05 March 2013

"He was like no player we've ever had" - Laurie Cunningham's time at Leyton Orient

Not many players beat a path from Leyton Orient to the Bernabeu. Just the one actually: Laurie Cunningham. Those that were lucky enough to see him grace the turf of Brisbane Road in the 1970s speak in awe of a huge talent, one rarely seen in football.    

And while Laurie went on to play for West Brom, Real Madrid and Man Utd before tragically dying in a car crash aged 33, it was - as we see in this extract from my book Leyton Orient Greats - at Orient that perhaps he was at his happiest...

Luck is not something normally found in abundance at Brisbane Road – apparently it can’t get through the turnstiles. But anyone who frequented the ground between 1974 and 1977 was blessed with the most incredible good fortune, for they got to witness a young man by the name of Laurence Paul Cunningham at work.

A winger of spine-tingling speed, skill and balletic grace, Laurie sprinkled magic on that muddy field in Leyton, and the anticipation in the stadium was palpable every time he got on the ball. That he’s an Orient great is unquestionable, but he’s also a football great, a legend whose life was tragically cut short when he died in a car crash at the age of 33.

By then Laurie had already blazed a trail for black players in the game, becoming the first ever to represent England and enduring unimaginable abuse and hostility to propel West Bromwich Albion to the upper reaches of Division One. At Real Madrid – after the club paid £995,000 to make him their first ever British player – he once tore apart Barcelona at the Nou Camp and was given an ovation by the opposition supporters.

But it is at Orient where Laurie is most fondly remembered. ‘He was like no player we’ve ever had,’ says fan Mickey Kasler. ‘He was world class. He wouldn’t have been amiss in the Brazilian side.’

Supporter Laurie Woolcott agrees. ‘Laurie was a special player – he always shone out,’ he says. ‘It was his grace on the ball and his speed. He was greased lightning.’

Mark Waters also had the pleasure of watching Laurie. ‘When he got the ball you thought he could do something special,’ he says. ‘It made it worth going to see the team. He had terrific skill, a fair bit of pace, and a lot of class. He was a cut above. He could take people on, beat them and leave them for dead.’

George Petchey, Laurie’s manager at Orient, was no less of a fan and once said, ‘He has enough skill and ability to take on the top teams at their own game and he’ll come through as the most outstanding player in the world. I can’t see him being anything other than a great player.’

But Laurie was also an enigma. A lover of fashion, music, dancing, modelling, architecture and wine bars, he was no typical footballer. Legendary choreographer Arthur Mitchell, the director of New York’s Dance Theatre of Harlem, wrote to Orient to say Laurie had a future in dance should he fail at football. ‘Suppleness?’ Laurie once said in response to a reporter marvelling at his dexterity. ‘That comes with dancing. I love soul music.’

But his off-field interests got him into trouble at Real Madrid when he was caught in a discotheque the night after having an operation on his toe, and his career began to drift. He had spells at Manchester United, Leicester, Wimbledon and clubs in France, Belgium and Spain, but never again produced the magic of his early career under the Orient management team of George Petchey and Peter Angell.

Indeed, it is perhaps Orient fans who got to see Laurie’s talent at its very purest. It’s something with which Laurie, towards the end of his life, concurred. ‘I don’t think I have ever fulfilled my true potential,’ he said. ‘All the coaches I’ve had, with the exception of Petchey and Angell at Orient, have never appreciated what I can do.’

Early days

Laurie was born in Archway, London, on 8 March 1956, the son of a Jamaican racehorse jockey. He believed the incredible ball control he had in his later life was bred in his childhood. ‘I was always around black guys,’ he explained. ‘We knocked the ball around in streets. English kids seemed to rush around a shade too fast.’

He played for the Haringey and South-East Counties schools football teams and was signed on schoolboy terms by Arsenal, alongside another Orient player-to-be, Glenn Roeder. But the north London club weren’t convinced by Laurie – George Petchey later claimed that it was his lack of punctuality, rather than his lack of skill that did for him – and he was released at 15 years of age.

