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Laurie Cunningham

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Laurie Cunningham
Cunningham (right) playing for Real Madrid in 1981
Personal information
Full name Laurence Paul Cunningham
Date of birth (1956-03-08)8 March 1956
Place of birth Archway, London, England
Date of death 15 July 1989(1989-07-15) (aged 33)
Place of death Madrid, Spain
Position(s) Left winger
Senior career*
Years Team Apps (Gls)
1974–1977 Leyton Orient 75 (15)
1977–1979 West Bromwich Albion 86 (21)
1979–1984 Real Madrid 44 (13)
1983Manchester United (loan) 5 (1)
1983–1984Sporting Gijón (loan) 30 (3)
1984–1985 Marseille 30 (8)
1985–1986 Leicester City 15 (0)
1986–1987 Rayo Vallecano 37 (1)
1987 Charleroi 1 (0)
1988 Wimbledon 6 (1)
1988–1989 Rayo Vallecano 19 (1)
Total 348 (67)
International career
1977–1978 England U21 6 (2)
1978 England B 1 (0)
1979–1980 England 6 (0)
*Club domestic league appearances and goals

Laurence Paul Cunningham (8 March 1956 – 15 July 1989) was an English professional footballer who played as a left winger. He notably played in England, France, and Spain, where he became the first-ever British player to sign for Real Madrid.

Cunningham had signed a schoolboy contract with Arsenal in 1970, but was released in 1972 as his style of play was deemed incompatible with the Gunners' "give and go" tactics.[1] In 1974, he was picked up by second-tier side Leyton Orient where he remained for three years. But it was following his move to West Bromwich Albion in 1977 that his career really took off. There he played alongside Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson under coach Ron Atkinson, becoming only the second trio of black players to be fielded in the top flight of English football. They became known as the Three Degrees – a term coined by Atkinson in reference to the American soul group of the same name.[1] His form at the Hawthorns later earned a move to Real Madrid, where he remained for five years, winning La Liga once and the Copa del Rey twice. After a spell in France with Marseille, he returned to England with Leicester City in 1985, followed by another spell in Spain with Rayo Vallecano. Cunningham signed with Wimbledon in 1988, where, as a member of the "Crazy Gang", he won the FA Cup in 1988 for the final trophy of his career.

Cunningham received his first international call-up to the England U21 side in 1977 while playing for West Bromwich Albion, becoming the first black footballer to represent an England international team organised by the Football Association. He later earned six caps for the full national team between 1979 and 1980, becoming one of the first-ever black England internationals.

While playing for Rayo Vallecano, Cunningham was killed in a car crash in Madrid on the morning of 15 July 1989, at the age of 33.[2]

Early life[edit]

Born in Archway, London, he was the son of a former Jamaican race-horse jockey.[3] Cunningham started in schoolboy football and was turned down by Arsenal before joining Leyton Orient in 1974.[4]

Club career[edit]

West Bromwich Albion[edit]

He joined 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. This was the second time an English top-flight team simultaneously fielded three black players (the first being Clyde Best, Clive Charles and Ade Coker for West Ham United against Tottenham Hotspur in April 1972) and Atkinson collectively referred to Cunningham, Batson and Regis as the Three Degrees after the U.S. soul singing trio.[4]

Whilst a West Bromwich Albion player, he played in a benefit match for Len Cantello, that saw a team of white players play against a team of black players.[5]

Real Madrid[edit]

In the summer of 1979, he made a historic move as the first British player to transfer to Real Madrid, who paid West Bromwich Albion a fee of £950,000.[4] He scored twice on his debut and helped Madrid win the league and cup double.[6]

