Cantona: The man who changed Utd's history

By Stuart Mathieson

On the 25-year anniversary of the Frenchman's debut for Manchester United, Goal looks back at the iconic attacker's time at the club.

There was no hesitation from former Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards when the question was asked about the impact Eric Cantona had on Old Trafford. "He changed the history of the club," he told Goal.

All that has gone on since the mercurial Frenchman swaggered into United in November 1992 can be traced back to one of the most audacious pieces of transfer business in the club's history.

A record-breaking 13 Premier League titles, three domestic doubles, a treble, two Champions League trophies and an Aladdin’s cave of silverware stemmed from the bargain steal of Cantona from the Red Devils' cross-Pennine bitter rivals Leeds.

Just over six months prior to Edwards and manager Alex Ferguson shocking the football world, Cantona and Leeds had plunged United into deep misery. Howard Wilkinson's men had snatched the league title from a weary Man Utd in spring when a fixture backlog drained Fergie’s team at the death.

Cantona & Co. celebrated at Elland Road while Edwards lost hope about ever ending the long barren spell without the league title, which stretched back 26 years to Sir Matt Busby's era and the Holy Trinity of Best, Law and Charlton. It had become a heavy millstone around Busby's successors' necks. Fergie had become as weighed down as his predecessors.

"We were so close in 1992 to ending that long wait and when it didn't happen, the club was at a low ebb," Edwards said. "Are we ever going to win it again? That was the question that gnawed away. I despaired."

The hangover from losing out on the last pre-Premier League crown dragged into the 1992-93 season and the new era of the sexy and glitzy revamped league structure. Fergie's side were struggling to score goals. United were a good side but that missing piece in the jigsaw couldn't be located. A chance phone call put through to Edwards 25 years ago changed it all.

It has gone down in Old Trafford folklore that Leeds' former chairman Bill Fotherby telephoned his United counterpart Edwards enquiring about buying Denis Irwin. That was a no-go for the opening gambit from Yorkshire.

Legend has it that Ferguson was across the table in Edwards' office and slid his chairman a note asking about buying Cantona.

Edwards tells the tale slightly differently. Fotherby did ring about Irwin. Fergie wasn't in the room but Edwards took it upon himself to cheekily throw in Cantona's name.

"I was good friends with former Tottenham chairman Irving Scholar and he lived in Monte Carlo," Edwards added. "He watched a lot of French football and was always raving about Cantona. Obviously, I had seen Eric in England as well but Irving's words came back to me. I had heard that things were not all that well between Cantona and Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson, so I decided to chance my arm and mentioned him to Fotherby.

"Bill said he'd get slaughtered if he sold Cantona, especially to Manchester United, but he'd see about it. He went off the phone and I rang Alex. 'If I can get Cantona from Leeds would you want him?' I asked. 'Too right I would' was his reply. There was no way he wanted to sell Irwin but Cantona was a definite yes.

"When I spoke again to Bill, he agreed to the sale but said it would cost us £1.6 million. We were only prepared to pay £1m. Eventually, the price came down to £1m but Bill asked if he could say it was £1.6m to appease the fans. I told him he could say what he liked. We got a great deal!

"I'm not sure what would have happened without him but I just know it all started to go right from the moment we signed him."

Alex Ferguson had kept the name of Cantona in his memory bank after the Frenchman had tormented his highly lauded centre-back partnership of Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce. United’s defensive pair had effused about the Gallic striker in the team bath after one match. Their praise stuck with Ferguson.

"The manager used to ask Steve and I a lot about opposition forwards," Pallister explained to Goal. "I remember at the time we were looking for a striker to give us that extra cutting edge and he'd previously asked us about Alan Shearer at Southampton and Sheffield Wednesday's David Hirst.

"I then got a call from a journalist to say, 'Guess who you have just signed?' I went through a long list of goalscorers but never mentioned Cantona because I just never expected Leeds would sell him. There was such a rivalry between the two clubs I never for one minute thought they’d let a player of that class move to us."

It was a coup for United and Cantona made his debut in the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon on December 1, 1992 in a friendly for Benfica and Portugal legend Eusebio.

"We had a very strong team spirit and some great personalities and characters," added Pallister. "But Eric just walked in with that straight-back stance as if to say, 'I was born for this place.' Being a character is one thing but to carry it off you have to have the ability to go with it. Eric did.

