Manchester United face Leeds United today for the first time in the league since 2004. It is strange to think that more time has passed since then, than between that last league encounter and the signing of Eric Cantona 12 years earlier.
Cantona’s move to Manchester United is rightly seen as a catalyst for much of the Old Trafford club’s success in the 90s. That has led to a counter suggestion that is natural in reflection – that Leeds made a mistake in selling the Frenchman.
However what is often missed from this recollections is the disintegration of the relationship between Leeds boss Howard Wilkinson and Eric Cantona which made the continuation at Elland Road untenable.
This excerpt from my book on Cantona – King Eric – Portrait of the Artist Who Changed English Football – available on Amazon, Waterstones and pretty much everywhere – tells the story of the disintegration of relations in Yorkshire, and the beginning of negotiations for a transfer to Manchester.
Leeds were eliminated from the League Cup by lower-league Watford with Cantona putting in possibly his poorest showing for the club. Recalling the chain of events which led to Cantona leaving, former Leeds chief executive Bill Fotherby said in 2017 : “All the conversations with Howard and Mick Hennigan were, ‘If you can get Cantona out of Leeds, get him out.’ On our training ground they would go through set-plays and moves. Howard was very strict. He would say, ‘You, Cantona, you stand in front of the centre-half.’ Cantona would reply, ‘I don’t do this’ (and then spit). He wouldn’t stand there and head the ball. He walked off. This made them want him out. He was causing a little bit of friction.”
Following a temporary reprieve on international duty — where Cantona scored in a 2-1 win over Finland, to remind everyone he was still in good form — things finally came to a head as Leeds prepared to face Arsenal.
“The gaffer announced the team for the game on the Thursday — Eric wasn’t in it — and we went out to train,” remembers Jon Newsome. “Within five minutes Eric said he had tore his thigh, so the gaffer sent him to see the physio. After training, Howard went to the treatment room where he was told Eric hadn’t been in. He’d walked off the training ground, had a shower, got changed and went home. So on Friday we had a team meeting and Eric turned up late. We had club suits on and he turned up in jeans. A few words were spoken. The following week he was gone.”
The journalist David Walker corroborated that story to the Mirror in February 2017. “Cantona shirked responsibility on defending at corners and free-kicks and, on one occasion, walked off the training ground claiming he had a muscle injury,” Walker said. “To this day I’ve never met a Leeds player from 1992 who felt manager Wilkinson made the wrong call by selling Cantona. They all knew how Eric’s previous club career invariably ended in tears, tantrums and walk-outs. They couldn’t trust him. He had to go.”
Indeed, Cantona refused to report for training the following week, so furious was he at the treatment and humiliation — and, in his place, a transfer request arrived instead. Leeds United had won 3-0 against Arsenal in a rare emphatic win which seemed to justify Wilkinson’s decision.
In May 2017, Wilkinson recalled : “I left him out of an away match against Queens Park Rangers and that didn’t go down too well. As soon as I told him he disappeared and went back to France. We got a transfer request a week later that said he wanted to go to Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal. It was out there on the football radar. We couldn’t hide the fact that he was in the squad for the QPR game and then on the Saturday lunchtime he’d gone. When he’s not at training on the Monday, you can’t keep it quiet. People knew he’d disappeared and that there had been a problem.”
“For me it was ridiculous and it was obvious he couldn’t stay at the club,” says Newsome. “Eric wasn’t toeing the line. He’d burned his bridges with the gaffer.”
Cantona’s transfer request stated, strangely, that he wanted to move to one of three clubs — Arsenal, Liverpool, or Manchester United. There are stories in the public domain which are well-known but all of them indicate to the eventual transfer as a bolt from the blue; an accident, even, which only happened because of a phone call made the other way about another player. It seems a coincidence of the highest category that a transfer request can be made speculatively, specifically mentioning a football club, on the 24th November, and a speculative enquiry from said football club can be made in the other direction on the same day, with the deal being concluded the following day. And yet a coincidence it appears to be; and if time has presented the deal harshly in the perspective of Leeds United, let us at least remember that there is little chance of the relationship between Eric Cantona and Howard Wilkinson improving. Instead, it was heading towards implosion, and far from them feeling like they lost out by selling him so cheaply, Leeds United may well have found themselves paying the price of a hefty three-year contract in order to get the player off their books, on top of the £1m they had paid Nimes. There was also the matter of a £500,000 bonus Leeds had agreed to pay Cantona if he stayed for a certain length of time.
The story of Cantona’s move to Manchester is instigated by a phone call from Bill Fotherby, so his account is probably the best to begin with.
“I rang United about Denis Irwin, who had been at Leeds as a young boy,” Fotherby told the Independent. “Martin Edwards said there was no chance but I asked him to at least speak to Alex (Ferguson). Normally, I wouldn’t have expected him to ring back. This time he did, offering me a different player I knew Howard would not be interested in. It was then he asked about Eric. I said absolutely no way and that it was impossible. But obviously I knew what Howard felt about him, and I knew this additional payment was due. As I had done before, Martin asked if I would talk to Howard. On that particular day Howard was out house-hunting in Leeds, so the only person I actually spoke to was Mick Hennigan. I just said ‘I can’t believe it. Guess what has come right out of the blue. Howard will absolutely love it’. I left it a couple of hours, rang Martin back and said ‘I can’t believe this but Howard is willing to let the boy go’.”
