Eric Cantona had a seismic impact on English football with Leeds United and Manchester United – and he will also go down as one of the Premier League’s greatest ever bargains.
We celebrate all sorts of players and teams on Planet Football. We regularly pay tribute to Legends of the game, but we also honour Cult Heroes that are loved for slightly different reasons, and Fallen Giants that are no longer the force they once were.
We are also working our way through the small group of One-Game Wonders players with a solitary Premier League appearance to their name, and now we’re giving acclaim to the players that cost their club pittances but were worth fortunes, the Bargain Buys that can make a scout a hero.
Next up, Eric Cantona.
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Eric Cantona didn’t just need a club. He needed a whole new start.
By the beginning of 1992, the 25-year-old had burned every bridge in France: he had displayed violent outbursts at Auxerre and Montpellier, failed to earn a consistent first-team spot at hometown club Marseille, and had sworn at former national coach Henri Michel.
Michel’s successor, Michel Platini, was desperately keen for Cantona to produce the kind of brilliance everyone in France knew he was capable of.
Platini needed Cantona happy and playing well – more than with most players, the two went hand-in-hand – if France stood any chance of doing anything at Euro 92 and wiping away the embarrassment of failing even to qualify for the 1990 World Cup.
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The English press of the 1990s would later attribute Cantona’s insouciance and aloofness to his nationality, but even in France he was regarded as something of an oddball, and an occasionally violent one at that, fighting team-mates on the training pitch and causing scandal everywhere he went.
Remember that the Bosman ruling was still years away, so for a player to move clubs with such frequency was every bit as unusual as Cantona’s constant allusions to poets and philosophers.
This came to a head in November 1991, when he was called before the French disciplinary committee for throwing the ball at the referee while playing for Nimes. Expecting the standard two-match ban, Cantona was staggered that the committee slapped him with double that.
The chairman, Jacques Riolacci, told Cantona and the rest of the assembled suits: “You can’t be judged like any other player. Behind you is a trail which smells of sulphur. Anything can be expected from an individualist like you.”
Cantona lost it, parading around the room to every committee member one-by-one, leaning in and saying the word “Idiot!” at each of them. Unsurprisingly, the ban was extended to two months; Cantona’s reaction was to retire from football altogether.
He really, really meant it – but there was a catch. He had only joined Nimes months earlier, and his breach of contract would cost him all the money Cantona had put aside in savings – something like £1million – and leave him jobless with a young family to support.
So after a couple of months of mulling things over in the mountains of Austria, Cantona came to the conclusion (aided by two patiently-pleading friends and his wife) that he must continue playing, just not in France.
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Cantona’s preferred destination was Japan, which was throwing money behind the game and pulling over ageing stars, outcasts, and bold up-and-comers, much like the American MLS has been doing over the past few years.
Gary Lineker joined Nagoya Grampus Eight for £2million in the summer of 1992, the same club Champions League semi-finalist Arsene Wenger would join as manager two years later.
This wouldn’t do for Platini: he wanted his star player performing at a higher level than Japan. With Cantona standing at 6’2” and boasting enormous strength to complement his incredible technique, Platini thought England would be a good fit.
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For the £900,000 Leeds United paid for Eric Cantona in May 1992 (following an initial loan spell), they could have had:
– 60% of Michael Thomas (Arsenal to Liverpool, £1.5m)
– Tommy Johnson from the knees up (Notts County to Derby County, £1.3m)
– Three-quarters of Marco Gabbiadini (Crystal Palace to Derby County, £1.2m)
– Don Goodman (West Brom to Sunderland, £900,000)
– One-and-a-bit of Duncan Shearer, who scored one goal in six games for Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn before leaving for Aberdeen at £300,000 loss (Swindon Town to Blackburn Rovers, £800,000). Don’t worry Kenny, I’m sure you’ll do better with your next signing…
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Platini conspired with his assistant, Gerard Houllier, to have Cantona touted around by agent Dennis Roach, whom Houllier had dealt with as PSG manager some years earlier.
