From the formation of the club, right up to the end of the Fergie era; you’d be hard pressed to find many players who’ve worn the United shirt and not quite been a hit, but been a star elsewhere.
You could name Peter Beardsley as an example of one who went on to greater things away from Old Trafford. Or you could think of Laurent Blanc whose best days were behind him when he joined us – although we knew we were getting someone past his prime when he signed on the dotted line, as did his manager.
But there’s one player who arguably stands out above the rest, and the irony is he is often forgotten about. Today, we remember him.
Laurie Cunningham was everything a United player should be. He was fast, thrilling, exciting and performed magic with a football. His coolness off the pitch transformed in to elegance, style and grace on it – the way he played football would be befitting of today’s game. Explosive power, the ability to beat two or three men with ease, and he had a knack of lighting up football pitch with everything he did.
His time at Old Trafford came after he’d suffered injuries during his time five year stint at the Bernabéu. Laurie Cunningham was that highly rated, he was the first British player to sign for Real Madrid. He came to United on loan from Spain in the 1982-83 season, and was a contender for a place in the FA Cup Final eleven under Ron Atkinson that year, the manager who’d bought him once before.
His career started at Leyton Orient in 1974, and it was Atkinson who signed him for West Brom for £100,000 three years later. Not a bad price back then – certainly enough to sort out Orient’s drainage system, and keep the club afloat.
And it was at the Hawthorns where Cunningham started making waves, alongside Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson. They were West Brom’s “Three Degrees” who turned heads and began breaking down barriers of race in football, at a time where black players were expected to ignore vile chants from the terraces and just get on with the game.
In a 5-3 drubbing of the reds at Old Trafford on 30th December 1978, Cunningham was on fire and tormented the United players. “The magic that black footballers are brining to the league is completely on evidence” said the commentator at full time.
He’d already become the second black player to represent England at any level when Real Madrid came calling with a cool £950,000 to prize him over to Spain. It was the most they’d ever spent on a player.
At the time, Real Madrid were only allowed two foreign players in their squad, which gives further testament to the talents of Laurie Cunningham.
“Madrid viewed him as one of the most distinguished footballers in Europe,” said Vincente del Bosque, then one of Cunningham’s team mates. “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.”
He won titles and cups at Madrid, but perhaps up there amongst his greatest honours could be that he remains the last Real Madrid player to receive a standing ovation from Barcelona supporters at the Nou Camp, after a stunning display in a 2-0 victory in El Clasico.
But serious injuries soon beckoned for Cunningham. Trodden on during a game against Real Betis in 1980, Cunningham broke his toe. Badly. And finding fitness was going to be a problem for him – hampering the rest of his career.
But it’s only a toe, right?
Well, only a toe that went through a series of operations that failed, and as a result was left in a still and rigid state. Hampering his performance, and dictating the start to a decline in his career.
Ron Atkinson was willing to give the winger a go on a stage that was fitting for Laurie Cunningham though. He loaned him in to the Theatre Of Dreams, and it’s sad that someone who could perfectly be describe as a “United” player had already peaked at 27.
He made five appearances for the reds, scoring one goal. It was he that ruled himself out of the FA Cup Final squad, reportedly telling Atkinson that he didn’t think he could perform to the level expected for such an important game.
The Laurie Cunningham who set the world on fire would surely have seen out his career at United had the injuries not taken their toll. But the sad decline had set in and Cunningham went back to Spain – spending a season on loan at Sporting Gijon, making thirty appearances.
From then on, he became a journey man – representing Marseille and Charleroi in France, with trips back to England and Spain in between with Leicester City and Rayo Vallecano.
In 1988, Cunningham would finally play his FA Cup Final, and pick up a winners medal in the process. He came on as a substitute for Wimbledon’s “Crazy Gang” in their 1-0 victory in their one and only cup final success. A player of his style turning out for Wimbledon was a bit of a shock, but after a stalling later career, all he wanted to do was play.
At least after missing out on a career at Old Trafford, he’d done his bit for United in helping the Londoner’s to the famous victory over Liverpool.
It was the summer of 1988 where he’d make his final move, back to Spain and back to Rayo Vallecano. It would spell a sad and tragic end to the Laurie Cunningham story here where, after 19 games and one goal, he would be killed in a car crash in Madrid on 15th July 1989.
He was just 33.
Sadly, and confusingly, Cunningham wasn’t fancied by Ron Greenwood, and only represented England six times. Once more than he represented the reds.
Today marks the 27th anniversary of Laurie Cunningham’s premature death, and if you get the chance to YouTube him, do it. Watch him. It’s only the footage that could adequately describe Laurie Cunningham the player.
He’s in a very small selection of players who’ve excelled elsewhere but not quite cut it at United, but there’s no question that he’s remembered in the minds of many reds.
Former red Laurie Cunningham: 8th March 1956 – 15th July 1989.