In 2019, Martin Edwards’ version of the story was as followed : “I was in my office one afternoon when I got a telephone call from Bill Fotherby, the Leeds United managing director. I got on well with him, he was a nice guy. He said, ‘Martin, Howard quite fancies Denis Irwin, would you be prepared to sell him?’ I said I didn’t think so, I would ask Alex but as Denis was key to us, I doubted it. But then something suddenly came to mind. I was friends with Irving Scholar, the former Tottenham Hotspur chairman who lived in Monaco. Of course, he watched a lot of French football, and whenever we talked he would rave about this lad Cantona. ‘He’s made for you, he’s a player made for United,’ he would say. ‘His style of play and everything is suited to United. I can see him in that red and white strip.’ Having read in the papers about the falling out between Howard and Eric, I remembered how important he’d been to Leeds’ title win. If he hadn’t gone there, I am sure we would have won it. He kept on scoring important goals and had crucial contributions, and then he scored that hat-trick against Liverpool in the Charity Shield when he was magnificent. But remembering Irving’s comments triggered me. I told Bill, ‘I’ll find out about Denis, but would you be prepared to sell Cantona?’ Bill was almost too honest for his own good. ‘You know, that’s not as daft as it sounds,’ he said. So I called Alex at the training ground and told him of Bill’s enquiry. He said no, as I expected. And then I said, ‘Would you take Cantona if I could get him?’ Alex said, ‘Too bloody right I would!’ The next day or the day after Bill called to follow up about Irwin. I told him Alex wasn’t having that, but we’d take Cantona off his hands, almost as if we were doing him a favour! Bill said, ‘We’re open to selling him, but we have one problem at our end. He’s very popular. The crowd love him. We’ll get slaughtered. Howard will do it, but only if we do it very quickly. I said that was no problem.”
The consequential negotiation over the fee reads almost like a sitcom exchange.
Edwards : “What do you want for him?”
Fotherby : “£1.6m.”
Edwards : “I won’t pay that. But we’ll take him off your hands for a million.”
Fotherby : “I can’t do a million! I told you I’d get slaughtered. I’d get lynched at that price. £1.5m… what about £1.4m? I can’t go any lower than £1.2m.”
Edwards : “Bill, I’ll give you a million.”
Fotherby : “Well, can I say it’s £1.2m?”
Edwards : “You can say what you like.”
“I called Alex to tell him and he couldn’t believe it,” Edwards says. “I know there are many variations of the story but I hadn’t ever had a conversation with him about Cantona before that.”
Sir Alex’s recollection of the story famously differs from Edwards’ but is presented here in the interest of completion : the Manchester United manager says he was in Edwards’ office at the time the call was made from Fotherby, and that he wrote Cantona’s name down on a sheet of paper to raise the question. Ferguson says that the phone call had occurred during a conversation where chairman and manager were discussing potentially signing Peter Beardsley, as an option to replace the injured Dublin. Ferguson’s version was pretty much canon considering it was publishing in Managing My Life in 1999 but Edwards’ recalibration does muddy the waters somewhat, and raises a few questions.
Those questions included – how convenient was Fotherby’s call, how did United know of Cantona’s availability, and why would Ferguson be so convinced?
Well, first of all, Fotherby’s call was convenient. Their interest in Irwin was genuine.
It would be a matter of time before Cantona’s transfer request was made public but there was a chain of connection that expedited matters.
The first was France manager Gerard Houllier, who had spent many hours with Cantona that season alone as he sought to repair the damage that had been caused by the player’s controversial exit from his homeland so that playing at international level was a possibility. Having worked his way with the FFF, Houllier had to ensure that his relationship with Cantona was strong, and in September he spent much time with him, where he learned his relationship with Leeds was falling apart.
When Leeds played Rangers in the European Cup, Houllier sat next to Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, and informed him of Cantona’s unhappiness. When Ferguson enquired about how good Cantona really was – there was, after all, that uncertainty about him – Houllier stressed that he was a sure thing.
Whilst the disconnect between Edwards and Ferguson’s recollections suggest one or the other was true it seems likely that Edwards’ version is correct but that Ferguson was already aware of what was going on at Elland Road. After all, there was another mutual contact – George Scanlan, a renowned interpreter working with footballers in the North West, worked closely with Cantona and also then-United winger Andrei Kanchelskis.
Without question, it was the recently-passed Houllier who played the pivotal role in connecting the threads, with Fotherby the unknowing pawn of the piece. The coincidence of that call put him at United’s mercy when it came to the negotiation and probably went a fair way to enabling the deal to be done at such a bargain – though the £1.6m Leeds wanted would still have been chicken-feed when it comes to considering the impact Cantona had on United.
It is often suggested that had Cantona remained at Elland Road then Leeds would have been in United’s position in the coming years – but this simply does not ring true, considering how things were unravelling in Yorkshire in late 1992.
Leeds made the right decision to sell him, though in retrospect, they would have felt entitled to ask for ten times the amount. And even if they did, it would have been one of Ferguson’s most value-for-money transfers. Just think – it would not have happened without the man who would go on to become one of Liverpool’s most-loved managers.