Still, Arsenal’s loss was Orient’s gain, and scout Len Cheesewright invited Laurie to  Brisbane Road. Orient full-back Bobby Fisher, who played in the same youth team as Laurie, recalls the winger’s first day at the club, when he turned up for a trial match. ‘Everyone else was waiting; the first team players, manager, reserves, and suddenly Laurie just strolled over. The rest of the guys said he must be either very stupid or he must be one hell of a player. It turned out to be the latter.’

Laurie was signed as an apprentice in August 1972 and played in a youth team that featured, as well as Fisher, Tony Grealish, Glenn Roeder and Nigel Gray. On the pitch Laurie impressed immediately and in his first season in the youth team was voted Player of the Tournament in an international competition held in Holland. In the second year of his apprenticeship he helped the team finish runners-up in the South-East Counties League and win the London Youth Cup.

Off the pitch things were a little more complicated. Laurie was unconventional, and his dislike of authority was matched only by his contempt for punctuality.

‘We had one or two problems with him in the early days,’ admitted Petchey. ‘There was a time when Peter Angell and I wondered if we could win Laurie over. He had to struggle in life and was the sort of youngster who was used to living on his wits. He was suspicious of people outside his own circle. He took a long time to trust other people. He often turned up late for training, the eyes flashed when we fined him, but for all that I loved the spark that made him tick.’

Looking back later in his life, Laurie recognised that he was a problematic youngster. ‘At first I must admit I was not the sweetest person to be with,’ he said. ‘Nothing stirred me, I was just a dreamer.’

Yet he also revealed that it was his coaches at Orient who helped him to focus, saying, ‘It was George Petchey and Peter Angell who showed me that the only person that who could make my dreams come true was, in fact, myself.’

As such, he began to practise religiously. ‘He was fanatical about kicking balls with his left foot up against the wall underneath the stand,’ recalls fellow youth teamer Tony Grealish. ‘Every time we had a 15-minute break the rest of us would sit down, and he’d be out the back.’

And George Petchey said at the time, ‘If I don’t call him in he’ll keep it up all afternoon.’

Orient debut

By the beginning of the 1974–75 season, Petchey was ready to give 18-year-old Laurie his first-team debut. It came in the Texaco Cup – the short-lived tournament involving teams from the UK and Republic of Ireland – in a game against West Ham at Upton Park on 3 August 1974.

Though Orient lost the game 1–0, Laurie impressed manager George Petchey, who said after the game, ‘It took him a little time to get adjusted to the pace of the game but I was delighted from the way he played from then on. He has a natural talent. He has the speed and agility to take on men. He never gives up. There’s a big future ahead for him.’

Laurie made his League debut two months later in a 3–1 victory against Oldham and once again caused havoc with his pace and skill. He was joining an Orient team that were struggling. The previous season they’d suffered the heartbreak of missing out on promotion to Division by a single point and the subsequent hangover was a long and nagging one. The biggest problem was goals – or the fact that Orient’s strike force of Mickey Bullock and Gerry Queen weren’t actually scoring any.

Laurie was selected to play against Millwall on 7 December at the Den, a game that introduced him, in the harshest way possible, to the plight of a black footballer in the mid-1970s. It was a time of simmering racial tensions – there was widespread opposition to immigration policies and the far right group the National Front were claiming over 20,000 members – and you were about as likely to find a black player in a professional football team as you were a blade of grass on Orient’s mud bath of a pitch.

As such, Leyton Orient, in fielding Laurie alongside Bobby Fisher and Bombay-born Ricky Heppolette, were ahead of their time. It meant that the game against Millwall – smack in the heartland of the far right – was always going to be one with the potential for trouble.

When the team arrived at the Den they were met by National Front activists distributing racist propaganda. Inside the ground the players emerged into a cauldron of hatred, with the opposition fans spitting a torrent of abuse at Laurie and Bobby Fisher. Objects – including bananas and a six-inch carving knife – were thrown onto the pitch.

‘Me and Laurie did the black power salute a couple of times,’ Bobby Fisher recalls. ‘To be honest, we didn’t properly understand the significance. All we knew was that some black American athletes had done it at the Olympics, and that was good enough for us.’

