Villarreal’s friendly against West Bromwich Albion will feature a tribute to Laurie Cunningham, one of West Brom’s greatest players. Those of you who are younger than I may not be familiar with him, and to be honest, looking at his statistics don’t really convey his importance. But for those of us who followed English football when he emerged, we remember him well.
Laurie, a London native, spent only two seasons at West Brom (1977-79) following his transfer from Leyton Orient, but while there he, Cyrille Regis, and Brendon Batson made unfashionable WBA into quite an attractive side. And Laurie’s big money move to Real Madrid (yes, €1m was a big money move in those days) in the summer of 1979 made him the first British player to move to Real Madrid.
The zenith of his time at Real had to have been in February 1980, when the Merengues won 2-0 at the Nou Camp and Barcelona fans gave him a standing ovation as he left the pitch—he was that good.
Unfortunately, his career was cut short by injuries, and, as a documentary on his career released in 2013 pointed out, he had a difficult time and never really settled abroad. There was no support system for foreign players like there is now (at that time, La Liga teams could only have two foreign players on their roster). If you think racism in football is bad now, you can’t imagine what it was like in the late 1970s—early 80s; Laurie’s playboy image was somewhat unfair, but, given that he was known as a teenager for being late to training and then winning dancing competitions to pay his fines, probably inevitable.
Laurie’s last match was in 1989; playing for Rayo Vallecano, he scored the goal that gave them their first promotion to the First Division. He died in a car crash that July, aged 33.
West Brom players will wear special T-shirts in the warmups and give them to some of their fans. I hope any Villarreal fans attending will take the opportunity to learn more about this player who—before David Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo—played for both Manchester United and Real Madrid.