Roach called his friend Trevor Francis, then player-manager of Sheffield Wednesday, and convinced him to give Cantona a trial. The deal was all but struck for Cantona to head to Hillsborough, but Francis dithered and dallied on committing the deal to paper, to the considerable consternation of the Frenchman.
Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson caught wind of the deteriorating deal before anyone else and swooped, getting on the phone to Houllier and Platini with his best schoolboy French to make a deal of his own, also checking in with Swindon manager Glenn Hoddle, who had played against Cantona during his time at Monaco.
All three gave the thumbs up, and before Wednesday knew it, Cantona had agreed terms up the M1 as they were left with nothing more than a faxed note from Cantona effectively saying “thanks, but no thanks”.
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Concerns about his match fitness – he had spent two months eating and drinking heartily in the mountains, after all – meant Cantona started in just six of his 15 appearances as Leeds held off Manchester United’s challenge to become champions of England for the first time since 1974.
He may not have played many minutes, but it was clear that Cantona was different, not just in his personality but in his style of play.
English football was still used to playing practically nothing but 4-4-2. It was not unheard of for one striker to be slightly withdrawn, in the mould of Kenny Dalglish, Peter Beardsley, Matt Le Tissier or Teddy Sheringham, but most of them were regarded as luxuries, accounting for the itinerant club career of Beardsley (13 moves in a 20 year career), the chronic underappreciation of Le Tissier (just eight England caps), and the late recognition of Sheringham (who earned his first England cap at 27 and didn’t win a major trophy until he was 33).
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So despite the sparkling displays that Cantona produced off the bench for Leeds, and the players acknowledging that having such a superstar in their midst was a huge confidence boost in the title run-in, Wilkinson remained unconvinced that Cantona was the solution to Leeds’ problems.
In fact, when things started going pear-shaped right from the beginning of Leeds’ title defence in 1992-93, Wilkinson felt that Cantona was the problem, not the solution.
Rather than admit the team needed refreshing in order to progress to the next level, Wilkinson decided that playing an unconventional withdrawn forward like Cantona was a step in the wrong direction, and that the solution was to return to the tactics that had served them so well in their title-winning campaign: 4-4-2, and lots of long balls over the top for Lee Chapman to knock down to Rod Wallace.
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“Do I ask [Cantona] to change or do I ask Leeds to change to the French style?”, Wilkinson asked publicly, concluding: “There will be no French revolution because that, in our football terms, would inevitably suffer a defeat.”
It seems curious that Wilkinson could have had a side featuring Gary McAllister, Gary Speed, and Eric Cantona, with all the potential for beautiful interplay that entails, and still decide that a flat front two and long ball football was the way to go – but that was English football at the time.
What Cantona needed was a visionary manager who was willing to try new things and take English football into the future.
Eric Cantona didn’t need a whole new start, he just needed a club.
Wilkinson was increasingly baffled by the accolades sent the Frechman’s way even as his title-winning side sank to 13th, which only served to cement his conclusion that Cantona’s presence in the side was the issue.
Manchester United, meanwhile, desperately needed to fill two roles. First, a creator: Bryan Robson was nearly 36, Andrei Kanchelskis was frustratingly mercurial, Ryan Giggs was still an emerging prospect.
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More pressingly, however, they needed a forward. Their strike partnership of Brian McClair and Mark Hughes scored just 29 goals between them despite starting all but four of United’s 42 league games together. Ian Wright and Gary Lineker alone had scored 29 and 28 respectively.
Turning just half of their six 0-0 draws into 1-0 wins would have seen Manchester United win the 1991-92 title by two clear points, rather than lose it to Leeds by four.
Alex Ferguson had been tracking Cantona for some time, but must have thought it would take something pretty special to prise such a talented player away from one of their most hated rivals, let alone one that had won the league the previous year.
Moves for Beardsley, David Hirst, Brian Deane, and Alan Shearer all came to nothing, and Ferguson started the 1992-93 season playing much the same side that had finished the previous campaign. You can imagine his frustration.
