25 years ago this weekend Eric Cantona signed for Manchester United. For United fans of a certain generation, he is the greatest player to wear that shirt. He wasn’t. George Best was. I shall let that pass, however.
The first time I saw Cantona play it was an indoor match in Sheffield. The Owls, Sheffield Wednesday, were poised to sign the Frenchman. The pitch was in too bad a condition to play on and so the ‘trial’ game for Cantona was played indoors. Trevor Francis, manager of Sheffield Wednesday, liked what he saw but told Canton’s agent, Dennis Roach, he wanted to see if his client could do it on grass. Francis later said he had agreed to take Cantona as a favour to Roach and the great French footballer, Michel Platini – who Francis knew from their respective playing days in Italy. Francis said he was helping friends by putting Cantona in the English “shop window.” He certainly did that.
In stepped ex Sheffield Wednesday boss Howard Wilkinson. He signed Cantona for Leeds United and it was when they won the top flight title in 1992 that I first met Cantona. We were in the home of team mate Lee Chapman as Yorkshire Television filmed a live link with a group of sofa bound Leeds United players who had just won the title – but looked like they had each lost a thousand pounds down the back of that sofa. Cantona had little to say on TV. Later, at the Flying Pizza restaurant in Roundhay, the atmosphere was very different.
Most of the customers in a restaurant that had long been popular with Leeds players stood to applaud their arrival. A little chilling for me now to recall that they included the now disgraced Jimmy Savile.
Stories and myths abound as to why Cantona came to move from Leeds United to Manchester United.
Some are fiction. Some are partly based in fact. Best you don’t get me started on stories of sex, lies and videotape!
One drunken night in a Leeds hotel, Howard Wilkinson told me that Sir Alex Ferguson had called him because United had a striker injury crisis and Fergie was calling for the temporary or permanent services of Lee Chapman. The Leeds boss told me that he had said to Fergie that he could not have Chapman, but could buy Cantona if he wanted. Howard said there was a short silence at the end of the telephone before Ferguson agreed to sign a player who was unhappy at Elland Road because the ball too often flew over his head en route from the Leeds goalkeeper to the strikers. Cantona did not like the Howard Wilkinson way.
The story from Old Trafford is that Wilkinson called Ferguson seeking to sign defender Dennis Irwin. They confirm that United were desperate to sign a striker but claim Cantona was always who Ferguson had in mind. From that conversation, say United sources, came the deal for Cantona to move from Leeds to Manchester.
Regardless of how the move came about, one thing is for sure. It was the bargain buy of the Premier League. £1.2 million pounds saw the Frenchman move to Old Trafford. The fledgling Premier League had the star it needed.
An entertainer on the pitch, United fans took Cantona to their hearts. He scored some truly great goals and came up with some memorable celebrations.
Controversy was never far away and he did give one memorable press conference following his ‘kung’fu’ kick aimed at an abusive Crystal Palace supporter. That freezing night in January 1995 I was stuck on a snowbound M62 trying to drive from Manchester to Bradford. The journey home took a whopping 10 hours. I listened to the Palace v United game on the car radio and was as astonished by what I was hearing as I was by the severity of the blizzard in front of my eyes.
In 1996 I was producing the official FA video for the Cup Final between Manchester United and Liverpool. In the tunnel beforehand he replied to a question from my colleague John Helm with the comment “It is football. It’s not a war.” That is the title I gave to the VHS. It was a dull game. The brightest sight on the day were the suits worn by the Liverpool players. The match was livened up by the only goal of the game, scored by Eric Cantona. I am directly behind the goal as he struck the volley (I am not one of those dancing in celebration!)
If honest, most supporters wish Cantona had signed for their club.
Liverpool manager Graeme Souness said he didn’t want Cantona as his presence would upset the Anfield dressing room. Funny that. Souness seemed to do that just fine all by himself.
Some Leeds fans believe Wilkinson should have changed the tactics and built a side around him. Imagine how fellow Sheffield Wednesday fans feel about having failed to sign him despite having first dibs. How very different our first season back in the top flight might have been had Trevor Francis secured his signing.
But the English game as a whole benefited from Cantona being a star at Manchester United. My generation grew up on home grown entertaining players. We were blessed. George Best, the original ‘King’ of Old Trafford, Denis Law, Jimmy Greaves, Rodney Marsh, Stan Bowles, Frank Worthington. There were plenty of flamboyant footballers in English football between the mid sixties and seventies.