Leicester City fans were unfortunate in not seeing Cunningham in his prime.
When he made his debut for City in November 1985, the skills that had taken him on an unlikely football journey from Leyton Orient via West Bromwich Albion to Real Madrid, were fading, though he was still good enough to contribute to a 3-0 victory over Manchester United. He moved on at the end of the season having made just 15 appearances.
At his best, he was a joy to behold; a winger with flair, touch and explosive pace. Born in north London in 1956, he was released by Arsenal at 16 and signed by Leyton Orient, making his Second Division debut in 1974.
George Petchey, Orient’s manager, nursed Cunningham’s precocious talent carefully before selling him to West Brom three years later.
Even as a young player, he was a maverick, paying fines for late appearances at training from prize money won in night club dance competitions.
Cunningham flourished at the Hawthorns under Ron Atkinson’s management alongside emerging black talents like Cyrille Regis.
In May 1979, he became only the second black footballer – Viv Anderson of Nottingham Forest was the first - to gain a full England cap.
Cunningham had a short spell at Leicester in the 1985/86 season.
He made only six international appearances, with injuries and a move to Real Madrid, who were reluctant to release him, limiting his opportunities.
At the Bernabéu, Cunningham made a very positive impression, though it was in Spain that he picked up the first of the serious injuries that blighted his later career, played out on loan at Manchester United and Sporting Gijon, and then with Marseilles, Leicester City, Rayo Vallecano and Charleroi.
In May 1988, during a short spell at Wimbledon, he came on as a second-half substitute to help the ‘Crazy Gang’ beat Liverpool’s ‘Culture Club’ in the FA Cup Final.
Though his life was cut tragically short in a car crash at only 33, he was celebrated as a pioneer who confronted racism in English football when it was rife and brutal.
Cunningham has also been honoured with an English Heritage blue plaque at his childhood home, statues at Orient and Albion, an ITV documentary, First Among Equals (2013) and a play by Dougie Blaxland, Getting the Third Degree (2019).
For several seasons, Leicester City Football Club has worked with De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History & Culture on various heritage projects. This season, staff and students at the Centre will feature those players who were pioneers that contributed to the growth and development of the game.
For more information about sports history at DMU please click HERE.
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