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Laurie Cunningham: An electric trailblazer, Real Madrid's first British player


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In the centre of a small east London park, just a stone's throw from Leyton Orient's stadium, is a statue of a man with arms outstretched, his left foot raised delicately on tiptoes.

The football at his boots makes his profession clear, but the posture could be that of a dancer - perhaps even a trapeze artist.

Balletic is one word frequently used to describe Laurie Cunningham, an electric winger who glided effortlessly across the boggy pitches of the 1970s, swaying past defenders with poise and purpose.

Cunningham was the first Briton to join Real Madrid, and one of the very first black players to represent England. He was often subjected to racist abuse.

Those who recall seeing him play talk with a whispered air about greatness. Spain's former manager Vincente del Bosque, Cunningham's team-mate at Madrid, described him as "the Cristiano Ronaldo of his era".

And yet he might have achieved so much more.

Cunningham was an other-worldly talent whose brilliance was checked by injuries and bad luck. He was a pioneer for black footballers who rarely saw himself as a role model. He was a man who moved in extraordinary ways, whose life was sadly cut short by a tragic accident.

Raised in north London by Jamaica-born parents, Cunningham is often described as being quiet and introverted off the pitch, in contrast to his flamboyant footballing style and love of dancing.

After joining youth side Highgate North Hill in 1968, he quickly established himself as a tremendous talent, but also a boy of grit who could take the agricultural challenges slung his way.

Arsenal showed interest and Cunningham was given a trial, followed by a schoolboy contract in 1970. But the Gunners played a rigid 'give and go' style that left little room for Cunningham's buccaneering gallops. It had just won them the double. He was released in 1972 with the note: 'Not the right material.'

Cunningham's prospects hung in the balance. He was picked up by Leyton Orient - then in the second tier, and known just as Orient. His debut came, at the age of 18, on 3 August 1974 in a pre-season friendly against West Ham.

"We lost the game 1-0," recalls one Orient fan, "but he just ran and ran and ran, dribbling all over Upton Park. He was already a phenomenon."

Cunningham stood out off the pitch too; he was a lover of dancing, fashion, painting, architecture and wine. Much of his time away from the game was spent on the dance floor, honing carefully choreographed moves in venues such as Crackers and the Tottenham Royal multiple times a week.

He was a man who moved at his own speed, which could range from the lackadaisical - he was frequently fined by Orient for being late - to the turbo-charged. It was rumoured he'd pay the fines with prize money from dancing contests.

Three years with Orient yielded 75 appearances, 15 goals and a transfer to West Bromwich Albion. There, his talent shone like never before - in often appalling circumstances.

Another photo from Orient in 1975 - Cunningham dressed to impress

If racism in football still rears its ugly head today, it's incomparable to what was seen in British stadiums in the 1970s. Bananas, coins and even ball-bearings were hurled at those with black skin. They were regular targets of verbal and physical abuse. In the vast majority of cases, it went entirely unpunished.

Brendon Batson, Cunningham's team-mate at WBA, explained how the National Front would be waiting for them at away games, where they'd arrive with no security and would be spat on.

Cunningham was regularly the best player on the pitch, a fact that would enrage the abusers even further. He played his game, often slaloming through half the opposing team before bursting the net.

"Defenders like myself were really just there to kick people mostly," says Viv Anderson, who in 1978 became the first black player to win a senior England cap. "The flair players, like Laurie, got the most stick."

On 27 April 1977, Cunningham pulled on the white shirt of England himself, in an Under-21s friendly against Scotland at Bramall Lane - a game won 1-0 thanks to his goal. He'd go on to play six times for the senior England side.

But his real breakthrough season came in 1978-79, alongside Batson and Cyrille Regis in a scintillating Baggies team that only fell away from title contention in the final weeks of the season to finish third.

This was not the first time three black players had played together in British football, but Batson, Cunningham and Regis were the first to regularly do so. They became known as 'the Three Degrees' - a term coined by manager Ron Atkinson in reference to the popular American soul group.

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