The game was drawn 1–1, but was significant in that it gave Laurie the bitter taste of the racial prejudice he’d face for much of his career. And while he wasn’t particularly politically motivated, he did recognise that he was potentially paving the way for more black footballers to come into the game. ‘I can’t let it get to me,’ he said of the abuse at the time. ‘If I can get through this, maybe it will lead to others getting a fair chance.’

And he intimated that it was less the hostility from the crowds that bothered him, but the abuse he experienced from those within the game – where he’d routinely hear managers instructing his players to clobber the ‘black coward’. ‘First and foremost I’m looking for respect from professional players,’ he said.

Looking back a few years later, Laurie reflected on his feelings about race during his spell at Orient. ‘There have been times when I’ve been mixed up about the race thing. A couple of years ago I thought to that to be black in England was to be a loser. You know, back of the queue for decent jobs. Suspicion on you before anyone knew what you were about.'

He continued 'I did have a feeling for “black power”. It seemed to meet the mood of frustration. It could give you some pride. Then I changed. It sort of struck me that the great majority of people, black and white, are in the same boat, fighting for a decent living. It also struck me down at Orient I was getting a very good break. I got on well with George Petchey. It didn’t matter to him whether I was black, white or Chinese just as long as I could play.’

Becoming a regular

After the Millwall game Laurie had another short spell out of the team, though did appear as a substitute for two games in January. Fan Alan Harvey remembers bumping into Laurie’s mother Mavis on one occasion that her son was named on the bench. He says, ‘I was standing outside the entrance to the Double Os club and there was a dear little black lady waiting outside. She asked me, “I am allowed to go in here?” I said, “Yes, of course you can.” And she told me that her son was Laurie Cunningham, and I told her she’d be very welcome. So we took her into the bar. But this little black woman must have been very, very nervous coming into the culture of football.’

By March, Petchey was ready to give Laurie an extended run in the team at the expense of the fading Barrie Fairbrother. In his second game back, against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough, Laurie set up the goal for Gerry Queen that gave Orient a 1–0 victory. ‘Laurie Cunningham’s eye-catching skills must have been the envy of many rival managers,’ said teammate Peter Allen at the time.

Following this Laurie started each of the remaining nine games of the season, and continued to sparkle. But there was one thing still missing – goals. Before the final game of the campaign, a home match against Southampton, Laurie turned up late at the stadium. No surprise there, but an irked George Petchey told him that if he didn’t score he would be heavily fined and suspended. Laurie duly obliged. ‘Cunningham picked up Bullock’s headed pass on the halfway line, out-paced three defenders and then nonchalantly eased the ball past the advancing keeper from just inside the penalty area,’ wrote the Walthamstow Guardian. ‘Arguably Orient’s outstanding goal of 74–75.’

It was Orient’s 28th and last league goal of the season, making it their lowest haul in their history and leaving them in 12th position in the table, with a sleep-inducing 12 goalless draws to their name.

Apparently seeking to address this, they began the next season with a novel approach – letting the opposition score for them, and the first game of the season produced a 1–1 draw against Blackburn in which Rovers defender John Waddington netted Orient’s only goal.

It didn’t last, and the next eight games yielded only four goals. Strikers Mickey Bullock and Gerry Queen looked past their best and it begs the question that if a Johnston, a Kitchen – hell, even a Gary Alexander – was on the receiving end of some of Laurie’s dazzling approach play how much more the club could have achieved.

Getting noticed

In October the Walthamstow Guardian reported that Laurie had England legend Bobby Moore ‘in all sorts of trouble’ when Orient played Fulham at Craven Cottage, and the winger was rewarded with a 24th-minute goal. A few weeks later Laurie was kicked all over the park by Southampton defender Jim Steele in a 2–1 victory over the south coast side. Indeed, he was regularly clobbered whenever he played. ‘He used to run down the wing and he’d get kicked over the touchline three times out of four by the big lumbering full-backs that used to populate the second division in those days,’ recalls fan Mark Waters.

