Laurie Cunningham, the Cristiano Ronaldo of his era
Laurie Cunningham at the 1988 FA Cup
Real Madrid’s first English player, Laurie Cunningham, is fondly remembered as a footballer ahead of his time, having played in England, Spain, and France.
Cunningham came up at a time racism was commonplace in English football, joining youth side Highgate North Hill in 1968, then moving to Arsenal in 1970.
He was released by the Gunners and later picked up by Leyton Orient, who were then known as Orient, making his professional debut at age 18.
Cunningham, who was the son of Jamaican immigrants, then moved to West Bromwich Albion after spending three years in Orient, where his playing abilities came to the limelight, scoring 15 goals from 75 appearances.
At West Brom, the racism intensified because he was regularly the best player on the pitch, and he was always a target of the opposition defenders.
“Defenders like myself were really just there to kick people mostly. The flair players, like Laurie, got the most stick,” according to Viv Anderson, who became the first black player to win a senior England cap.
Following disagreements over salary, Cunningham made a move to Real Madrid is a club-record fee of £950,000 in 1979.
His start with the Spanish side was remarkable, even former teammate and Spain’s former coach Vincente del Bosque, described Cunningham as “the Cristiano Ronaldo of his era.
However, series of injuries did not allow the Englishman to realise his full potential with the Spanish giants. He later moved around on loans and short contracts across Manchester United, Sporting Gijon, Marseille, Leicester City, Rayo Vallecano and Wimbledon.
On July 15, 1989, while returning from a party, Cunningham was involved in a car crash and was later pronounced dead moments after reaching the hospital.
While many footballers might never get a statue from their former clubs, Cunningham is honoured with one at Leyton Orient’s home and another outside The Hawthorns.