If ever the term “flawed genius” was used to describe a brilliant football player, then I think that it is true to say, that when it was used to describe Eric Cantona, the term could not have been more apt. Much has been written, and much has been said about the five and a half years period which the temperamental Frenchman spent at Old Trafford. Even today, almost 14 years after he surprisingly decided to retire from football at the early age of just 30 years, his name still resonates around the Old Trafford stadium every match day, and he is held in such high reverence by the Old Trafford hordes. Few players, if any, ever see this kind adulation long after their playing careers have ceased.
Two years ago, a national newspaper ran a reader’s poll to find out who would be voted Manchester United’s greatest ever player, and to this writer at least, when Cantona was nominated number one, it came as a huge surprise. This was because you have to take into consideration the vast numbers of truly great players who have been privileged to wear the Manchester United shirt throughout the club’s 133 years of history. Was Cantona a better player than any of them, and was his contribution to the club’s successes greater than any of theirs? Just look at some of the names from that immediately come to mind; Stafford, Duckworth, Roberts, Bell, Turnbull, Wall, Meredith, Barson, Spence, Carey, Rowley, Pearson, Byrne, Foulkes, Gregg, Colman, Jones, Blanchflower, Berry, Edwards, Taylor, Viollet, Charlton, Law, Best, Foulkes, Crerand, Stiles, Buchan, Coppell, Macari, Robson, Whiteside, Beckham, Scholes, Gary Neville, Solksjaer, Ronaldo. It is quite a daunting list of ability, class, greatness, and no doubt there are more than a few names that I have missed out.
Sadly, in this day and age, anything pre-1992 tends to get overlooked and consigned to yesterday’s dim and distant past. So why would Cantona receive the accolades that he does, even today? One thing that you have to take into consideration is that between 1968 and 1991, Manchester United was starved of any real tangible success. Yes, there were FA Cup wins, four of them, but the prize which eluded them most was the Division One Championship trophy. They came close on a few occasions during that period, but never seemed to have the quality which would push them over the finishing line and make them champions.
In 1990, United won the FA Cup by beating Crystal Palace after a replay, at Wembley Stadium. Alex Ferguson had been manager for just under four years but his tenure had been a little turbulent to say the least. The job of completely rebuilding the playing side of the club was the mammoth task which he had faced when he was appointed manager in 1986, and the fans were of the opinion that four years was more than enough time to accomplish this., They had begun to show a restlessness and frustration with what they perceived to be a lack of significant progress. Certain sections of the Old Trafford crowd had actually begun calling for him to be fired in that 1989/90 season. However, the Manchester United Board gave him the thing that he needed most – time, and winning that FA Cup was the event which proved the igniter for the years of success that were to follow.
Ferguson built his team upon a mixture of experience and young players, and he was very astute in his dealings in the transfer market. In 1991 the European Cup Winners Cup was won in Rotterdam after an epic Final battle against the Catalan giants Barcelona who had been hot favourites to win the trophy. The following season United triumphed in the League Cup Final against Nottingham Forest. However, after seemingly having the First Division title sown up, they faltered in the run-in and allowed Leeds United to pip them over the last few games. It was a bitter pill to swallow having been seemingly so near, yet so far.
The first team squad was a very good one; Schmeichel, Irwin, Donaghy, Bruce, Phelan, Robson, Pallister, Ince, Webb, Giggs, Kanchelskis, Hughes, McClair, Sharpe, Blackmore, Ferguson. During the close season, Ferguson had strengthened the striking department of that squad even more by acquiring Dion Dublin from Cambridge United. But this had happened only after he missed out on signing Southampton’s young rising striking star, Alan Shearer. It was a transfer saga which left a bitter taste in Ferguson’s mouth, On the opening day of the inaugural season of the Premier League on August 15th 1992, United faced Sheffield United at Bramhall Lane, and lost 2-1. They also lost their next fixture at home to Everton the following Wednesday evening by 3-0. The third game at home to Ipswich Town, was drawn 1-1, and there then followed five consecutive league victories against Southampton, Nottingham Forest, Crystal Palace, Leeds united, and Everton.
Sadly, in the game against Crystal Palace at Old Trafford, Dublin broke a leg and it would be a further six months before he played competitive football again. The striking department of the team was left wanting again and this could be seen from the results that followed their last win against Everton. In the EUEFA Cup they drew both games against a mediocre Torpedo Moscow by the same score 0-0, but went out of the competition by losing on penalty kicks. In the League Cup they were drawn against Brighton and drew 1-1 at the Goldstone Ground, but won 1-0 at Old Trafford. There was also five consecutive league draws against ‘spurs (1-1), QPR (0-0), Middlesborough (1-1), Liverpool (2-2), Blackburn Rovers (0-0). Following this there was a 1-0 loss to Aston Villa in the League Cup, followed by two more consecutive defeats in the league; 1-0 to Wimbledon and another 1-0 loss to Aston Villa. By this time it was mid-November and after the Villa game United were down in tenth position in the league and some eight points behind the leaders Arsenal.