For the £1.2m Manchester United paid for Eric Cantona in November 1992, they could have had:
– 80% of Michael Thomas (Arsenal to Liverpool, £1.5m)
– Tommy Johnson from the ankles up (Notts County to Derby County, 1.3m)
– All of Marco Gabbiadini (Crystal Palace to Derby County, £1.2m)
– One-and-a-third Don Goodmans – Don Goodmen? (West Brom to Sunderland, £900,000)
– One third of Alan Shearer (Southampton to Blackburn Rovers, £3.6m). See? Told you Dalglish would come good. He just had the wrong Shearer first time round.
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Having kept an eye on Cantona for a while, Ferguson took his opportunity gleefully when Wilkinson (or possibly Leeds general manager Bill Fotherby, depending which version you read) phoned Old Trafford enquire about the availability of Denis Irwin, who he had been considering as a replacement for Tony Dorigo.
Ferguson, speaking via Man Utd chairman Martin Edwards, threw some names back the other way, including Cantona’s. To the surprise of Ferguson and Edwards, they received another call from Elland Road just minutes later: Leeds were ready to sell. Things moved very quickly, and before November was out, Cantona was a Manchester United player.
The £1.2million fee was so ridiculously low that Ferguson’s assistant, Brian Kidd, remarked: “For that money? Has he lost a leg or something?”
In one signing, Ferguson had signed both the creator and the goalscorer his side needed. The final piece of the puzzle had fallen into place.
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Cantona didn’t just transform Manchester United, lifting them from fifth to first as they claimed the first of their incredible four titles in five years. He changed English football more than any other single player in the 104 years of English football before him.
Even at the bargain rate of £1.2m, Cantona was a little bit of a gamble for Ferguson, for exactly the same reasons Wilkinson had got rid of him. Even putting disciplinary issues aside, Cantona was an almost unprecedentedly different type of player who required sides to play in a style never before seen in English football.
In this regard, Ferguson was a true visionary. Contrary to the short-sightedness or bloody-mindedness – or both – of Wilkinson, the Manchester United manager had enough humility to know he didn’t have all the answers, and enough adventurousness to try something that had never been done before.
It was, of course, a triumph on a scale that nobody could have foreseen, but too often fans of clubs other than Manchester United fail to acknowledge the seismic influence he had.
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Cantona was the first celebrity footballer English football had had since George Best 25 years earlier. French league regulations had prevented him for pursuing any kind of individual sponsorship, but in the brand-new, all-singing all-dancing, shiny shiny Premier League, he had the freedom to take on whatever commercial endorsements his club would allow: Nike, video games, Eurostar, and later, acting roles in major films.
This didn’t just make him incredibly wealthy and famous but raised the profile of the game from the doldrums it had been in in the 1980s. Without a man of the profile and charisma of Cantona, the Premier League may never have become one of the most prestigious league competitions in world football.
Cantona’s incredible success under Ferguson showed other clubs that when looking to solve a tactical problem, we were often better off looking at what sides were doing abroad. Without Cantona, perhaps England would have no Arsene Wenger.
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Cantona showed that the biggest clubs could succeed with more cultured No.10s, which English football simply didn’t produce at the time – how could it, with no precedent? English players of that type had always been square pegs pushed into round holes.
Without Cantona, perhaps there would have been no Juninho, no Gianfranco Zola; no Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, David Silva, Philippe Coutinho, or Mesut Ozil.
Ferguson’s experience with Cantona emboldened a very good manager to make the brave decisions that would make him a great: signing 31-year-old Sheringham as Cantona’s replacement and getting four excellent seasons out of him, or getting rid of the prolific Ruud Van Nistelrooy in his prime to make room for a raw Cristiano Ronaldo.
Without Cantona, there might be no statue of Sir Alex Ferguson or Old Trafford stand bearing his name.
Above all else, though, Cantona was just a bloody brilliant player. He was the man opposition fans hated the most and Manchester United fans loved above all others – the hallmark of an exceptionally talented player, and a ridiculously bargain twice over to boot.
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