Year Zero: The making of Eric Cantona (Leeds/Manchester United, 1992/93)
On a murky Mancunian afternoon, just under a month out from Christmas 1992, a mustachioed Manchester United fan stands in front of a Megastore Santa and reacts to the news that his club, lying eighth in the Premier League and out of both the cups, have just signed a French forward from Leeds. “Ooh aah Cantona?” he mutters, shaking his head. “They won’t sing it here.”
Yeah right, absolutely no chance. The bloke’s a total nutter
While others might have been a little more optimistic about the new arrival, the talking head’s opinion was by no means unreflective. Gary Pallister was told the news by a journalist, who first made him guess who his boss had just splashed out for (“I was stunned”).
Lee Sharpe didn’t believe it either. “Yeah right, absolutely no chance,” was his first reaction. “The bloke’s a total nutter.” And across the nation, bemused supporters looked upon the Teletext page 302 headline: “OOH AAH, I’VE GOT CANTONA” with a mixture of scepticism, glee and confusion.
Cantona’s talent, of course, was not in doubt. This was a France international of prodigious ability, who had played a delicious cameo in Leeds’ burglary of the title from United the season before. But his reputation as a troublemaker was ominous. Howard Wilkinson didn’t like the Frenchman’s attitude and thought he was idle, despite the goals he was banging in.
Rewind further, and the story of a player unable to settle pretty much anywhere unfolded.
Sure, he’d started well at Auxerre under Guy Roux, but Cantona had laboured at hometown club Marseille, ending up on loan to Bordeaux and Montpellier. There were reckless tackles. Shirts and fists were thrown. He’d insulted national coach Henri Michel on live TV, and thrown boots into the face of Montpellier team-mate Jean Claude Lemoult.
At Nimes, though, he’d got into real trouble. Banned for a month after tossing a ball at a referee, he later walked up to each member of his disciplinary committee and called them an idiot. His suspension was doubled. Just 25, he decided to retire.
Houllier steps in
Then, France assistant manager Gerard Houllier – and Cantona’s psychoanalyst – had persuaded him to try a fresh start in England. So far, it had worked out perfectly. But as Bryan Robson recalls from the time, United was a different proposition. “The players weren’t convinced that it was a good signing. Eric had a reputation for flitting from club to club.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves: Eric Cantona’s 1992/93 had started at Leeds United – and started extremely well. He was playing for the champions, and was already idolised on the Elland Road terraces. Despite having only played a bit-part role in their dramatic title surge, the early signs were that he could become a club great.
He’d hit an incisive hat-trick in the Charity Shield – the 4-3 against Liverpool – and went on to notch 11 times in his first 20 games (including another treble vs Spurs and two in the Champions League).
The only problem was that Wilkinson didn’t fancy him. “He’s got exceptional potential, but he’s got to keep hard at it,” he muttered about his match-winner after the dazzling Charity Shield display. Eric lacked the consistency he’d later show in Manchester, perhaps because he didn’t sit comfortably inside Sergeant Wilko’s strict 4-4-2.
I had a bad relationship with Wilkinson. We didn’t have the same views on football
His languid style rubbed the gaffer up the wrong way. “I had a bad relationship with Wilkinson,” Cantona would later tell FourFourTwo. “We didn’t have the same views on football.” Likewise, Cantona baulked at the endless fitness drills in training.
But there was no doubt that his four-month spell at the beginning of this term displayed an individual ready to soar. In a parallel universe, with a more accommodating boss, Cantona might have helped to kickstart an entirely different dynasty on the other side of the Pennines.
Rumours, meanwhile, swirled about what Cantona was up to off the pitch. True or not, he was unsettled, and the now-famous phone call between United chairman Martin Edwards and his Leeds counterpart Bill Fotherby would seal his switch. The Yorkshireman wanted to sign Denis Irwin: there was no deal to be had, but Ferguson signalled to his boss that he’d be interested in Eric.
To their surprise, Fotherby said it was a possibility. After some back and forth, a fee between £1m and £1.2m was settled upon. When Ferguson told his assistant, Brian Kidd, the Mancunian enquired whether Cantona had lost a leg.