"We were a professional squad but Eric brought a new professionalism to the club. It was unique. He started training before us and stayed out longer than anyone else. It was a real eye-opener. It had a big effect on us and I also know how much it impacted on the Class of '92. The likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville learnt so much from Eric and his professionalism."

The steady influx of foreign players into the English game had also started to bring a new outlook about approach and preparation off the field. British players' penchant for a pint or two was legendary. The new imports were not into the drinking culture. Well, not all of them.

"Cantona teetotal? Are you kidding me? No way!," Pallister stressed, laughing at the thought. "Eric was first to ask when we were all going out. Generally speaking, we used to train on a Tuesday and then have Wednesday off. The squad would go to the pub and have lunch and a few drinks and we'd chew the fat. Eric loved it. He loved the camaraderie and fun and was always asking when we were going out next."

United could afford to enjoy their downtime because Cantona had transformed the team. They became unstoppable. Tough stalemate matches turned into 1-0 wins as Cantona's off-the-cuff play gave United a new dimension. The Red Devils stormed through from the pre-Cantona winter crisis to win the first Premier League title in 1993. The club’s first domestic double followed in 1994. Cantona was sprinkling magic over Old Trafford.

But Cantona had history of controversy. United had been on a bit of a knife edge wondering when it might surface. On January 25, 1995, it blew up in United's face with his infamous kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan at Selhurst Park.

"That was a bad night," is an understatement from Edwards. "It was a horrible moment. To explode like that. I thought it was the end of Cantona."

United’s top brass and Ferguson called a meeting the next day at an Alderley Edge hotel in Cheshire. They agreed to head off punishment by the FA and ban him until the end of the season. If the club acted strongly, United believed the FA would be happy enough with that. It had even been intimated that a hefty club suspension would suffice.

But the FA weren’t appeased and handed Cantona an eight-month ban.

The famous "Seagulls following the trawler" press conference followed. Cantona then stormed off to France vowing not to return.

Fergie was dispatched to Paris to talk him around. The successful meeting saw Cantona come back to Manchester, serve his punishment and then take the 1995-96 season by the scruff of the neck.

The "You won't win anything with kids" jibe from Alan Hansen on Match of the Day eventually led to another domestic double as the Frenchman inspired the Red Devils to the FA Cup and league title. He won the prestigious FWA Footballer of the Year award in 1996 for his impact on the campaign. The 'Enfant Terrible' had answered his critics in spectacular fashion.

Cantona had kept himself to himself throughout the campaign and hadn't spoken to the press. No matter what journalists did, the Frenchman wasn't indulging anyone with quotes.

But after United had sunk previous season's rivals Newcastle 4-0 in the 1996-97 Charity Shield, Cantona agreed to an interview on the Wembley pitch.

Having helped engineer three Premier League titles, I asked Cantona should the club now concentrate on winning the Champions League.

"Why should we just go for the Champions League?" he replied almost indignantly. Cantona argued that the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich were not just content with the European crown, that they won their own league titles at the same time as well. "We can win everything," he insisted.

Three years later, they did exactly that. Sadly, by that time, Cantona had embarked on his acting career after his shock retirement in 1997 just a few weeks shy of his 31st birthday.

"It was a massive shock when he arranged a meeting with me in the days after winning the 1997 title," Edwards recalled. "I wasn't prepared for it.

"People said they could tell something was wrong; that Eric was very reserved during the celebrations when we were presented with the trophy at Old Trafford. They said he looked disinterested in it all. But I didn't guess and didn't notice that. It was a massive surprise.

"There was no changing his mind either. He had come with a prepared statement for me to issue once he had left the country. He was going on holiday and I wasn't to say another word publicly until he had left England. That was it. He'd gone. I rang to tell Alex and you can imagine how numb he was. He had no clue either."

The Cantona era was all over.

"Four out of the five seasons he played for us we won the Premier League title and two domestic doubles," said Edwards.

"I am absolutely convinced had it not been for the kung-fu incident it would have been five titles and three doubles. We'd have won the league in 1995 and the FA Cup final against Everton had Cantona been playing and not been banned. He was so vital for us. He started the sequence of success that carried on for years.

"Of course, Eric had his temperamental side but the good far outweighed the bad. I used to look forward to going to matches because of him. He was so exciting. He was magical. He changed everything.