Laurie Cunningham believed his suppleness as a player came from the rhythm and movement of dance. Ever since his days as teenage soul boy in North London, it had consumed him, often to the exclusion of all else. The years spent at his first club, Leyton Orient, were conspicuous not only for his dazzling performances but for the number of times he failed to turn up for training after a night out dancing. It was dancing too that came to define his time at Real Madrid in the minds of many, after a disastrous incident when he was seen at a disco with his foot in plaster. Although he protested he wasn’t dancing, it was easy to believe he was, and the image of a player who didn’t care enough for his talent stuck.
Cunningham surprised everyone when he signed for Real Madrid in July 1979 for £950,000. For a relatively unknown twenty three year old, who had spent just two seasons in the First Division, it was stunning affirmation of his talent. He was the first Englishman to play for the club and only their second ever black player. After Kevin Keegan he was the most expensive player in the world, the highest paid at Real, and his new manager called him ‘the best player in Europe’. Real Madrid were looking to add flair to a team full of grafters and fighters and it was hoped he would help bring back the connoisseur’s football of the great post-war team and they could once again win the European Cup, a competition that had come to define them.
Spain was changing after the death of the dictator General Franco in November 1975. A fledgling democracy established itself which survived an attempted coup by members of the Guardia Civil in February 1981. Cunningham experienced political violence himself once, when he and his brother Keith were set upon in a bar after a nationalist rally. The bar owner managed to hurry the two brothers out of the door to safety but not before a shot was fired in their direction.
Despite remainders of support for the old regime, society was advancing after decades of censorship and repression. The austere years were replaced with a counter-cultural flourish, clubs and bars stayed open all night and popular culture erupted. Cunningham and his nineteen-year old girlfriend Nikki had arrived in a city that was in the mood to party but were contracted to an institution with its own code and traditions.
During his first training session at the Bernabeu stadium in front of twenty thousand spectators Cunningham made an immediate faux pas when he nutmegged the club captain Camacho. Fellow player Vicente Del Bosque pulled him to one side and told him “Don’t ever do that again, son!” What might have been fun back in England would not be tolerated at Real Madrid. The carefree relationship he and Nikki shared was also noticed. She was visited by players wives who advised her to cut her hair in a neater way, told her where to shop for clothes and explained how to behave at social events. Later she discovered the club had compiled a file on her filled with press clippings that described her as a sex symbol and she was banned from the training ground.
In his first season Real won the league and cup double and Cunningham scored twelve goals. He was the only black player in the league at a time when few foreigners played in Spain and there was intense curiosity about him. In the press he was criticised for his high price tag and perceived diffidence. His manager the Yugoslav Vujadin Boskov commented “He’s too quiet. He doesn’t shout. He must tell the others he wants the ball”. While Alfredo Di Stefano, Real’s most revered captain observed “Here the game is very different to England with tough man-to-man marking. Next season he’s got to produce the goods”.
He hardly got the chance though after he fell victim to brutal defending in a game against Real Betis in November 1980. Ten minutes into the match, in an off the ball incident, right back Francisco Bizcocho callously stamped on his foot. The club doctor diagnosed bruising but did not send his player for a scan. It was only after playing a further game, presumably in some pain, against Barcelona that the foot was x-rayed and it was discovered his toe was broken. Cunningham was operated on and told to go home and rest until further notice, but made the worst possible decision when he agreed to go to Pacha, a high profile disco in the centre of town with Nikki and some friends two days later. Seen ‘dancing’, which he claimed was impossible in his state, Real were furious. Club president Luis de Carlos angrily declaimed: “Its the first time in eighty years that one of our players has defied doctor’s orders...He needs discipline” and fined him a record 1million pesetas. A team mate lamented “That was the moment that destroyed him because of the reputation it lumbered him with, but also – and much more importantly - because it was the first sign of an injury that ruined a wonderful player.” To add to his humiliation he was instructed to write an open letter of apology, published in Marca newspaper, that restated his commitment to the club.
By this time he had moved to a large, gated house in the Las Matas suburb of Madrid. A slow, dull routine of medical appointments and rehab sessions began to affect his relationship with Nikki and she became increasingly unhappy and defensive. Stung by bad press he was no longer as trusting as he had once been and more suspicious of what people wanted from him. Visitors to the house were surprised by the state of it: impressive from the outside, inside it was strewn with piles of clothes on the floor and sparsely furnished. Cunningham knocked down walls but left them unfinished filling the swimming pool with rubble. An old team mate from London visited and remarked “You could see the change in him, his whole philosophy of life had changed. I never saw him smile once”. Nikki wistfully recalls, “A lot of the time we didn’t know what to do”.
The toe operation was unsuccessful and he required a second one in March 1981 that put him out of action for the rest of the season. In May Real unexpectedly reached the European Cup Final for the first time in sixteen years and Boskov announced “I am counting on Cunningham for the final”, and the race was on to get his star player fit in time. In a dull final in Paris, Real Madrid lost 1-0 to Liverpool. Although Cunningham played the whole game he was clearly unfit, and looked like he was running through sand, his defining speed had gone for good. He was singled out for blame and from that point on became a peripheral figure at Real Madrid. Further injury blighted his remaining time there. He later complained about his medical treatment claiming it took two years off his career. Nikki left to return to England in 1982 and he was finally released by Real Madrid when his contract expired in 1984.
Cunningham spent the following years as something of a European journeyman, and played for seven clubs in six years. By summer 1989 he was back in Madrid playing for Rayo Vallecano who he helped gain promotion to La Liga. On 15 July 1989, ten years after he first arrived in the Spanish capital, Laurie Cunningham died in a car crash aged thirty three.
Words by Dermot Kavanagh