Has any recent transfer been as fateful as Leeds United selling Eric Cantona to Manchester United? Duncan Young recalls the Frenchman’s spell in Yorkshire
It’s difficult to imagine now, but in November 1992 selling Eric Cantona to Manchester United didn’t seem like such a crazy idea. Six months previously he had been the talisman of Leeds’s first championship success since 1974 and the near-mythical reign of Don Revie. The funny thing is, he didn’t actually play that much.
Cantona had arrived at the club only in February, with Leeds already well established in a title race with Manchester United. Cantona contributed mainly as a substitute, manager Howard Wilkinson reasoning astutely that Eric’s guile and flair would be most effective as robust defences tired. Cantona played in each of the final 15 matches, but started only six, scoring three goals. To put that in perspective, Jon Newsome, emergency cover for injured right-back Mel Sterland, played ten, started seven and scored twice.
But the reasons for Cantona’s appeal are not statistical. Elland Road had witnessed a foreshadowing of the Eric Effect when serial bad-boy Vinnie Jones was acquired by Wilkinson from Wimbledon in 1989. Many observers, including myself, were astounded at the manager’s apparent appetite for self-destruction, but Vinnie’s discipline improved dramatically as he developed into a cornerstone of the side that finally delivered Leeds from eight years’ wandering in Division Two as well as becoming a rallying point for fans who have always idolised unwavering commitment to the Leeds cause allied to swaggering charisma, from Billy Bremner through David Batty and on to Alan Smith.
There was also prophecy in the manner of Vinnie’s leaving. Promotion achieved, Wilkinson resolved to offload Jones as soon as possible as he set about building a very different midfield for the top flight. Success-hungry fans were surprised, but gave the benefit of the doubt to the recently triumphant boss.
Two years on, Wilkinson grasped the opportunity to acquire a Gallic replica of Jones who crucially also possessed the ability to conjure moments of inspirational, match-winning genius. As the team stuttered on the run-in, Cantona’s juggle and volley to crown victory at Chelsea sent waves of belief throughout the club that carried Leeds beyond Mancunian rivals whose own conviction was crumbling around them. The title was secured and Cantona’s strutting style fired supporters’ visions of a revival of the dominant Revie teams. Shelves were cleared of records, car stickers and even bagels commemorating the honorary Yorkshireman by fans desperate to live the dream. Wilkinson remained sceptical and wrote in his autobiography: “The big question is whether he has the in- telligence and character to adapt that ability... you have to admit that his chances are less than even.”
Cantona answered with two emphatic hat-tricks at the start of the 1992-93 season, but a new defining moment arrived when he gave away possession in the opening Champions League game at Stuttgart, pulled his hamstring in doing so and watched as the Germans swiftly countered to score the opening goal of a comprehensive 3-0 victory. Leeds survived the tie, but crashed out to Rangers as an ineffective Cantona squandered vital chances.
Eric’s form also evaporated domestically until, clear of a marooned Watford defence in the League Cup, he could only shoot tamely at the keeper. Leeds were out of another tournament and Wilkinson was finally convinced Cantona was just another fancy foreigner doomed to drown in English toil. Alex Ferguson, meanwhile, was living on borrowed time. The title still eluded him, his team lay eighth and couldn’t score. He’d missed out on Alan Shearer, Dion Dublin was injured and Sheffield Wednesday wouldn’t part with David Hirst no matter how much money he offered them. Various legends surround his famous phone call with Wilkinson, but within days Cantona was on his way to Manchester amid rumours of rows with Wilkinson and faxed transfer requests.
Leeds fans were even more aghast at the loss of their folk hero this time. Wilkinson’s eventual demise can be traced directly to the decay of supporter trust that began at that moment and spread inexorably as Cantona inspired title after title for previously hapless sworn adversaries while Leeds withered, collecting a succession of ill-fated replacements like Frank Strandli, Brian Deane and Tomas Brolin. Maybe the 1992-93 shirts should have had collars.
From WSC 198 August 2003. What was happening this month