Cunningham began the 1980–81 season with Madrid well and scored goals in the early rounds of the European Cup, but then succumbed to injury, and required an operation on a broken toe. He recovered just in time for the 1981 European Cup final against Liverpool in Paris, as Madrid lost 1–0. During pre-season training for the 1981–82 season, a thigh injury kept Cunningham out of the majority of the season (only three goalless appearances in the league), his only real noteworthy contribution was in the UEFA Cup quarter-final tie against Kaiserslautern. In the first leg, Cunningham scored a goal in Madrid's 3–1 win. In the second leg, however, he was sent off shortly before halftime for retaliation, as Kaiserslautern won 5–0 to inflict Madrid's worst-ever result in European competition. Cunningham won a second Copa del Rey medal as he played in the final, when Madrid beat Sporting Gijón 2–1, but it was a depressing campaign for him. For the next season, with Madrid signing Johnny Metgod to join Uli Stielike as the two permitted foreigners, Cunningham spent most of the 1982–83 season on the sidelines, until he reunited with Ron Atkinson at Manchester United on loan in April 1983. He left Madrid after the 1982–83 season,[4] joining Gijón and subsequently Marseille.[7]

Later career[edit]

Cunningham only remained in France for one season in 1984–85, before heading back to England to join Leicester City, although he played only half a season due to further injury. At the end of the 1985–86 season, Cunningham went back to Spain to play for Rayo Vallecano in the second tier. He moved to Charleroi in Belgium for the 1987–88 campaign, but was yet again struck down by injury, and in the new year was back in England on a short-term deal with Wimbledon, where he managed to help the Dons beat Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final.

Cunningham later moved back to Spain and Rayo Vallecano for the 1988–89 season. He scored the goal that secured their promotion to the Primera Division.[4] Cunningham was killed in a car crash in Madrid on the morning of 15 July 1989, at the age of 33.[2] He was survived by his wife and their son.

International career[edit]

On 27 April 1977, Cunningham made his debut for the England under-21's team in a friendly match against Scotland at Bramall Lane, scoring on his debut. At the time, he was considered the first black player to wear an England shirt at any level,[8] but it was later revealed that Benjamin Odeje had played for the England Schoolboys team in 1971.[9]

In 1979, he made his debut for the England national football team in a Home International match against Wales. Despite achieving the double with Real Madrid, Cunningham was overlooked by England manager Ron Greenwood for a place in the England squad for UEFA Euro 1980.[7] He was called up by Greenwood for the 1982 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Norway, only to be an unused sub as England won 4–0. In the next qualifier against Romania, he came off the bench but was unable to help England avoid a 2–1 defeat. This proved to be his last England cap.[7]


In November 2004, he was named as one of West Bromwich Albion's 16 greatest players, in a poll organised as part of the club's 125th anniversary celebrations. The club announced that Cunningham would feature in a mural of the former players to be displayed at The Hawthorns.[10]

In October 2013, the Nubian Jak Community Trust unveiled a blue plaque outside Brisbane Road.[11] In September 2015, English Heritage erected a blue plaque on Cunningham's childhood home at 73 Lancaster Road, Stroud Green, London.[12]

In November 2017, a statue by Graham Ibbeson was unveiled in Coronation Gardens, Leyton, near Brisbane Road, paying tribute to Cunningham and his time at Leyton Orient.[13] Another statue by Ibbeson was unveiled in West Bromwich town centre in May 2019. The work commemorates Cunningham's time at Albion alongside black teammates Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson, with a spokesperson for the organisers commenting that "the three players opened the gates to allow black players into football at a time when they were locked out".[14]

A play based on his life, Getting the Third Degree by Dougie Blaxland, was first performed in 2019.[15]


Career statistics[edit]


