It was 1969 when Steve Jenkins first stood on the terraces at Brisbane Road. “I’ve seen quite some players in my decades watching the Orient,” recalls the 58-year-old.
“George Best, Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore – I’ve watched them all. But the best player I’ve seen in my life is Laurie Cunningham, no doubt about that. Laurie Cunningham had everything.”
The story of Laurie Cunningham is one of the most remarkable, and often forgotten, tales of English football.
Signed by Leyton Orient as a teenager in 1974, Cunningham’s supreme talent ultimately took him on a journey from Brisbane Road to the Bernabeu.
Yet it wasn’t just Cunningham’s audacious talent as a winger that left an indelible impression on those who saw him – it was the colour of his skin.
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Throughout his short life, tragically ended by a 1989 car crash, Cunningham was a trailblazer.
He was one of the first black footballers to make it in England, the first black player to pull on an England shirt and the first British player to be sold to a foreign team.
“It’s the last time we’ll see an Orient player end up at Real Madrid that’s for sure,” smiles Jenkins, who is deputy chairman of Leyton Orient Supporters Club.
“From the first time I saw him, Laurie really did shine out like a shooting star. The pitch was like a dance floor for him. He would twist, turn, drop his shoulder, and leave seasoned defenders floundering.”
Now, to mark what would have been his 60th birthday, Leyton Orient has thrown its weight behind a campaign to erect a statue of Cunningham close to the stadium where he first graced the pitch.
The statue would be “fitting recognition of a man who took the game to another level”, says Troy Townsend, an education and development manager at football’s equality and inclusion organisation Kick It Out.
“It’s hard to describe the level of abuse Laurie received,” adds Townsend.
“That first generation of black players had bananas thrown at them, all sorts of stuff thrown at them. To overcome that was hugely inspirational for everyone coming through.”
Townsend experienced Cunningham’s ability to inspire first-hand.
“One of my first memories is of walking along Leyton High Road, when all of a sudden Laurie Cunningham pops up around the corner, just walking to training with his football boots in hand,” he recalls.
“What that meant to me at the time was huge. Pele was one of my early heroes, but you couldn’t see or feel Pele – he was like a dream. But Laurie came from our area.
“He was at little, humble Leyton Orient. He was one of the first black players me and my friends could look up to and he made us feel we could achieve in football.”
With his scintillating pace and swagger on and off the field, Cunningham rapidly established himself as a star at Leyton Orient.
In 1977, he secured a move to West Brom, where the winger teamed up with Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson to form a groundbreaking trio of black footballers, nicknamed “The Three Degrees”.
Playing in an era when football matches were used as a recruiting ground by the National Front, Cunningham and his contemporaries were subjected to incessant abuse.
With the higher echelons of football often turning a blind eye to the game’s endemic racism, players were reliant upon their ability in order to survive.
“Hordes of fans would sing horrible chants at him but Laurie used his skills to shut them up.
“I remember one goal he scored against Chelsea, which was that good even the referee started applauding,” says Jenkins.
“He could turn hate into glory within seconds,” adds Townsend. “One second he’d be getting abuse, the next he’d have the ground in rapturous applause.”
Cunningham’s unique gifts resulted in a move to Spain, where, in the the all-white kit of Real Madrid, he became known as the Black Pearl.
“To see a black person going abroad to mix it with the best was just amazing for us,” says Townsend.
Although his time in Spain was plagued by injuries, the legacy of Cunningham goes beyond his on-field achievements.
“It’s who he was off it,” says Townsend.
“He had style, he had elegance, he used to go out dancing into the small hours. He just had that special ability to bring people together.”
As well as raising funds for the new Leyton landmark, the year-long campaign by Waltham Forest Council and its partners will promote his important legacy of inclusion and diversity through community events.
The statue is set to cost just over £100,000 and together with its partners the council is looking to raise up to £50,000.
If you would like to make a donation, visit www.walthamforest.gov.uk/laurieslegacy.