Laurie Cunningham: Tragic tale of the former Manchester United player who amazed Real Madrid

Laurie Cunningham, the first man to play for both Manchester United and Real Madrid, had an incredible impact in Spain. A new documentary tells his trail-blazing story, writes Ed Aarons

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The Independent Football

Of all the legendary players to have worn the Real Madrid shirt down the years, only one has ever left the Nou Camp pitch to a standing ovation. His name was Laurie Cunningham.

On 10 February 1980, the son of a former Jamaican racehorse jockey from Holloway in north London who used to pay his numerous £1 fines for being late to training at Leyton Orient by winning dancing competitions, suddenly became one of the most famous faces in Spain.

A dazzling display in a 2-0 victory at the home of Real's bitter rivals Barcelona was the pinnacle of a meteoric rise that had also seen Cunningham become the first black player ever to wear an England shirt. To mark the 25th anniversary of the game, Madrid newspaper AS ran a feature with the headline "The man who ran riot in the Nou Camp" and quoted one Barcelona fan who was there.

"It was like seeing [Johan] Cruyff but with black skin," he said. "That kid could do anything with a football."

Friday would have been Cunningham's 57th birthday had his life not been tragically cut short in a car crash in Spain in July 1989. Still only 33, he had just helped Madrid's unfashionable Rayo Vallecano reach La Liga for the first time in the latest pitstop on a remarkable journey that also took in Manchester United – Real's opponents in the Champions League tomorrow – West Bromwich Albion, Marseilles, Leicester City, a Marvin Gaye-style exile in Belgium with Charleroi and Wimbledon's Crazy Gang.

First Among Equals: The Laurie Cunningham story will be shown on Wednesday night on ITV1. More than four years in the making by brothers Ben and Gabe Turner of production company Fulwell 73, it features contributions from Cunningham's family members, former team-mates including best friend Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson and Spain manager Vicente del Bosque, a generation of black players including Ian Wright, John Barnes and Paul Ince, who remember him as their hero and, of course, Ron Atkinson, his manager at West Bromwich and United.

"Watching it was an emotional experience," admits Regis, who played with Cunningham for two seasons at the Hawthorns and became a born-again Christian after his friend's untimely death.

"You've got your memories and stuff in your head about the fun we used to have and some of the games we played. But actually seeing the footage of Laurie really brings it all back."

Starting with the story of how he slept in on his first day at Orient after being released by Arsenal as an unpunctual teenager, the first half of the documentary details the prevalent climate of racism Cunningham encountered in the fledgling days of his career. George Petchey, the manager who gave him his debut at 16, recalls telling his young protégé to respond to having bananas hurled at him by supporters by simply handing them to the linesman, while former Orient team-mate Bobby Fisher remembers their Black Power salute to 10,000 Millwall supporters baying for blood after Cunningham scored the winner in the last minute at the Den.

But it was his £100,000 move to West Bromwich Albion in 1977 and subsequent England Under-21 debut that catapulted Cunningham into the national spotlight. Playing against Scotland in a friendly at Bramall Lane that April, he beat Viv Anderson's debut for the senior side by almost 18 months and blazed the trail for 179 black and mixed race players who have since represented England, although he went on to win only a paltry six senior caps.

Under Atkinson, West Bromwich finished sixth in Cunningham's first season before blowing their chance of the title in the final weeks of the 1978-79 season to eventually trail in third. Wright refers to Cunningham's "jaw-dropping" display in the 5-3 victory at Old Trafford when he ran United defender Stewart Houston ragged as his finest hour, although it was another scintillating performance in a Uefa Cup tie with Mario Kempes' Valencia in December 1978 that had caught the eye of Real Madrid. "I don't think his qualities were any less than Cristiano Ronaldo," says Del Bosque.

"Madrid viewed him as one of the most distinguished footballers in Europe. 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 more than justified the £950,000 fee Madrid paid in the summer of 1979 by scoring twice on his debut (once more against Valencia) and helping them win a League and Cup Double, with that night in the Nou Camp a clear highlight.

Regis remembers: "I was in touch with him all the time and we spoke regularly. I used to go out there in the summer every year to spend a bit of time with him.

"For two years it was fantastic for him and he became very famous. Laurie had that mindset to be the very best in the world so we don't know what he could have achieved. I think that's part of the romance of the story."

Long-term partner Nicky Brown, who met Cunningham as a teenager on the dancefloors of north London, confesses that she ended up leaving Spain to escape the "goldfish bowl" his life became afterwards. A horrendous ruptured knee ligament that was allegedly inflicted by a Madrid team-mate in training was the beginning of a downward spiral of luck that would eventually end in his death, although Regis, who now works as an agent for the company that manages Gareth Bale and Ashley Cole among others, disputes Del Bosque's view that he "lacked that competitive spirit required at Real".

"That's his judgement but for me it's more about what Laurie had to deal with coming over from England with no agents or support system like we have nowadays," he says.

Turner, who is also planning a feature film with James Corden already cast as Ron Atkinson, adds: "A theme that runs through the whole documentary was that Laurie was a person who needed to be nurtured.

"At Leyton Orient he had George Petchey and Bobby Fisher who kept an eye on him and then he had a great time at West Brom with Cyrille and Ron. They all took care of him but in Madrid they tried to police him instead and perhaps that wasn't the best way to handle him. When the injuries happened he got left on his own. For Laurie, it was a struggle dealing with the media and they came up with this playboy image of him, even though he never really drank and just loved to go out dancing."

Cunningham achieved yet another first in 1983 when he was reunited with Atkinson at Old Trafford on loan, becoming the pioneer in a list of players to have played for both Manchester United and Real Madrid that now includes Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham and Michael Owen. However, in a brutally honest appraisal of his diminishing powers, he asked to be left out of the FA Cup final team that played Brighton that year because, according to his manager, he felt "he couldn't do himself justice in such a big game".

Nonetheless, Cunningham came on as a substitute for Wimbledon in the famous 1-0 victory over Liverpool in 1988 before heading back to Spain for one final tragic season. The 25th anniversary of his death will be marked next year with the unveiling of a statue of Cunningham, Regis and Batson – West Brom's "Three Degrees" – outside the Hawthorns, while a blue plaque is also planned for the Finsbury Park home one of English football's most important figureheads grew up in.

"It's very humbling and I'm sure that his parents and all of his family are very proud," says Regis.

"For the third generation of 16 and 17-year-olds, their heroes are Thierry Henry and people like that. But Laurie has a focal place in history because he inspired so many black players and that story deserves to be told. I hope a lot of dads make their kids sit down and watch it to show that this guy broke down a lot of barriers so that they could play football."

Cunningham factfile

Born 8 March 1956 (London)

Died 15 July 1989 (Madrid)

Clubs Leyton Orient (1974-77), West Bromwich (1977-79), Real Madrid (1979-1984), Manchester United (1983, loan), Sporting Gijon (1983-84, loan), Marseilles (1984-85), Leicester City (1985-86), Rayo Vallecano (1986-87 and 1988-89), Charleroi (1987), Wimbledon (1988)

England caps 6

Honours La Liga (1980), Copa del Rey (1980, 1981), FA Cup (1988)