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Newcastle fans travelling to the Hawthorns can pay their respects to a special talent

5 years ago

Christians would have us believe that a star appeared in the east. Wise men followed the star, which shone brightly both night and day  . . . and the rest is history, or at least one version of history.

As a devout atheist I rejected this story as just another fairytale, to be ranked alongside the works of the brothers Grimm, entertaining in itself but of no relevance to my life.

All that changed within two weeks of Christmas 1976 when, in a setting almost as humble as a Bethlehem stable, a new star from the east (Leyton, E10, to be precise) put on a show of such brilliance that all who were privileged to witness it knew they had seen something extraordinary, beyond the comprehension of normal people, almost out of this world. To call him dazzling is akin to calling Tony Blair a political animal, an understatement of laughable proportions.

The scene of this near-miracle was a football pitch whose surface was as heavy as wallpaper paste, which made the performance even more remarkable. Talk to a world-class sprinter and they will tell you they want their feet to be in contact with the track for the smallest possible fraction of a second.

That January night at Feethams, this wonderfully gifted athlete appeared to glide at high speed inches above the mud heap, while all those around him plodded in his wake, sinking ankle deep. Jesus might have walked on water; Laurie Cunningham definitely floated across that quagmire.

Of the match itself I can recall few details; there are brief online references to an FA Cup third-round tie between Darlington, then in Division Four, and Orient, two tiers higher, ending 2-2. What is unforgettable is the breathtaking overall ability of the 20-year-old Cunningham.

He was tormentor-in-chief of one Derek Craig, a central defender who made two senior appearances for Newcastle United before moving 40 miles south, where he became a Darlo stalwart. He tried to stifle the star of the show by fair means or foul but Cunningham was too quick. Craig could not get close enough even to kick him.

There is a particular pleasure in watching a fleet-footed forward running rings round a pedestrian stopper. Within months of his Feethams fireworks, Laurie Cunningham was snapped up by West Brom, who paid Orient £100,000.

Two seasons of stellar displays for the Baggies included a 3-0 win at St James Park in which Cunningham and Cyrille Regis, his best friend, ripped Newcastle apart. West Brom finished sixth in 1978 and third a year later before Cunningham made a £950,000 move to Real Madrid, where he won the Copa del Ray twice and La Liga.

Ten years later he was dead, killed in a car crash at the horribly early age of 33, but at the Santiago Bernabeu he is revered to this day, not least because of a superb performance at Camp Nou in a 2-0 defeat of Barca. Cunningham is said to be the only Real player given a standing ovation at that stadium.

In a peripatetic career, Laurence Paul Cunningham also played for Manchester United, Sporting Gijon, Marseilles, Leicester City, Rayo Vallecano, Charleroi and Wimbledon. His unlikely tie-up with the Crazy Gang brought a cameo appearance in the 1988 FA Cup final defeat of Liverpool, his only domestic honour other than six England caps.

Newcastle fans going to the Hawthorns today can pay their respects by pausing in front of the statue to Ron Atkinson’s famed Three Degrees (Brendan Batson was the third). I would love to have seen Cunningham in the black-and-white stripes.

During the inquest into that 3-0 drubbing in September 1977, one Newcastle director said we were unable to sign a black player because our fans would not accept him.

Times have changed but in nearly 50 years of watching professional football, I have never witnessed anyone as gifted or thrilling as Laurie Cunningham.

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