Willie Cunningham

Football player and manager

Born: 20 February, 1930, in Mallusk, Co Antrim.

Died: 31 August, 2007, in Dunfermline, aged 77.

WILLIE Cunningham was a quietly efficient, undemonstrative player who perhaps never got the acclaim his talent merited. However, he influenced and was influenced by some of the greatest names in post-war British football.

A native of Mallusk, Co Antrim, he crossed the North Channel as a teenager and after spells with Renfrew Waverley, Tranent and Ardrossan Winton Rovers, he turned professional with St Mirren in 1950. His rise was rapid and after making his first-team debut against East Fife in October 1950, he won the first of 30 Northern Ireland caps in a Home International against Wales in March 1951.

Injuries limited him to a mere 68 matches, scoring once, against Stirling Albion, for St Mirren before, in January, 1954, he moved south to Leicester City in a 4,750 transfer.

His introduction to English football was tough, with City relegated out of the First Division (now the Premiership) at the end of his first season. However, his playing in the Second Division (now the Championship), didn't deter the Irish selectors from continuing to pick him. By the time City were promoted back to the top flight in 1957, Cunningham was Northern Ireland's regular right back, forming a fine partnership with Newcastle's Alf McMichael.

Cunningham was ever-present during the Northern Irish side's great run at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, when they out-performed England and Scotland to reach the quarter-finals and won many friends with the entertaining, attacking football advocated by the manager, Peter Doherty, and skipper Danny Blanchflower.

The career of Blanchflower's younger brother Jackie, Northern Ireland's regular centre-half, was ended by the Munich air crash in February 1958 and Doherty, realising there was no ready-made replacement, switched Cunningham to centre-half, although he continued to play full-back at club level and occasionally in internationals.

Jock Stein, realising he needed to add experience to his Dunfermline Athletic side, paid Leicester 1,850 to bring Cunningham back to Scotland in late 1960. At the end of his first season at East End Park, he added a Scottish Cup-winner's medal to the Second Division Championship badge he won at Filbert Street, after Dunfermline's magnificent Scottish Cup win over Celtic in 1961. The Pars' reward was a run to the quarter-finals of the European Cup Winner's Cup the next season, the start of regular European campaigns for the club.

During the club's Fairs Cup campaign of the 1962-63 season, Stein decided his best chance of overturning a 0-1 first-leg deficit in their first round clash with Everton was to play with an out-and-out Italian-style sweeper in the return at East End Park. He felt Cunningham was the best player for the role. He played superbly and Dunfermline won 2-0 to go through.

Injuries were curtailing Cunningham's appearances and Stein encouraged him into coaching. By now the Dunfermline boss's star was on the rise and when he was tempted off to Hibs in the spring of 1964, the Pars' board turned to Cunningham. He not only kept them in the forefront of the Scottish game, but he also made the Pars a force in Europe.

Under Cunningham's management, Dunfermline finished third in the League behind Kilmarnock and Hearts in 1965, just one point off the top two, while he guided them to the Scottish Cup Final that same season, only to see them fall to Billy McNeill's late winner for the now Stein-managed Celtic.

Cunningham brought through some of Dunfermline's greatest-ever players, the likes of Willie Callaghan, the teenaged Alex Edwards, Alex Smith and perhaps got the best out of a maverick striker named Alex Ferguson. In 1966, he was offered the Scotland manager's job, but turned it down, otherwise he and not Berti Vogts would have been the first non-Scot to hold the job.

In 1968, he quit East End Park to manage Falkirk, before returning to his first Scottish club, St Mirren, in 1972. The return was not a success. He could not conjure up a return to the top flight for a St Mirren side then languishing in the Second Division. However, his parting gift to the club was to encourage the directors to hire Ferguson from East Stirlingshire, advice the directors followed and which paid off brilliantly for the club and the apprentice manager.

A fine player, with nearly 350 games at the top level, he earned the respect and trust of legends such as Doherty, Blanchflower and Billy Bingham with Northern Ireland, Matt Gillies at Leicester and Stein at Dunfermline. As a manager, he succeeded in following a legend, Stein, and maintaining the standards his predecessor had set, while his ability to spot a diamond in the rough set Ferguson on his path to footballing immortality.

Of Irish managers in Scotland, only Martin O'Neill has a better record, while Cunningham's example in the 1960s has set the bar high for Stephen Kenny, Dunfermline's current boss.

Out of football, Cunningham opened and ran a sports shop in Dunfermline, where he was to remain for the rest of his life.

He is survived by his wife, Maureen, and their son and daughter.