Until May 2013 he was also reported to be the first black player to represent England at any level (having played at under 21 level). However The Football Association has now reported that in fact Benjamin Odeje holds this record, having represented England 7 years earlier at schoolboy level. "We've spoken to our historian, and at the time the English Schools' Football Association ran the team. But we can confirm Benjamin Odeje was the first black player to represent England at any level."
LifeBorn in Archway, London, Cunningham started in schoolboy football and was turned down by Arsenal before joining Leyton Orient in 1974. He joined West Bromwich Albion in 1977, where, under manager Johnny Giles, he teamed up with another black player, Cyrille Regis, and the following year (under Ron Atkinson) with Brendon Batson. This was the second time an English top flight team simultaneously fielded three black players (the first being Clyde Best, Clive Charles and Ade Coker for West Ham United against Tottenham Hotspur in April of 1972) and Atkinson collectively referred to Cunningham, Batson and Regis as 'The Three Degrees' after the legendary U.S. soul singing trio.
West Bromwich Albion became one of the most attractive and exciting English sides in the late 1970s and Cunningham soon attracted attention. He became the first black player to wear an England shirt at any level in England under-21s' friendly against Scotland at Bramall Lane on 27 April 1977, scoring on his debut.
He subsequently earned a full England cap, making his debut against Wales in a Home International in 1979. He was to win a total of 6 caps for England.
In the summer of 1979 he made a historic move as the first British player to transfer to Real Madrid, for £950,000. He scored twice on his debut and helped Real win the league and cup double. Despite this club success, Cunningham was overlooked by England manager Ron Greenwood for a place in the England squad for Euro 1980.
Shrugging off this disappointment and back at Real Madrid, Cunningham began the 1980/1 season well, and was again called up for England (after bitter negotiations with Real Madrid) for the 1982 World Cup Qualifier against Norway, only to be an unused sub as England won 4–0. In the next qualifier against Romania, he came off the bench but was unable to help England avoid a 2–1 defeat. This was to be his last England cap. Back with Real Madrid, his early season form was good again scoring goals in the early rounds of the European Cup, but then he succumbed to injury, and required an operation on a broken toe.
This toe saga was to sour his relations with Real, as he was heavily fined and ostracised for celebrating the success of the operation at a disco. His recovery was set back due to aggravating the injury at yet another disco, and also again due to a tough training ground challenge. Cunningham developed a playboy reputation, and was heavily criticised in the Spanish press, together with his long-time girlfriend Nicky Brown. Many speculated at this stage in his career, Cunningham was more interested in his hobbies of architecture, fashion, disco dancing and fast cars than he was in playing football for Real Madrid.
Cunningham recovered just in time for the 1981 European Cup Final against Liverpool in Paris, as Real Madrid lost 1–0, and though he was clearly not match fit, played the whole match (with some exciting bursts of play), as Real Madrid lost 1–0. During pre season training for the 1981/2 season, Cunningham's injury jinx continued, as a thigh injury kept him out of the majority of the season (only 3 goalless appearances in the league), his only real noteworthy contribution was in the UEFA Cup quarter final tie against Kaiserslautern.
Cunningham spent most of the 1982/3 season on the sidelines, until joining Manchester United on loan in April 1983, reuniting with Ron Atkinson.
He left Real after the 1982/83 season, joining Sporting Gijón and subsequently Marseille.
Cunningham was only to remain in France for one season in 1984/5, before heading back to England to join Leicester City although he played only half a season due to further injury. At the end of this 1985/6 season, Cunningham went back to Spain to play in the 2nd tier for Rayo Vallecano. He moved to Charleroi in Belgium for the 1987/8 campaign, but was yet again struck down by injury, and in the new year was back in England on a short term deal with Wimbledon, where he managed to help the Dons beat Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup Final.
After sharing in that glory, Cunningham again headed back to Spain and Rayo Vallecano for the 1988/9 season, enjoying an Indian summer and the season was topped off by scoring the goal that secured their promotion to the Primera Liga.
Laurie Cunningham was killed in a car crash in Madrid on the morning of 15 July 1989. He was 33. He left behind his Spanish wife and their one child, a son.
In 2004 he was named as one of West Bromwich Albion's 16 greatest players, in a poll organised as part of the club's 125th anniversary celebrations.