Such was the enormity of the transfer it’s now seen by many as football’s very own JFK moment: “Where were you when you heard that Eric Cantona had signed for Manchester United?” But the Frenchman’s arrival at Old Trafford wasn’t just one-in-the-eye for fierce rivals Leeds; it could be argued that it transformed the fortunes of the club forever.
Back in the autumn of 1992 things were far from rosy in the Manchester United garden. The previous season they had all but gifted the league title to Leeds United after their challenge came off the rails at Easter, and the new campaign wasn’t looking like it was going to plan either.
Rather than building on their best chance of winning the league in 25 years and learning from the experience, Alex Ferguson’s side appeared to be traumatised. They lost the opening game of the 1992/93 season and wouldn’t register their first win until the end of August as another title challenge looked highly unlikely.
Sitting eighth in the table that November and out of two cup competitions already, after a penalty shoot-out defeat to Torpedo Moscow in the UEFA Cup, United had won only two of their last 13 games, scoring just nine goals with new signing Dion Dublin out with a broken leg sustained back in August.
United needed a goal scorer and fast if they were to have any hope of resurrecting a season which looked to be dying a death at an alarming rate. Attempts to sign David Hirst and Alan Shearer proved fruitless, while Mick Harford and Lee Chapman were briefly mentioned though nobody could have guessed what would happen next.
As Ferguson and his then Chairman Martin Edwards were meeting to discuss potential strikers to bring to the club the phone rang, it was the Leeds Managing Director Bill Fotherby, who was enquiring about the possibility of signing United left-back Denis Irwin. Edwards was quick to rebuff the approach but countered with an enquiry about striker Lee Chapman.
During the phone conversation Ferguson, who was listening intently, tried to relay a message with frantic hand signals. When that didn’t work, he apparently scribbled the name of Cantona on a piece of paper. Edwards passed-on the request to his counterpart and Fotherby said he would get back to him within 24 hours; just 60 minutes later he had called back to say the deal could go ahead.
Eric Cantona was a key member of the Leeds side which had pipped United to the title the previous season but was now struggling to hold down a regular place as he competed with the likes of Rod Wallace, Gary McAllister and Lee Chapman while his maverick ways didn’t always go down too well with manager Howard Wilkinson.
So, to everyone's astonishment, he found himself crossing the Pennines in a deal worth just £1.2 million and United finally had the catalyst that they needed. A man who not only scored goals but made them too, while also elevating the performances of those around him.
Cantona’s arrival had an almost immediate impact on the team and brought with it a winning mentality as a group of players who were low in confidence began to believe in themselves in a way they wouldn’t have previously and United finally won the league championship for the first time since 1967, lifting the inaugural Premier League title in 1993.
Manchester United won four titles in five years with Cantona in their ranks and would surely have won another but for a lengthy ban following an attack on a supporter at Selhurst Park in 1995. His dedication and professionalism also made a huge impression on the likes of Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Gary Neville who were coming through the ranks when he first arrived.
He retired from football in 1997 with four Premier League titles, two FA Cups and 80 goals to his name in less than five years at the club. “If ever there was one player, anywhere in the world that was made for Manchester United, it was Cantona,” Alex Ferguson later said about surely his greatest signing, which took place on November 26 1992.