In January Laurie’s goal gave Orient a 1–0 victory over Hull City and the Walthamstow Guardian reported: ‘Laurie Cunningham’s excellence lifted him above the other players and left Hull City gasping. He scored a marvellous goal and conjured up several more chances. The home side were anxiously searching for a breakthrough when Cunningham pulled out one of his many tricks in the 34th minute. He took the ball from Bill Roffey, controlled it on the edge of the box, looked up and chipped it precisely into the far corner over keeper Jeff Wealands’ head. It was a goal that would have graced any ground in the country.’

George Petchey added, ‘If that goal had been scored at Liverpool or Leeds it would have brought the house down.’

All this was getting Laurie noticed outside of east London, and Petchey found himself constantly having to deny that he’d have to sell him. Trouble was, Orient were in pretty dire financial straits at the time and owed the bank around £90,000. Everyone knew that at some point the club would be forced to take a big fat cheque for their talented winger. Even Laurie himself realised this, and said in February, ‘If the day comes when I have to go it will be with regret. I’d always be coming back to see George and the lads.’

Back on the pitch Laurie scored in 2–0 win over Fulham in February. But it was his goal in a 2–0 victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Easter Monday that will live longest in fans’ memories of that season. He’d missed the two preceding games after knocking himself unconscious on a train door – this sort of thing tended to happen to Laurie – but it was the Chelsea defence who were left feeling woozy when he returned.

Fan Mickey Kasler recalls it well: ‘The Chelsea fans were giving him some real treatment that day – racial abuse. In the second half he picked up the ball on the halfway line and dribbled at pace, side-stepping and swerving. Then he smashed it into the top corner from about 25 yards. It didn’t half shut the Chelsea fans up.’

Laurie actually finished that season as Orient’s top scorer with eight goals, which perhaps says more about the club’s strikers than it does about Laurie. The team finished in an uninspiring 13th position in Division Two.

Moving on

In September of the next season, Laurie scored two goals in a 3–0 thrashing of Cardiff City, after which Petchey drooled, ‘I’ve never seen anyone like him. No young winger in the country, and I include Steve Coppell and Peter Barnes, has his flair and electrifying pace.’

Soon after, reports in the national press claimed that Leicester and Ipswich were interested in the player and that both West Ham and Norwich had put in bids. Petchey denied it, saying, ‘Clubs may be sending their scouts to look at Laurie but no one has asked me about his availability.’

In December Laurie was widely expected to be named in Don Revie’s England Under-21 squad. He wasn’t, which left George Petchey aghast. ‘I am disappointed for the boy rather than for myself or the club,’ he said. ‘Without disrespect to the lads in the squad, it is obvious that Laurie is better than many and certainly he has more experience. Perhaps the England manager hasn’t watched Cunningham this season.’

Early in March 1977 West Bromwich Albion – at the time making a good account of themselves in Division One under manager Johnny Giles – bid £75,000 plus two players for Laurie. Orient turned them down, with Petchey saying, ‘Laurie has made it quite clear that he wants to stay with the club and help fight relegation.’

But even Petchey must have realised that by then he was fighting a losing battle to keep hold of the player he’d brought to the club as a 15 year old. Attendances at Brisbane Road were at an all-time low, the pitch was a quagmire and the club needed money. First Division clubs waving cheques were hard to turn away. Figuring the game was up, Petchey tried to persuade the managers of four London clubs to take Laurie though, surprisingly, none were willing to take the plunge. ‘It’s their loss,’ said Petchey petulantly. ‘I guarantee he’ll play for England.’

SV Hamburg, St Etienne and Anderlecht were reportedly interested, but eventually it was West Bromwich Albion, with an improved bid of £110,000 plus Joe Mayo and Allan Glover, who secured the signature of Laurie on 6 March 1977. ‘I did not want to sell him, but we were over our limit at the bank and West Brom were ready with a cheque,’ said Petchey at the time. ‘Obviously I’m very disappointed at losing a player who I have seen progress from the age of 15 and I think he was as reluctant to leave as we were to see him go. But it was an offer of First Division football which he could not refuse.’

You can read the full story of Laurie Cunningham in the book Leyton Orient Greats

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