Willie Cunningham

Footballer and manager
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The Independent Online

William Cunningham, footballer, coach and manager: born Mallusk, Co Antrim 20 February 1930; played for St Mirren 1950-54, Leicester City 1954-60, Dunfermline Athletic 1960-64; capped 30 times for Northern Ireland 1951-62; managed Dunfermline Athletic 1964-68, Falkirk 1968-72, St Mirren 1972-74; married (one son, one daughter); died Dunfermline, Fife 31 August 2007.

Willie Cunningham made a mark on football history both as an underrated player and as an enterprising manager. But perhaps his most influential moment may have come right at the end of his career in 1974, when St Mirren asked him to nominate his successor as the club's manager. Cunningham championed a young man destined for greatness: Alex Ferguson.

Cunningham enjoyed his finest hour as a player at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. His native Northern Ireland had qualified for the tournament against all expectations at the expense of Italy and Portugal, and the surprises kept on coming in the finals.

Cunningham, who usually played as a dependable full-back, was used as a makeshift centre-half in the absence of the regular number five, Jackie Blanchflower, who had been grievously injured in the Munich air disaster. But Cunningham, then a Leicester City player, caught the eye in Northern Ireland's astonishing run to the quarter-finals.

In the group stage the Irish beat the Czechs 1-0, then lost 3-1 to Argentina before drawing 2-2 with the reigning champions, West Germany. That earned them a play-off with the Czechs for a place in the last eight, and they won it 2-1 in extra time, despite finishing the game with, at most, eight fit players on the pitch. Injuries caught up with Northern Ireland in the quarter-finals, where they lost 4-0 to France.

Cunningham had played for St Mirren before joining Leicester for £4,750 in 1954, and after a turbulent few seasons which featured relegation to the Second Division and promotion back to the top flight, he returned to play in Scotland. He was transferred to Dunfermline Athletic, managed by the legendary Jock Stein, for £1,850 in 1960. The highlight of his spell at East End Park was the 1961 Scottish Cup Final, when the Pars beat Celtic 2-0 in a replayed final.

By the time Stein had left for Hibernian in 1964 Cunningham was coaching at Dunfermline, and he was a natural choice to fill Stein's role as manager. He proved adept at the job, and Dunfermline remained contenders for honours and regular competitors in European competition. His Pars side were unlucky to lose 3-2 to Celtic, now managed by his mentor Stein, in the 1965 Scottish Cup Final. He later managed Falkirk, and St Mirren – where he paved the way for Alex Ferguson to learn his craft as a manager.

After leaving the game Cunningham ran a sports shop, and retired to live in Dunfermline. He enjoyed attending matches, especially at Dunfermline and St Mirren, where he was remembered with great fondness. It was testament to the esteem in which he was held in Scottish football that on at least one occasion he was sounded out about taking the national manager's job.

Cunningham played more than 300 games in English and Scottish League football and was capped 30 times by his country.

Alex Murphy

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