talkSPORT looks at key moments in football history, where events could so easily have taken a different course and asks, what if? This week we ponder what if Leeds United had not sold Eric Cantona to Man United…
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Cantona and Man United were a perfect fit. His arrival at Old Trafford coincided with them winning their first four Premier League titles, where they had previously gone 26 years without finishing top of the old First Division.
Not only did Cantona’s presence influence matters on the pitch, it had a great effect on the younger players emerging from the famed United youth system. They all wanted to impress the Frenchman and their skills and attributes were honed under the talismanic forward’s watchful eye on the training ground.
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“I remember Eric’s first day, and after the training session had finished he asked for a goalkeeper, two players from the junior team who were still there, and a few footballs,” Sir Alex Ferguson once explained.
When word got around that it was because the club’s new number seven wanted extra practice, the manager revealed that, little by little, more players began turning up and following his example. “That was all because of Cantona’s work ethic and influence,” Fergie added.
Just before he became a Man United player, Cantona had been a member – albeit briefly – of the well-oiled Leeds side that pipped the Red Devils to the 1991/92 title.
However, despite Cantona scoring a hat-trick in the 1992 Charity Shield against Liverpool at Wembley, then bagging the first ever Premier League hat-trick against Tottenham, Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson clashed with his skilful striker. It was a situation that would prove a godsend for the other United.
Ask any Man United fan who saw Cantona play and they will tell you he was a joy to watch. As a showman, he loved walking onto the Old Trafford pitch with his collar up as thousands screamed his name. He lapped it up.
That wasn’t the Wilkinson way. “He wanted his players to be disciplined and adhere to a certain team pattern. Eric just didn’t fit it,” former Leeds chairman Bill Fotherby told manutd.com.
So, as the 1992/93 season moved into the autumn, United were struggling for results and needed a forward after summer signing Dion Dublin had broken his leg.
In a conversation with Man United chairman Martin Edwards, Ferguson lamented the fact that he had missed out on signing Cantona earlier in the year. Then the phone rang. It was Edwards’ Leeds counterpart, Fotherby, enquiring whether the Red Devils’ full-back Denis Irwin was for sale.
He wasn’t, but Edwards asked if Leeds would consider selling their star striker: Lee Chapman. In the backgorund, Ferguson frantically motioned for Edwards to ask about the availability of a different player. In the end, he scribbled the name ‘Cantona’ on a piece of paper and shoved it under Edwards’ nose.
Within an hour the deal was on, a £1.2m fee was agreed and Leeds had effectively handed their rivals a player who would transform the landscape of English football in Man United’s favour.
The Elland Road faithful had loved him. There’s no doubt it was a source of frustration he was sold to them for such a small amount. The fact that, as reigning English champions, their fortunes plummeted just as Cantona’s and Man United’s soared, made it hard to swallow.
The Frenchman made his Red Devils debut in December 1992 and started a further 21 games, scoring nine goals in what was the beginning of a golden period for the club. In addition, ‘Ooh ahh, Cantona’ quickly caught on at Old Trafford and a hero was born.
“I played with him for two full seasons and we won a title both times, the first of them almost single-handedly down to him,” Gary Neville, who broke into the senior side during the Cantona era, said.
Fergie, one of his biggest fans, seems to agree. “It was his mere presence and his ability to make and score goals,” he said.
Cantona’s decision to retire in May 1997 at the age of 30 stunned everyone and it also left a massive hole up front, as Arsenal won the double while they finished trophyless.
But what if Leeds didn’t sell him to Man United?
Remember, he didn’t fit in at Leeds, so it seems highly doubtful that, had Cantona stayed at Elland Road, he would have inspired them to a period of domination.
He had proven difficult to handle for a number of managers, and even a recommendation to Wilkinson from Cantona’s former national team manager, Michel Platini, came with a warning about his reputation.
Ferguson, though, was well aware of this and still decided the gamble was worth it. The esteem in which he held Cantona in is not an exaggeration, and as important as the Frenchman was to Man United’s success, it’s doubtful he would have flourished as well without Ferguson’s guiding hand.
If Leeds hadn’t sent him to Old Trafford, it is not outlandish to think the Frenchman would have spent the next few years bouncing around clubs and falling out with everyone who crossed his path, as he previously had done.
Fergie described him as the ‘perfect player, in the perfect club at the perfect time’, while Bill Fotherby believes the Old Trafford supremo wasn’t as strict as Wilkinson was, which allowed Cantona more freedom as a result.
Would another manager have indulged Cantona as much?
It’s doubtful he would have joined someone like Arsenal – league winners in 1991 – considering it was an era when the equally strict Gunners boss George Graham was buying functional players like John Jensen and replacing skilful Anders Limpar with Eddie McGoldrick.
Graeme Souness at Anfield, meanwhile, was offered Cantona in 1991 but opted against signing a ‘problem player’, saving his cash instead for subsequent flops including Paul Stewart (1992) and Nigel Clough (1993).
The main beneficiaries had Cantona not been sold to Man United would have been Aston Villa.
When Cantona joined United for £1.2m on 26 November 1992, the Red Devils were eighth, seven points off the pace, having lost four games. After his arrival the team won 18, drew six and lost just two, en route to the title.
Without Cantona, it’s quite likely Villa – who pushed the Red Devils hard in 1992/93 – would have finished top of the pile.
In fact, Cantona won the championship every year bar one between his arrival in England in 1992 and his retirement in 1997.
The only season he failed to picked up a title winner’s medal was in 1994/95, when United missed out by failing to beat West Ham in their final game – Cantona was absent having been suspended from the end of January and, in all probability, would have been the difference between winning and losing.
As always, this is just subjective because nobody can really know what may or may not have happened (we have to point this out because people take it seriously) but it’s a pretty interesting thought or a frightening one if you’re a Red.
“Sometimes people just move to a certain club at a certain time and become something they would never have been anywhere else,” Fotherby said.
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