Willie Cunningham

Leicester City In 100 Players: Willie Cunningham

As Club Historian John Hutchinson reviews the careers of 100 of the most outstanding players to represent Leicester Fosse and Leicester City, next up is Northern Ireland international full-back Willie Cunningham, who played in the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden.
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Cunningham was a stylish full-back who played for Leicester City between 1954 and 1960. The 23 international caps he won while at Filbert made him, at that time, the most capped player in the Club’s history. In 1958, he became the first player with a Leicester contract to appear the World Cup.

In addition, he was the only Irishman to be offered the post of Scotland’s international manager and Sir Alex Ferguson is on record of saying that Cunningham helped to shape his career and that he was eternally grateful to him.

Norman Bullock signed Cunningham for Leicester from St. Mirren for a fee of £4,750 in November 1954. He played in the last 15 games of the season but couldn’t prevent his new club from being relegated.

He was an invaluable player the following season, playing in both full-back positions, but he lost his place to Stan Milburn and John Ogilvie in the record-breaking season of 1956/57 when City won the old Second Division title.

Even so, he played in all six of Northern Ireland’s internationals that season, appearing alongside great Ulster players like Harry Gregg, Danny Blanchflower, Billy Bingham and Jimmy McIlroy.

Back in the side for the 1957/58 season, with Leicester back in the top flight, Cunningham’s performances in both full-back positions were rewarded by selection for the Northern Ireland team, which had qualified for the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.

He played in all three group matches, against West Germany, Czechoslovakia and Argentina, in the play-off against Czechoslovakia and in the quarter-final, where his team was defeated by eventual finalists France. Oddly, Cunningham played at centre-half throughout, instead of at full-back.

Back in Leicester, Cunningham once again filled both full-back positions but he was being challenged for a place in the side: at right-back by Len Chalmers and at left-back by Joe Baillie and by young Richie Norman.

After another 20 top flight appearances in 1959/60, Cunningham transferred to Dunfermline Athletic, winning the Scottish FA Cup in 1961. He also competed in the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the European Fairs Cup for Dunfermline.

As Dunfermline’s manager, he took his side to the 1965 Scottish FA Cup final, before selling his star winger Jackie Sinclair to his old club Leicester City. After spells as manger of Falkirk and St. Mirren, Cunningham turned down the Scotland manager post in 1971. He died, aged 77, in 2007.

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