The problem was that United were just not scoring enough goals, and the reality was, that in the second half of the previous season the same problem had cost them the First Division title. The last two games in November 1992 were home against Oldham Athletic and away to Arsenal. Both were won by 3-0, and 1-0 respectively. The win against Arsenal was significant because they had been the league leaders and it propelled United into fifth place, however they were now nine points behind the leaders who were the unfashionable East Anglian club, Norwich City. At that particular point in the season, United had played 17 games but had scored only 18 goals and had conceded 12. League titles were not going to be won with a goal ratio as they had. Ferguson was pondering his next move.
In The first week of December 1992, Ferguson was in Chairman Martin Edwards’ office discussing the need for the club to buy a new striker. They discussed various players the manager thought that United should target. One name that did crop up was that of Frenchman, Eric Cantona who was at that time playing with Leeds United. Gerard Houllier was a very good friend of Ferguson’s. When he was manager of Paris St Germain, he mentioned Cantona in conversation, and had sung his praises to Ferguson. In early September, United had beaten Leeds at Old Trafford by 2-0, but both United’s central defenders, Bruce, and Pallister, had entered the home dressing room after the game finished, and had raved about the qualities of the Frenchman, Cantona. He’d apparently pulled them all over the place and in Bruce’s own words; “we couldn’t get close to him.”
As Edwards and Ferguson continued to talk over future striking prospects that afternoon, the telephone in the office rang. Uncannily, it was Bill Fotherby, the Leeds United Chairman, who was enquiring as to whether United would be willing to sell full back Dennis Irwin to them. Irwin had initially started out as a pro at Leeds before being moved on to Oldham Athletic. After playing against United in the FA Cup semi-final in 1990 Ferguson signed him and the young Irishman blossomed. Of course Fotherby’s enquiry was rebuffed, but in the course of the conversation, Edwards probed him about some of the Leeds players that they would be willing to allow to leave. One name that came up was that of striker Lee Chapman (who is the only player to score against Manchester United for six different clubs) but Fotherby wasn’t interested. Ferguson took a piece of paper off Edwards’ desk and scribbled something upon it before passing it over to his chairman. When Edwards looked at it the name Eric Cantona was written upon it. Looking at Ferguson, he saw the manager mouth the words “ask him about him”.Edwards enquired about the Frenchman mentioning that he had heard that he may be unsettled at Leeds. There had been stories in the national press and rumours among the various fan groups about Cantona’s behaviour at Leeds and what a disruptive influence he had become. Cantona’s career was a litany of indiscretions and flashpoints with authority. From the outside, it seemed as though Cantona was a loose canon, and was not a player any manager worth his salt would entertain. The Frenchman was undoubtedly naturally gifted, but the baggage that came with him, for most managers, was not worth the trouble and could mean disrupting any harmony that a club experienced.
In his early career, Cantona’s indiscretions were well chronicled in the television media and national press. During their conversation, Edwards pushed Fotherby telling him that if Leeds were interested in parting with the Cantona, then it would have to be a deal that was done very, very, quickly. Edwards and Ferguson were flabbergasted when minutes later, Fotherby called back to say that Leeds were willing to do business. Shortly afterwards Ferguson was on his way home when his car phone rang. It was Martin Edwards and he told him “we’ve got him!” Edwards then teased him about the price United would have to pay. Ferguson tells the story in his own words;
“Trying to be realistic, I suggested 1.6 million. ‘Wrong.’ So then I rattled off three or four more attempts. They were all so far off the mark, it was like one of those TV quizzes. Higher, lower, not even close. Eventually the chairman declared the true figure: 1 million. I just could not believe it. ‘That’s an absolute steal’ I blurted out.”
The media and press, and many of the fans, thought the signing was madness. This was a player who served so much time in suspensions, was cocky, even arrogant. He was always at odds with his club, management, team mates, even at national level. He had a reputation of not staying at any one club for very long. On public television, he had even referred to the French national coach, Henri Michel, as a ‘sac a merdi’- in translation, ‘a shitbag.’ Even in England his career was chequered. He had initially arrived in England thinking that he was going to sign for Sheffield Wednesday. Trevor Francis was the then, Wednesday manager. In Cantona’s own words;
“I was there for one week, and I thought that I was there to sign. My lawyer was there and he spoke to try and find a way with the contract. I trained and played in a friendly game – we won 4-3 and I scored three goals. After one week, Francis asked me to spend one more week on trial. There were not a lot of foreigners in England then, maybe some from the north of Europe, but not many from the South. Maybe they were suspicious, but I was a French international. And Sheffield Wednesday wanted more time to decide about me! That was not a very good way to go about things.”