All great stories are partial to a little embellishment. Bits are tagged on, fictional characters inserted here and there to add colour and drama. Woven into the epic tale of how Manchester United signed arguably their greatest ever player, is this same inconsistent narration that somehow makes the story as compelling and appealing as it was seismic for the newly formed Premier League.
Clubs rolling the dice in the transfer market is nothing new. Sometimes the gamble backfires, sometimes it pays off. Just occasionally though, a transfer can irreversibly alter the national landscape of the game. That is exactly what happened on November 26th 1992 when a Frenchman crossed the Pennines to sign for Manchester United.
The most common thread in this erratically told tale starts with an under-pressure manager meeting with his chairman. Alex Ferguson was still striving for that ultimate success at Old Trafford; a league title.
A second-place finish in 1992, just four points behind Leeds United, had only added to expectations that a 25 year wait for a league title was about to finally end.
However, just 17 goals from 16 games saw United languishing in 8th pace by late November with just one win in their previous eight matches. This was miles off title winning form and something had to change.
Ferguson’s meeting with Martin Edwards was in part, to discuss how they could look to fill the gap left in their forward line by Dion Dublin’s season ending injury.
A now famous moment during that meeting saw a disruptive phone call from Leeds chairman Bill Fotherby, who called to enquire about the availability of Republic of Ireland stalwart Dennis Irwin. Whilst Edwards politely replied to say Irwin was not for sale, Ferguson is alleged to have been frantically gesturing to the United chief before finally scribbling down the name of Leeds forward down Eric Cantona on a scrap of paper.
To the surprise of both, Fotherby was open to a deal. Cantona had helped the Elland Road outfit to a first title in 18 years, but he was hardly flavour of the month in Yorkshire.
One newspaper outlet dismissively described Cantona as a “handy impact sub” and by November of his second campaign, it was clear that he was not at all compatible with Howard Wilkinson’s highly regimented training ground methods.
Despite falling down the pecking order at Leeds, Cantona had come highly recommended to Ferguson by former France national team manager Gerard Houllier. The future Liverpool boss was alarmed at Cantona’s rapid fall from grace in Yorkshire and pitched him to the United boss as a viable transfer target.
Remarkably a £1.2 million deal saw United snare their man in a major transfer coup. However, the story certainly does not end here.
The Frenchman brought with him a wonderful swagger and fierce determination to succeed in Manchester. A problem child in his homeland during the 1980s, “Le Brat” as he was christened by some, was seen as too high maintenance and volatile but in Ferguson, he had finally found a manager who was prepared to channel this inner turbulence and unleash the football maverick within.
With his talents unchecked; Cantona was to become one of the key architects of United’s dominance in English football. His legendary abilities are well documented and covered in countless glowing tributes and highlight reels but there is no harm in going over them once again.
Like all great players, the former France international could simply see the game in his head a lot quicker than most. Whether through a deft flick or a barreling run through defensive lines, he could unlock archaic English back fours seemingly at will. He scored all kinds of goals – another hallmark of a top player – but his abilities in general build-up play helped propel the standards of attacking football at United to an altogether higher pantheon of excellence.
Cantona’s fierce professionalism in training clearly rubbed off on his new and crucially, emerging teammates too. Former United defender Gary Pallister was suitably impressed as he recalled in an interview with Goal.com:
“We were a professional squad but Eric brought a new professionalism to the club. It was unique. He started training before us and stayed out longer than anyone else. It was a real eye-opener. It had a big effect on us and I also know how much it impacted on the Class of ’92. The likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville learnt so much from Eric and his professionalism.”
With the sparkling influence of Cantona leading and linking up their efforts in the final third, United would lay the foundations for two decades of dominance in the Premier League. The Frenchman was the epitome of their newly found swagger and growing commercial confidence. That elusive title was finally secured by ten points in 1993 and they would go on to win two of the next three league campaigns as well as two doubles in that time.
Cantona never lost a Manchester Derby and famously scored four consecutive match winners during their successful title tussle with Newcastle in 1995/96 and his PFA Player’s Player of the year award in 1994 was a fitting accolade to say the least.
The only title United missed out on during this formative era was in 1994/95; when the Frenchman was infamously banned for his kung fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan at Selhurst Park. This fiery incident demonstrated the inner tumult that was constantly bubbling away below the surface of the complicated genius.
With United winning honour after honour and their talented team elevated to greatness via the galvanizing tour-de-force of their number 7 other clubs began to take note. At no other time previously in the history of English football, had an overseas foreign import been so influential to a title winning team.
Cantona was an eccentric, often fiery talent who had a penchant for bad press in his locker, but on the pitch, he was the real deal and other clubs began to make their own attempts at finding their own maverick man.
From David Ginola and Juninhno at Newcastle and Middlesborough respectively to Denis Bergkamp at Arsenal, clubs were flexing their newly found financial muscles in the hope of finding their own foreign star to propel them to new heights.
It’s a phenomenon that never went away. From Dimitar Berbatov to Luis Suarez and many many more, Premier League clubs have invested their hopes and money in wonderfully talented, if at times, very controversial star players from abroad in the hope that their new arrival would transform their fortunes in the same dramatic fashion as Cantona did at Old Trafford.
Of course, plenty of foreign players had enjoyed significant success in English football prior to United’s legendary number 7. But is hard to deny that Cantona laid down a now well trodden path for other gifted players to follow in his mercurial footsteps.
That fateful phone call and show stopping transfer to Old Trafford in the winter of 1992 would go on to help found a footballing dynasty with a troubled, yet breathtakingly gifted and influential footballer at its core.
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