics in both England and Spain are part of legend, with Cunningham even entering dancing competitions in order to pay off the occasional club fine.

8 Spanish side Rayo Vallecano still consider him a legend

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Last year the Spanish side unfurled a huge tifo in honour of Cunningham to celebrate what would have been his 60th birthday.

Cunningham played for the Madrid club on two occasions between 1986 and 1989, and he scored the winning goal that earned them promotion back into La Liga.

9 Leyton Orient still consider him a legend

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The East London club where Cunningham kicked off his career helped unveil a blue plaque to the club hero outside his childhood home in 2015, while one of the bars in the stadium is also named after the former star.

10 He inspired a generation of young black players to follow their dream

The likes of Robbie Earle and Dion Dublin have all claimed it was Cunningham’s influence in the game that helped them become professional footballers.

Earle said: “Together they paved the way for players like me. Without the inspiration provided by the likes of these players, I might never have considered football as a career.”


This feature is part of our Save The O’s campaign. To find out how you can help save the second oldest football club in London, click here.

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