How Eric Cantona changed Manchester United

Eric Cantona: 20 years on from the phone call that changed football

Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were a mess before the arrival of a mercurial Frenchman from Leeds 20 years ago.

(Getty)

When the Premier League was introduced in 1992, Sir Alex Ferguson described it as “a piece of nonsense” that sold supporters “right down the river”. Twelve Premier League titles later, Ferguson has found greatness and a knighthood amid that nonsense. He may not have won a single title, however, without a serendipitous phone call 20 years ago this week . It led to the signing of Eric Cantona, who would catalyse Manchester United to an extent that still boggles the mind.

With Cantona at the club, United won four titles in five years and would surely have won a fifth had he not tried to kick xenophobia out of football at Selhurst Park in 1995. The titles gave Ferguson a job for life and the chance to build further great teams. If he had lost his job, who knows what would have happened. Liverpool are proof that big clubs have no right to win the Premier League. It is not entirely inconceivable that, without Cantona, United would this season be chasing their first league title in 46 years.

It is often forgotten that, when Cantona arrived United were a mess. They had gifted the title to Leeds the previous season and the whole club was afflicted with PTSD. The team had basically forgotten how to score goals. United were eighth in the table and out of two cup competitions. They had won only two of the previous 13 games, scoring nine goals in that time. The big summer signing, Dion Dublin, had broken his leg, while attempts to sign Alan Shearer and David Hirst had failed. Mick Harford and Lee Chapman were also considered.

Instead of signing a proven English striker who worked the penalty area, Ferguson thought outside the box. It was the ultimate demonstration of the willingness to take risks and trust his instinct that is one of the key elements of Ferguson’s genius. He had been given a glowing reference for Cantona from the then France manager, Gérard Houllier, who was keen for Cantona to play first-team football after he fell out with Howard Wilkinson at Leeds. Fate put two and two together. On Wednesday 25 November, so the story goes, Ferguson met his chairman, Martin Edwards, to discuss transfer targets. Just after Ferguson lamented the fact United did not go for Cantona before he joined Leeds, Edwards’s phone rang. It was Bill Fotherby, the Leeds managing director, to inquire about the possibility of signing Denis Irwin. “The timing was weird, absolutely uncanny,” Ferguson said in the book Just Champion.

Edwards dismissed the approach for Irwin but asked if Leeds might consider selling Chapman. As he did so, Ferguson started whispering and making frantic hand signals. When that didn’t work, he scribbled the name of Cantona on a piece of paper. Edwards inquired, Fotherby said that Cantona was unsettled and that he would get back to him within 24 hours. In fact he got back to him within one hour to confirm the deal was on. Leeds asked for £1.6m; Edwards worked Fotherby down to somewhere between £1m and £1.2m, depending on which account you believe. When Ferguson’s assistant, Brian Kidd, was told about the fee, he wondered whether Cantona had “lost a leg or something”.

Some even felt it might be Ferguson’s last mistake as United manager. The former England captain Emlyn Hughes, writing in the Daily Mirror, was particularly critical. He said Cantona was a “flashy foreigner” and a “panic buy” who could “either win Alex Ferguson something this season, or cost him his job”. The former Leeds captain Johnny Giles said he was “very sceptical” that the move would work out and that Ferguson should have signed Hirst or Dean Saunders.

At the time, the only people crying were Leeds fans, who had lost their cult hero. Despite his relatively peripheral role, Cantona was immensely popular in Leeds; the Chalutz bakery even sold Cantona bagels for 20p. As the dust settled on the transfer, however, Ferguson wondered whether he had spent his money wisely. “After attending the press conference, I started to get the jitters about the whole business,” he said. “Not quite panic, but uncertainty as to whether we had done the right thing.I began worrying about all the controversial stuff being traded around about Eric’s past. The situation upset me, but not for more than a few hours … from that point the slate had to be wiped clean.”

“If ever there was one player, anywhere in the world, that was made for Manchester United, it was Cantona,” Ferguson said. “He swaggered in, stuck his chest out, raised his head and surveyed everything as though he were asking: ‘I’m Cantona. How big are you? Are you big enough for me?'”

Cantona’s desire for extra training each day opened the eyes of team-mates used to clocking on and clocking off at the usual time. The manager, too. “He opened my eyes to the indispensability of practice,” Ferguson said.

Cantona was a player of such style that it is almost insulting to try to quantify his impact. The numbers are pretty persuasive nonetheless. In 1992 United played 37 league games before Cantona, collecting 54 points and scoring a miserable 38 goals. In the next 37 league games they took 88 points and scored 77 goals. Faites des maths.

If Cantona was the last piece of Ferguson’s first great Manchester United jigsaw, he was also the first piece of his second one. His swagger, imagination and professionalism influenced a generation of young players including Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Gary Neville; when those players won their first trophies in 1995-96, it was primarily thanks to Cantona.

Cantona developed a relationship with United supporters of such an enduring and spiritual nature as to bear legitimate comparison with any in the game’s history. “I cannot explain it,” said Cantona in Manchester United: The Biography. “And I don’t want to explain it. It’s like love. You know when you are in love, you don’t need to explain how you feel or why you feel like that. I think if you want to explain what was going on between me and the United fans, it would take six months. Sometimes it’s better not to explain.” It is also hard not to seek explanations for such a significant relationship. “People loved him because he did, and said, things that they would love to have got away with,” Neville said. Not everyone had been enamoured with the idea of signing a Leeds player, however. “Ooh aah Cantona’?” sniffed one United fan during a voxpop. “They won’t sing it here.” Twenty years on, they are still singing it. They will probably never stop.

Read the entire article Eric Cantona: 20 years on from the phone call that changed football on the Guardian website.

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