How Cantona Made Manchester United The Dominant Force Of The Premier League

The Frenchman arrived at Old Trafford 29 years ago and changed the English football landscape
08:00, 26 Nov 2021

It started with Leeds United making an enquiry about signing Denis Irwin and finished with Manchester United completing the most monumental transfer of the Premier League era.

On Thursday, November 26th 1992, Eric Cantona became a Manchester United player and the landscape of English football history was changed forever.

Bill Fotherby set the wheels in motion, the Leeds chairman actioning manager Howard Wilkinson’s request to ask if Man Utd would consider selling full-back Irwin to the reigning champions.

When United chairman Martin Edwards fielded the call, Alex Ferguson happened to be sat alongside him. After a flat refusal to negotiate over Irwin, Fergie’s whispers and gesticulations pushed the conversation towards the subject of Cantona.

Ferguson and Edwards thought they had no chance. Even Fotherby thought they had no chance. Cantona had been the ‘je ne sais quoi’ in Leeds’ side towards the end of the previous season as they clinched the final First Division Championship of the unified league era, supplying the ammunition for Lee Chapman and Rod Wallace in the Whites’ first title win in 18 years.

But when Fotherby mentioned the possibility of a sale to first-team coach Mick Hennigan and then to Wilkinson, the responses were surprising to say the least.

“All the conversations with Howard and Mick were ‘If you can get Cantona out of Leeds, get him out,’” Fotherby told the Daily Mail years later. “On our training ground they would go through set-plays and moves. Howard was very strict.

“He would say ‘Cantona, you stand in front of the centre-half.’ Cantona would reply ‘I don’t do this’ and spit on the floor. He wouldn’t stand there and head the ball. He walked off. This made them want him out.”

Stunningly, it took only 24 hours to complete a deal worth £1.2million and Cantona’s arrival at Old Trafford would prove to be key in Manchester United transitioning from nearly men to a title-winning machine. After 26 years without a league championship, they stormed their way to four in five years with the Frenchman on board and for the next two decades they barely looked back.

The behaviour which had seen Cantona exiled from France with the moniker ‘Le Brat’, and had quickly alienated Wilkinson and his coaching staff at Leeds, was seen as no issue at all by Ferguson. He embraced the unpredictability that Cantona provided rather than demanding conformity.

The good came in the form of countless match-winning performances over his five-year spell, whether with an artistic flick or a hammer-shot goal, leading by example with his brilliance and vision or sage advice with his soft tone. The bad arrived in the shape of a glut of red cards, one of them more notorious than the rest.

When the Frenchman famously leapt into the crowd at Crystal Palace in January 1995, his teammates expected Cantona to be met after the match by a verbal volley from the manager.

"We're getting scalded and getting egg sandwiches down the back of our necks. We look at each other, thinking 'F**king hell, Cantona is getting it here!' Lee Sharpe explained of the rage Ferguson exhibited post-match as food and drink went everywhere.

"And then he starts, the manager. ‘F**king Pallister, you can't head anything, you can't tackle. Incey, where the f**k have you been? Sharpey, my grandmother runs f**king faster than you. You're all a f**king disgrace.’

“He then turns to Cantona, and says in a softer tone: ‘And Eric... you can't go around doing things like that, son.’"

Ferguson knew he was working with a genius - however flawed - and made no apologies about treating him differently to the rest. It was what made them the perfect partnership: Ferguson the manager willing to allow Cantona some give on the leash, Cantona the artist revelling in playing under a boss who knew he would respond better to the carrot than the stick.

United have won all sorts since the Frenchman left. Nine titles, two Champions Leagues, a Europa League and 15 domestic cups have been added to the Old Trafford trophy room. But the mentality which drove them on to those achievements can arguably be traced back to Thursday November 26th 1992.

When Cantona arrived, he changed everything.

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