Appearances and goals by club, season and competition[16]
Club Season League National cup League cup Continental Total
Division Apps Goals Apps Goals Apps Goals Apps Goals Apps Goals
Orient 1974–75 Second Division 17 1 1 0 0 0 18 1
1975–76 34 8 0 0 1 0 35 8
1976–77 24 6 4 0 4 1 32 7
Total 75 15 5 0 5 1 0 0 85 16
West Bromwich Albion 1976–77 First Division 13 6 0 0 0 0 13 6
1977–78 33 6 4 0 3 0 40 6
1978–79 40 9 6 3 3 0 8 4 57 16
Total 86 21 10 3 6 0 8 4 110 28
Real Madrid 1979–80 La Liga 29 8 5 1 7 3 41 12
1980–81 12 5 0 0 5 2 17 7
1981–82 3 0 3 0 2 1 8 1
1982–83 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Total 44 13 8 1 14 6 66 20
Manchester United (loan) 1982–83 First Division 5 1 0 0 0 0 5 1
Sporting Gijón (loan) 1983–84 La Liga 30 3 10 4 40 7
Marseille 1984–85 Division 1 30 8 3 0 33 8
Leicester City 1985–86 First Division 15 0 0 0 0 0 15 0
Rayo Vallecano 1986–87 Segunda División 37 3 0 0 37 3
Wimbledon 1987–88 First Division 6 2 2 0 0 0 8 2
Charleroi 1987–88 First Division 1 0 1 0
Rayo Vallecano 1988–89 Segunda División 19 1 1 0 20 1
Career total 348 67 39 8 11 1 22 10 420 86


Appearances and goals by national team and year
National team Year Apps Goals
1979 3 0
1980 3 0
Total 6 0


Real Madrid



  • D. Bowler & J. Bains (2000), Samba in the Smethwick End: Regis, Cunningham, Batson and the Football Revolution. ISBN 1-84018-188-5
  • Paul Rees (2014), The Three Degrees The Men Who Changed British Football Forever. ISBN 978-1-4721-1926-1


  1. ^ a b "The electric trailblazer who met a tragic end in Madrid". BBC Sport. Retrieved 14 October 2021.
  2. ^ a b "Cunningham killed in car crash". The Observer. 16 July 1989. p. 18 – via Newspapers.com.
  3. ^ "Laurie Cunningham: Tragic tale of the former Manchester United player". The Independent. 4 March 2013. Retrieved 14 March 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d e Shea, Julian (15 July 2009). "From Brisbane Road to the Bernabeu". BBC Sport.
  5. ^ Chiles, Adrian (17 November 2016). "The match that pitted white players against black players". BBC News. Retrieved 18 November 2016.
  6. ^ Aarons, Ed (4 March 2013). "Laurie Cunningham: Tragic tale of the former Manchester United player who amazed Real Madrid". The Independent. London: Independent Print. Retrieved 13 April 2013.
  7. ^ a b c "Laurie Cunningham - Football Career". football-england.com. Archived from the original on 3 July 2013. Retrieved 13 April 2013.
  8. ^ FA PR— Laurie Cunningham
  9. ^ Storey, Daniel (13 May 2020). "England's first black international and his 42-year wait for recognition". i. Retrieved 6 March 2024.
  10. ^ "The wraps come off 125th anniversary mural". West Bromwich Albion FC. 17 November 2004. Archived from the original on 2 February 2008. Retrieved 10 May 2008.
  11. ^ "Leyton Orient To Unveil Laurie Cunningham Plaque". Kick It Out. Retrieved 4 May 2018.
  12. ^ "Cunningham, Laurie (1956–1989)". English Heritage. Archived from the original on 27 September 2016. Retrieved 25 September 2016.
  13. ^ Hunn, Jonathan (30 November 2017). "Orient icon Laurie Cunningham honoured with statue". London Evening Standard. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  14. ^ "West Bromwich Albion: Statue of legends Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson due to be unveiled". CBBC Newsround. 21 May 2019. Retrieved 21 May 2019.
  15. ^ Blease, Melissa (8 October 2019). "Getting The Third Degree: Interview with Dougie Blaxland". The Bath Magazine. Archived from the original on 27 January 2020. Retrieved 27 January 2020.
  16. ^ "Laurie Cunningham". National Football Teams. Benjamin Strack-Zimmermann. Retrieved 15 July 2009.
  17. ^ "Laurie Cunningham". England Football Online. Retrieved 6 March 2024.

External links[edit]