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Willie Cunningham

Long before Martin O'Neill and Neil Lennon, an Ulster-man made significant ripples as a successful manager in Scotland. Unsung hero of the 1958 World Cup squad, Willie Cunningham also proved himself an effective and versatile performer in Northern Ireland’s back-line…

Name: William Edward Cunningham
Born: 20 February 1930, Mallusk
Height: 5.11 ft
Weight: 12.00 st
Died: 31 August 2007
Position: Right-Back / Centre-Back

Representative Honours: Northern Ireland: 30 Full Caps (1951-1962).
Club Honours: (with Leicester) Football League Division Two Champion 1956/57; (with Dunfermline) Scottish Cup Winner 1960/61.

Club Career:
FA Cup
FL Cup
Renfrew Waverley
(Scottish Junior)
Ardrossan Winton Rovers
(Scottish Junior)
St Mirren
Leicester City

Mallusk-born, but Scotland raised, Willie Cunningham arrived in senior football with St Mirren from Ayrshire based Junior club, Ardrossan Winton Rovers in 1950 having previously played for the RAF when in the services. He made his Scottish League debut in October 1950 against East Fife, quickly establishing himself as first-choice left-back. A fans’ favourite, his uncompromising, tough tackling style of play also brought him to the attention of the Irish selectors. In March 1951 he won the first of his thirty caps, and over the next few seasons he alternated between left-back and right-back in the Northern Ireland team, before making the number two shirt his own in the mid-1950s.

After failing to regain his regular place following injury, Cunningham departed St Mirren in November 1954, signing for Leicester City in a £4,750 deal. At the time Leicester were struggling at the wrong end of the First Division, and were relegated at the end of Cunningham’s first season. Two years later Leicester marched to the Division Two title, scoring a club record 109 goals. Back in the top-flight, Leicester struggled once again, breaking another club record by conceding 112 goals, but somehow survived, finishing just one point off a relegation place.

On the international front things were going somewhat better for Cunningham. He played in every match of Northern Ireland’s successful 1958 World Cup qualification campaign as the team conceded just three goals in the face of talented Italian and Portuguese forward lines. With Jackie Blanchflower unavailable for the Finals tournament after the Munich disaster, Peter Doherty turned to Cunningham as stand-in centre-back. Although it was a largely unfamiliar role, Cunningham played all but two of his remaining fourteen internationals in the centre of defence.

In September 1960, Cunningham returned to Scotland to play for the Jock Stein managed Dunfermline in a £1,850 deal. Dunfermline, traditionally one of the poor relations in Scottish football, were challenging for the top honours under Stein. At the end of his first season at East End Park, Cunningham had in his possession a Scottish Cup winner’s medal, having played in seven of Dunfermline’s eight Cup matches, including the replayed Final success, 2-0 over Celtic. The following season, the club’s first in Europe, the Pars made it to the quarter-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup. The following season’s Fairs Cup opener matched Dunfermline with Everton, and Stein employed Cunningham as sweeper in the home leg, probably the first time the sweeper system was used by a British team. It was a tactic which proved successful as the English club were defeated 2-0 at East End Park, and 2-1 aggregate.

By the early sixties Cunningham had seemingly fallen out of the international reckoning, with Terry Neill installed at centre-back for Northern Ireland. Of course his versatility meant that when Peter Doherty needed a left-back, Cunningham returned to the team. Recurring injuries ended Cunningham’s playing career during the 1963/64 season, and when Stein left to manage Hibernian, Cunningham was appointed his successor in March 1964.

Willie Cunningham took to management almost immediately, and in 1964/65 took Dunfermline to within a whisker of the double, losing out in the Scottish Cup Final 3-2 to Celtic, and finishing just a point behind champions Kilmarnock in the League. So impressed were the Scottish FA that they offered Cunningham the International team manager’s post, but he turned them down. In June 1967 Cunningham resigned as manager of Dunfermline, later taking charge at Falkirk and then at St Mirren from 1972. With St Mirren struggling to break out of the Second Division, Cunningham tendered his resignation early in the 1974/75 season. Before he left the board reportedly asked him to suggest a replacement, the name he put forward was that of a young manager learning his trade at East Stirling by the name of Alex Ferguson.

Willie Cunningham settled in Dunfermline, where he ran a local sports shop for a number of years.

Northern Ireland Cap Details:
07-03-1951 Wales......... h L 1-2 BC
04-10-1952 England....... h D 2-2 BC
03-10-1953 Scotland...... h L 1-3 WCQ
03-11-1954 Scotland...... a D 2-2 BC
08-10-1955 Scotland...... h W 2-1 BC
02-11-1955 England....... a L 0-3 BC
11-04-1956 Wales......... a D 1-1 BC
06-10-1956 England....... h D 1-1 BC
07-11-1956 Scotland...... a L 0-1 BC
16-01-1957 Portugal...... a D 1-1 WCQ
10-04-1957 Wales......... h D 0-0 BC
25-04-1957 Italy......... a L 0-1 WCQ
01-05-1957 Portugal...... h W 3-0 WCQ
05-10-1957 Scotland...... h D 1-1 BC
15-01-1958 Italy......... h W 2-1 WCQ
16-04-1958 Wales......... a D 1-1 BC
08-06-1958 Czechoslovakia n W 1-0 WCF
11-06-1958 Argentina..... n L 1-3 WCF
15-06-1958 West Germany.. n D 2-2 WCF
17-06-1958 Czechoslovakia n W 2-1 WCF
19-06-1958 France........ n L 0-4 WCF
04-10-1958 England....... h D 3-3 BC
05-11-1958 Scotland...... a D 2-2 BC
22-04-1959 Wales......... h W 4-1 BC
03-10-1959 Scotland...... h L 0-4 BC
18-11-1959 England....... a L 1-2 BC
06-04-1960 Wales......... a L 2-3 BC
12-04-1961 Wales......... h L 1-5 BC
11-04-1962 Wales......... a L 0-4 BC
09-05-1962 Netherlands... a L 0-4 FR

Summary: 30/0. Won 6, Drew 11, Lost 13.