Cunningham was the son of Jamaican immigrants and grew up in Finsbury Park, London. Kavanagh writes movingly on the racism of the 1970s and how Cunningham found refuge in his love of dancing to funk and becoming a dandy in de-mob suits, hat and tie, while everyone else was in denim and cheesecloth. In fact his dance moves helped him establish the athleticism and suppleness that was to dazzle full-backs.
FUNK, FASHION AND FOOTBALL
He was let go by Arsenal as a schoolboy but found a home and an understanding manager at Leyton Orient in George Petchey. He would be late and sometimes miss training, but Petchey knew that underneath the suit and hat he was quite a shy character who needed encouragement. Cunningham became a brilliant winger and after three seasons at Orient he was bought by Johnny Giles for West Bromwich Albion.
When Ron Atkinson was appointed Albion manager Cunningham’s career really flourished. Big Ron described him as “arguably the best British talent since George Best” and allowed Cunningham to express himself in a devastating partnership with Regis. A 5-3 win at Man United was one highlight, but it was also a period of terrible racism, monkey chants and banana throwing. Even the so-called ‘wits’ at Liverpool serenaded him with songs from The Black and White Minstrel Show when he took corners. Luckily Cunningham’s unflappable nature meant he responded by playing even more effectively.
At a time when British footballers rarely moved abroad, Real Madrid came in to sign Cunningham. Back then the whole deal was, incredibly, conducted without an agent. Laurie had great moments at Real, staring in a memorable win at Barcelona and winning La Liga and the Spanish cup. He moved to Madrid with his long-term partner Nikki Hare-Brown, learned the language and enjoyed the Spanish lifestyle. But his career was affected by a broken toe after a terrible tackle and then he had several botched operations and a knee problem. When he was pictured in a nightclub wearing a plaster cast the Spanish press was outraged. He had bought a crumbling luxury house from a team-mate and eventually Nikki returned to England disillusioned by fame. Laurie had lost his pace and played when not fit against Liverpool in the European Cup Final, where Madrid lost to Alan Kennedy’s goal.
His Madrid career was over and he made a number of moves, including a loan spells at Manchester United and then Sporting Gijon, Marseille, Leicester and Rayo Vallecano. Yet he found new stability with his Spanish wife Silvia and in another forgotten moment, joined Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang in 1988. He played nine league games, scoring twice, and came on as a sub in the FA Cup Final where the Dons famously defeated Liverpool. His son Sergio still has his FA Cup winning shirt.
In his last season Cunningham scored the goal that gained promotion to La Liga for Rayo Vallecano in 1989. But, never good with money, he had financial worries by this stage and after a night out died at 33 in a car crash while not wearing a seat belt and three times over the drink driving limit.
Cunningham spent five years in Spain at a time when there was little coverage of European football in Britain. But Kavanagh evokes just what a great player he was and has quotes from most of the key figures in his career. While with his love of dance, he would have been a natural for Strictly in this celebrity age.
Ian Wright sums up what an inspiration Cunningham was to his generation of second-wave black players: “Laurie played how we saw black guys playing football, anywhere, on any level. He had the skills, but most importantly he had the swagger, he had that ‘vibe’. He played like we’d play: of course there was some showing off involved but it was all about enjoyment and celebrating what you could do. Laurie was the first to bring that sort of strut to that level of professional football and he was like a magnet for us.”