Spain football manager Vicente del Bosque says English footballer Laurie Cunningham was as good as Real Madrid’s Portuguese maestro Cristiano Ronaldo.
Both players are part of an elite group who played for Real Madrid and Manchester United, who meet in Tuesday’s much-anticipated Champions League first knockout round second leg.
Speaking in new ITV documentary First Among Equals: The Laurie Cunningham Story, del Bosque says his former Real Madrid team-mate was decades ahead of his time in his pace and range of skills when he played alongside him in the early 80s.
He says: “I don't think his qualities were any less than Cristiano Ronaldo.
“He came to Real Madrid after having played a great game against Valencia for West Bromwich Albion in the UEFA Cup, and Madrid viewed him as one of the most distinguished players in Europe.
"I think that was a period in Madrid’s history where there weren’t many international signings and the club made a big effort, financially, to sign Laurie, to sign a star because all of the rest of us were from the youth team.
“Truly, he was fast and agile, very dynamic, had a good shot and he could head well.”
The documentary which airs on *Wednesday March 6 at 10.35pm on ITV *tells the story of the first player to turn out for both clubs, whose rise from Leyton Orient to West Brom and on to the Bernabeu broke new ground.
He overcame racist attitudes within the game during the era he emerged and abuse from the terraces to become the first black footballer to pull on an England shirt, when he represented his country at U-21 level.
The programme features interviews with key figures in Laurie’s career including team-mates such as del Bosque, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson, managers including Ron Atkinson, members of his family, and those he inspired - former players such as Paul Ince, John Barnes, Les Ferdinand, Ian Wright and Mark Bright.
John Barnes says Laurie was a player ahead of his time from when he first emerged in the 1970s - which may explain why he received only six England caps.
“He was probably ahead of his time in English football in terms of the way he played, not just as a black English player," Barnes says.
“I suppose that Laurie didn’t really have the impact for England that he should have had. For a winger to have played with the flamboyance that he did, also to come in field and do what he did, he was like Cristiano Ronaldo.
"I mean, this Fancy Dan with all of these tricks and skills, everybody loves that now but Laurie was doing that back in the ‘70s. He was standing on the ball, and rolling his foot over the ball, but he wasn’t appreciated because that wasn’t what the good old English players do. We just get stuck in.”
The programme also explores the social impact of Laurie’s role as one of the legendary ‘Three Degrees’ at West Brom alongside Regis and Batson - the first time an English team had fielded a trio of black footballers in an era when black players routinely faced torrents of racist abuse from the terraces in England.
Former Leyton Orient team-mate Bobby Fisher tells the programme: “Laurie wasn’t the type of guy who would accept it, he would want to give it back... I think he learned to get back at them in his own way, which was on the pitch.”
Cyrille Regis, who says Laurie acted as a mentor to him at West Brom, explains that when Laurie was picked for the England under-21 team, it was a major step forward in race relations within football.
He says: “It’s a real milestone in history - a black guy playing for England. Looking back on it, it was enormous.
"He was a flamboyant footballer, great on the pitch. He helped break down barriers, he helped inspire a lot of black players to play football and made a lot of black people proud that there's a black player playing for England."
Increasingly dogged by injuries in his time at Real, Laurie went on loan to Manchester United and later played for several clubs across Europe, constantly hoping to reignite his career, Ron Atkinson tells the programme.
“The last time I saw Laurie we went to Real Madrid to watch a game at the Bernabeu and all through the game, he kept saying “Next year I will come back and show them what they are missing.”
He never did - but 24 years after his death, for his friend and team-mate Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham’s memory lives on.
“He is ever-present to me, he is always around me, because everyone remembers that time. He is forever at the forefront of my life.”
- Watch First Among Equals: The Laurie Cunningham Story on Wednesday at 10.35pm on ITV and ITV.com