On the 25th anniversary of his death, we look back at the remarkable career of one of Orient's greatest ever players
Laurence Paul “Laurie” Cunningham (March 8, 1956 – July 15, 1989)
Laurie Cunningham made 86 League and cup appearances for Orient and scored 16 goals during his three seasons as a member of the first team squad at Brisbane Road but from the moment that the winger stepped onto the pitch to make his debut, it was certain that this was to be the start of a promising career.
Within a short space of time, it became abundantly clear that the fleet-footed player with a wealth of skill and balance was destined for star status. He became known as the ‘Black Pearl’ as he made his way to the top of his profession via Orient, West Bromwich Albion and Real Madrid and culminating in 6 England caps. On his journey, millions were treated to the sight of the flying winger taunting and torturing defenders and leaving them chasing shadows.
Born in Archway, London on March 8, 1956 of Jamaican parents, he had signed on schoolboy terms by Arsenal but was released without making an impact at Highbury.
Laurie had played for London Schools before joining Orient in August 1972 and it was suggested that the Gunners had released him, apparently because they had lost patience with his erratic time-keeping and cavalier approach.
But his potential on the pitch had been noted by Orient scout Len Cheesewright who wasted no time in bringing the preciously talented kid 15 year-old to Brisbane Road.
He was to become a member of the Club’s successful youth team of 1973-74 that finished runners-up in the South East Counties League and won the London Youth Cup. Laurie was voted ‘Player of the Tournament’ when Orient visited Holland for an international youth competition and he signed professional forms on his 18th birthday.
His first taste of senior action came on August 3, 1974 in a Texaco Cup against West Ham United in front of an Upton Park crowd 16,338. Manager George Petchey said of the 18 year-old. “It took him a little time to get settled to the different pace of the game but I was delighted with the way he played from then on. He has a natural talent. He’s got speed and the ability to take on men. He never gives up. There’s a big future for him.”
Nurtured carefully and selectively by manager Petchey and his assistant Peter Angell, Cunningham was handed his League debut on October 12, 1974 helping the O’s to a 3-1 home success in the Division Two contest against Oldham Athletic in front of 6,511.
However, it was only after Barrie Fairbrother had been sold to Millwall that the artistic athlete became a regular in the side and he went on to make a further 14 starting appearances that season as he began to hone his eye-catching skills gaining valuable experience from each match. He started each of the last nine games that season and the progress form regular first team action was evident for all to see although he retained the penchant for non-punctuality.
In the final match of the season, against Southampton at Brisbane Road, he was late in arriving for the home match and was told by Petchey that he would be suspended unless he scored a goal. Cunningham scored the winner and instead of being fined, earned himself and the team a win bonus! It was his first League goal and was described by the Walthamstow Guardian as follows:
“Cunningham picked up Bullock’s headed pass on the halfway line, out-paced three defenders and then nonchalantly eased the ball past the advancing keeper from just inside the penalty area.”
The scouts began flocking to monitor his progress on the pitch – and there was plenty to grab their attention. Cunningham – and other youngsters in the squad – was the subject of transfer talk.
By December 1975, Petchey was issuing a hands-off warning to potential buyers. “Concerning the transfer talk around regarding our young players, it has never been my policy to sell young players and I do not wish to change that policy now,” he said.
“Should circumstances make it necessary to sell, then it may become unavoidable but until, that time - which we hope may never arrive - the message is clear. The players do not wish to leave and we certainly do not want them to go. Our ambition is to climb the league and reach a challenging position. If we should have to sell then this ambition may be lost.”
On January 17, 1976, Laurie’s goal gave Orient a 1–0 home victory over Hull City and the Walthamstow Guardian reported: “Laurie Cunningham’s excellence lifted him above the other players and left Hull City gasping. He scored a marvellous goal and conjured up several more chances. The home side were anxiously searching for a breakthrough when Cunningham pulled out one of his many tricks in the 34th minute. He took the ball from Bill Roffey, controlled it on the edge of the box, looked up and chipped it precisely into the far corner over keeper Jeff Wealands’ head. It was a goal that would have graced any ground in the country.”
Boss Petchey added, “If that goal had been scored at Liverpool or Leeds it would have brought the house down.”
Cunningham also scored a cracker in the 2-0 win at Chelsea when he side-stepped and swerved around a number of tackles before blasting the ball into the net from 25 yards.
That was one amongst a tally of 8 goals that saw him finish as Orient’s leading scorer in the League that season.
Orient struggled in 1976-77 but the shining light – repeatedly – was Laurie Cunningham whose trickery and speed continued to torment and stun defenders. The rumours of bids for his signature started just a few weeks into the following season and, not for the first time in their history, Orient’s financial problems dictated that one of their exciting youngsters would have to be sold. Crowds were low, the pitch needed money spent on drainage and the bank was pressing for money.
Offers for the youngster were being received by the week but it was not around the time of his 21st birthday in March 1977 that he departed for First Division West Bromwich Albion. The deal was reportedly valued at £110,000, more than the original £75,000 although Throstles forwards Joe Mayo and Allan Glover were now makeweights in the transaction.
