Darren Moore vividly recalls sitting at home as an eight-year-old, staring at the television in wide-eyed amazement.
On the screen were 22 men running around a pitch and kicking a ball. “That’s a football match,” Moore’s father told him. From that moment, Moore knew what he wanted to do in life.
“I looked at the football match as the pitch being a stage, where the 22 players were playing,” Moore told CNN Sport. “And from that age, between the ages of eight and nine, I turned to my dad and said: ‘That’s what I want to do; play football.”
The man who stole the show for then top-flight English side West Bromwich Albion that day, as he did most times he stepped onto a football pitch, was Laurie Cunningham.
Racism was rife on the terraces in English football during the 1970s, with players regularly subjected to racist chants and banana throwing from some fans.
During that decade, Cunningham was at the forefront of a generation of Black footballers who became truly prominent in the English game for the first time.
“Laurie Cunningham was an iconic figure at the time for me growing up in Birmingham,” said Moore, who has both played for and managed West Brom. “Because obviously his connection was at West Bromwich Albion, one of the local teams that was in my area.
“At the time, I remember it made me get into football for the first time because Cyril Regis, Brendon Batson and then Laurie Cunningham were playing,” added Moore, who is one of the few Black managers currently working in English football.
READ: Statue campaign launched for pioneering Black footballer Jack Leslie
READ: Why English football can’t afford another ‘lost generation’ of Black coaches
‘The Three Degrees’
Cunningham grew up in north London – he was born to first-generation immigrants from Jamaica – and has been honored with an English Heritage blue plaque at his childhood home near Finsbury Park in the British capital.
It’s where he lived when he was first spotted by a Leyton Orient scout, before making his professional footballing debut with the team in 1974.
Cunningham loved to dance, but his silky moves extended beyond the dance floor. On the pitch he was just as light-footed and graceful; a blisteringly quick winger with a keen eye for goal.
It was precisely this unique style of play that made him stand out from the rest and after three successful seasons at Orient, he earned a move to West Brom.
It would be here in the Midlands that Cunningham was catapulted to true stardom.
Under manager Ron Atkinson, West Brom became one of the most exciting teams in England in late 1970s. Cunningham, of course, was at the heart of this.
Playing alongside two other black players in the 1978-79 season, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson, Cunningham helped West Brom reach the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup.
It was only the second time in English football history that three black players had played in the same team. Atkinson dubbed Cunningham, Batson and Regis ‘The Three Degrees,’ naming them after the US soul singing group.
After becoming the first Black player to ever represent England’s Under-21s in 1977, Cunningham’s performances eventually earned him a deserved full England cap in 1979.
He would go on to make six appearances in total for his country, though agonizingly missed out on a place in the England squad for Euro 1980.
“Laurie was an fantastic player, a man with elegance and grace on the football pitch,” Moore recalls. “He had ability that you would marvel at, [in the same way] that you now look at the likes of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.
“He was somebody with so much grace and speed and finesse on the football pitch and had an eye for goal. He was one of the top, top talented players of any time and generation.”
Cunningham was undoubtedly a superstar in his last year at West Brom and such was his broad appeal, the original Three Degrees came to Birmingham from the US to meet Atkinson’s “Three Degrees.”
Glory to tragedy
Cunningham’s exploits in his two seasons at West Brom, in particular a match against Valencia in the UEFA Cup, convinced Real Madrid to pay a reported club-record fee of 110 million pesetas – around $1.2 million – to bring the talented youngster to Spain.
At just 23 years of age, he became British football’s most expensive export and the first English footballer to play for Real Madrid.
Cunningham’s time in the Spanish capital got off to a blistering start. He scored two goals on his debut – it was once again Valencia which fell victim to another unstoppable performance – and that season helped the club win La Liga and the Copa del Rey.
He went on to score on his first appearance in El Clasico two weeks later, though Real ultimately succumbed to a 3-1 defeat to Barcelona.
Perhaps the peak of his Real career came later that season in the reverse fixture against Barcelona at the Camp Nou. Cunningham put on a dazzling display – ripping through Barcelona’s defense time and again – and showed exactly why Real had made him its club-record signing.
Earlier this year, on the 40th anniversary of that game, Spanish sport newspaper Diario AS ran an article on his performance.
“On February 10, 1980, something unprecedented happened. In fact, 40 years later it has not happened again,” the article read. “The Camp Nou surrendered to a Real Madrid footballer during El Clasico held that afternoon on Barcelona’s territory.
“The privileged one, since it has never happened again with any other Real Madrid player, was Cunningham. He left Barcelona’s Colosseum to a standing ovation.”
Sadly, the rest of Cunningham’s time in Madrid was punctuated by injuries and the Englishman never quite fulfilled the lofty expectations held of him by the club and the fans.
The following season, Cunningham suffered a broken toe, a knee injury and several unsuccessful surgeries, but somehow still managed to start against Liverpool in the 1981 European Cup final.
Unsurprisingly, Cunningham was a shadow of his former self and, despite brief glimpses of the ability he once possessed, Real Madrid eventually lost 1-0.
For the next few years, Cunningham bounced from club to club, never spending more than a season with the same team. His wide appeal still meant the likes of Manchester United and Marseille believed he was worth signing, though he was never able to replicate his performances for West Brom.
Despite his continuing battle against injuries, Cunningham would later find more glory in a short spell back in England with Wimbledon, briefly becoming part of the club’s famous “Crazy Gang” that shocked Liverpool to win the 1988 FA Cup final.
He returned to Madrid the following season, this time with Rayo Vallecano and scored the goal that secured promotion back to La Liga. It would be the last club Cunningham played for.
On the morning of July 15, 1989, Cunningham was involved in a fatal car accident at the age of just 33.
Though he may never have reached the heights many predicted after those scintillating seasons at West Brom, Cunningham’s true legacy came off the pitch with how he inspired and led a generation of Black footballers.
“I had the wonderful honor of being a personal friend to Cyril Regis and Cyril explained to me what Laurie was about and how he was absolutely instrumental in terms of who Cyril was and became in the end,” Moore says. “To have that being echoed through Cyril, I felt that I almost personally knew Laurie.
“I can say from a young age growing up to a more mature age, having watched him on the TV with Cyril and Brendon and then having the connection that I’ve got with Cyril and Brendon, to hear him speak so eloquently of Laurie is an absolute joy.
“It’s a life that we sadly miss, but a life that should have been enjoyed and celebrated.”
Additional reporting by Darren Lewis and Zayn Nabbi