When revisiting Eric Cantona’s move across the Pennines in November 1992 from Leeds United to their long-standing arch-rivals Manchester United, what stands out is the amount of revision that has taken place since.
What is particularly of interest is how quickly this rewriting of history happened.
Usually it takes at least a decade for reality to set in stone and for hindsight to be altered. However, in this instance, just a couple of seasons was all it took because so magisterial were the Frenchman’s performances at Old Trafford – en route to becoming known as ‘the King’ – rumours began to circulate as to the ‘real’ reason why the Yorkshire giants let such a brilliant talent got for a surprisingly slender fee.
We won’t give those rumours the time of day here – they’re lurid, unsubstantiated and almost definitely untrue – but they are alluded to because they’re illustrative of the delayed shock at the move.
Surely this couldn’t have been purely a footballing decision undertaken by Leeds? Just look at what he’s doing at the Theatre of Dreams, orchestrating title after title for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. There simply must be another reason.
To place Cantona’s reputation at the time into context, however, makes the switch altogether more palatable.
Yes, he was adored by the Elland Road faithful for his swaggering displays and enigmatic aura. And yes, there was his Charity Shield hat-trick against Liverpool earlier that summer. Yet, as per FourFourTwo, a local Yorkshire newspaper described his three-month contribution to Leeds’ title triumph as that of a ‘handy impactful substitute’. In short, the all-round legend he would become was not yet manifest when Leeds agreed to sell him.
Furthermore, he was still a player weighed down by baggage of the recent past. At Nimes, just a year earlier, he had thrown a ball at a referee and when a three-man committee hearing banned him for three games he approached each one and called them an ‘idiot’, thus extending his ban to two months.
So established was his problematic reputation that Liverpool boss Graeme Souness turned down the chance to buy him for peanuts.
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In a similar vein to the shock factor the story surrounding his actual transfer comes down to the interpretation of the story-teller. What we know for sure is that Leeds’ chairman Bill Fotherby rang up his Manchester counterpart Martin Edwards one afternoon to enquire about the possible availability of Denis Irwin, a request that was immediately rebuffed. As relayed by the Guardian at this juncture Fergie places himself in Edwards’ office and after hearing Lee Chapman’s name being mentioned (United were interested in Alan Shearer and Sheffield Wednesday’s David Hirst that summer following an injury to Dion Dublin) he hastily scribbled down Cantona’s name on a scrap of paper and shoved it under his chairman’s nose.
Edwards’ recollection though takes Ferguson and indeed Chapman out of the equation. Aware of a clash of personalities between Cantona and Leeds’ manager Howard Wilkinson he brought up the striker’s name off the cuff; thoroughly expecting to hear a scoff down the line, delighted instead to encounter a pause for reflection.
A fee somewhere between £1m and £1.2m was agreed and the Elland Road faithful have hated every one of the conflicting anecdotes regarding this controversial move ever since.