Laurie’s final match in an Orient shirt was on March 5, 1977, ironically against Oldham, the same opponents that had faced him on the occasion of his League debut some two and a half years earlier.
His departure brought scant comment from Club in their official programme. The editorial merely stated: ‘Supporters will of course be disappointed at Laurie’s transfer because players of his ability are rare. However, our loss is West Bromwich Albion’s gain and we wish him the very best of luck in the First Division.”
Having left Orient with a host of fond memories both for himself and the O’s fans, Laurie’s next step on the rise to stardom was a move to First Division West Bromwich Albion in March 1977 where he was destined to become a trail-blazer for black footballers.
The winger’s eye-catching performances saw him mark his name down in history when a month later in April, he became the first black player to represent England at Under-21 level. He progressed to the full international side becoming only the second black player to win a full England cap – Viv Anderson was the first – but a total of just six England caps belied the wealth of talent he possessed.
Although signed by Johnny Giles for Albion, it was Ron Atkinson who was to have a big influence on the player’s career. Atkinson took over the reins at The Hawthorns for the start of the 1977-78 campaign and steered the club into sixth place before they blew their chance of taking the title the following season after a late dip in form saw them eventually finish third.
Cunningham was idolised by the Baggies fans who affectionately nicknamed him the ‘Black Pearl and ‘Black Beauty' as they delighted at his pace, intricate footwork, finishing technique, fine reflexes and balance.
Cunningham, together with fellow black players, defender Brendan Batson and striker Cyrille Regis, formed the legendary 'Three Degrees' partnership at Albion.
Under Atkinson, the trio - nicknamed after the American soul group - inspired the club to one of the greatest eras in their history. "At that time, for a short spell I reckon we were the best team in Europe,” Atkinson said.
A bigger audience awaited Cunningham and in 1979 after 86 appearances and 15 goals for West Bromwich Albion, he was transferred to Spanish giants Real Madrid for a fee reported to be £950,000. There he was dubbed ‘El Negrito’ and immediately captured the hearts of the club’s fans by scoring on his home debut in front of 100,000 at the Bernabeau.
Vicente del Bosque manager of Spain, the current World and European champions, was a player with Real Madrid during Cunningham’s time there. "Madrid viewed him as one of the most distinguished footballers in Europe,” he said. “It was a period when there weren't many international signings and the club made a special effort financially to sign Laurie, to sign a star, because almost all the rest of us were from the youth team."
Cunningham was an integral member of the Real team that completed the Spanish League and Cup double in 1979-80 and appeared in the 1981 European Cup Final when they were defeated by Liverpool.
Of all the world-renowned players to have played for the Spanish club, Cunningham carved his name in another piece of history when in 1980 he tortured and tantalised Barcelona at the Nou Camp to earn a standing ovation from the home crowd despite their 2-0 home defeat to their most bitter rivals.
Laurie’s passionate love for dancing was well-documented. Before he turned professional, he would spend many nights in the local dance halls and it proved time well spent. Punctuality was never one of Laurie’s strengths, he received a series of fines in his early days for late arrival at training and occasionally on a match day but he had a simple solution to meet the debt incurred, he would take part and win yet another dance contest around the London dance halls.
That passion for music and dance never left the player. On one occasion, a foot injury prevented him from playing for Real Madrid but it could not keep him off the dance floor. Later in the evening, Laurie was spotted dancing the night away in a club, not the recovery programme that the Spanish club’s medical staff had desired or programmed.
He stayed at Real for five years but a horrendous ruptured knee ligament apparently received in a training accident and inflicted by a Madrid team-mate followed by a series of niggling injuries began a rapid decline.
With the interruptions to his football career, he spent increased leisure time abroad becoming a male model, fashion designer and boutique owner but that was Laurie, a person with a cavalier lifestyle.
By 1983, the succession of injuries had all but ended his time with Real Madrid and during that year, Cunningham attempted a comeback in English football when he joined Manchester United on loan where he was re-united with his former manager Ron Atkinson
“We were open-minded about signing him permanently and he would have played in the 1983 Cup final but he failed a fitness test the day before,” Atkinson recalled. “We only had one substitute then, which made a difference. If we'd had a few, he could have started and if it had gone wrong, we could have put someone else on."
Cunningham then briefly moved to Leicester City and also tried his luck, unsuccessfully, with Marseille, Sporting Gijon and Charleroi Marseille. At the age of 32, he returned to London and linked up with Wimbledon where he realised his dream of a winning FA Cup Final medal by coming on as a substitute in their 1988 success against Liverpool. It proved to be his farewell appearance in our domestic game.
Injuries had taken their toll and he was unable to recapture those former high levels of skill and consistent performances although he was able to roll back the years when, having opted for a return to Spain, he scored a match-winning goal for Rayo Vallecano that clinched their promotion to La Liga for the first time but he was cruelly denied the chance to show off his talents once more to those Real fans who had once idolised him.
Tragedy struck when he was killed in a car crash the early hours of a fateful July day to bring a sad end to a talented career that had started in the humble setting of the East End ahead of a lifestyle that brought fame and glory beyond.
Orient can be proud that they contributed the first opportunity for a player who became a dearly loved and legendary figure wherever he went, enriching football fans with his electrifying talents.