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Why did Leeds sell Eric Cantona to Manchester United?

Eric Cantona, Leeds
(Image credit: Getty Images)

When Leeds United decided to sell Eric Cantona to Manchester United, they probably didn’t realise it would help their rivals become England’s most dominant club for the next 20 years.

Cantona joined Leeds midway through the 1991/92 campaign, helping them pip Manchester United to the league title that season - even if the club’s existing strike partnership between Lee Chapman and Rod Wallace meant that he only actually started six matches, scoring three goals.

At the start of 1992/93, Cantona netted a hat-trick in the Charity Shield against Liverpool, then repeated the feat soon afterwards against Spurs - becoming the first player ever to bag a treble in the newly-formed Premier League. “He was incredible on his day,” said former Leeds defender Jon Newsome.

But with the club quickly struggling to match their title-winning form, the Frenchman’s relationship with Leeds boss Howard Wilkinson broke down - when he was substituted after a disappointing performance in a Champions League defeat to Rangers at Ibrox, Cantona walked straight down the tunnel, and was dropped for the next match at QPR.

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“Rangers was the start of his downfall,” Newsome said. “History has shown that Eric was a very headstrong individual, and under Howard Wilkinson you all had your own roles to play on the field. If you didn’t do what he asked you to do, it was quite simple, he’d get someone else to do it and you wouldn’t be playing. Eric wanted to do things his own way.

“Howard Wilkinson and Alex Ferguson are two very different people, and they handled him in two very different ways. By the time we played QPR, it was obvious that Eric and Howard weren’t seeing eye to eye.”

Cantona did briefly return to the line-up, but the reigning champions slipped to 14th in the Premier League, and he was dropped again after a November League Cup defeat at second-tier Watford - responding by handing in a transfer request, and demanding to join Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal.

Wilkinson tried to find a buyer in Italy, Spain or France, but found no takers. Then, the forward came up in conversation when Leeds managing director Bill Fotherby called Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards to enquire about signing Denis Irwin. By chance, Alex Ferguson was sat opposite Edwards, and passed him a note. “Ask about Cantona.”

Manchester United were only eighth in the league, having scored just 17 goals in 16 games. Ferguson had missed out on Alan Shearer to Blackburn in the summer, then signed Dion Dublin from Cambridge, only for the target man to break his leg.

The Scot initially responded by trying to sign David Hirst from Sheffield Wednesday. That bid failed, but Manchester United had better luck with Cantona. So keen were Leeds to move him on, that they agreed to sell him to their bitter rivals.

The fee was said to be £1.2m, but Edwards later revealed on BBC documentary Fever Pitch that Manchester United actually only paid £1m - a higher figure was announced to prevent Fotherby coming in for too much criticism from Leeds fans.

That season, Cantona helped Manchester United climb the table and win the league for the first time in 26 years. It was the start of an incredible era at Old Trafford.

Read the inside story of Eric Cantona’s career in the new issue of FourFourTwo magazine

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Chris joined FourFourTwo in 2015 and has reported from 20 countries, in places as varied as Jerusalem and the Arctic Circle. He's interviewed Pele, Zlatan and Santa Claus (it's a long story), as well as covering Euro 2020 and the Clasico. He previously spent 10 years as a newspaper journalist, and completed the 92 in 2017.