Controversy has never been far from Eric Cantona. His switch from Leeds United to bitter rivals Manchester United in 1992 is a perfect case in point.
Leeds United had just secured the Football League First Division Title, with Cantona making 15 appearances and scoring three goals to contribute to the Yorkshire club’s most recent top-tier title win.
However, those modest statistics don’t necessarily tell the whole story – Cantona played an instrumental supporting role at Leeds, supplying top scorer Lee Chapman with a number of important goals on the club’s route to silverware.
The Frenchman had seen previous opportunities to play in England turned down by Liverpool (Manager Graeme Souness cited that Cantona would upset the dressing room harmony) and Sheffield Wednesday, who thought Cantona’s wage demands were too ambitious following a successful trial with the Owls.
By the time he had lifted the title with Leeds, just months after signing for the club, Cantona had already earned a reputation as an enigma. However, if one man was to get a tune out of Cantona, it would be Sir Alex Ferguson.
At the time, Manchester United had a real lack of firepower. Ferguson had tried to bring in Alan Shearer from Southampton, but lost out to Blackburn Rovers. The Red Devils also failed in bringing in Sheffield Wednesday’s David Hirst, Southampton’s Matt Le Tissier, Sheffield United’s Brian Deane – when they did eventually sign a striker in Dion Dublin, he was soon out injured for six months with a broken leg.
Meanwhile, as Leeds United were fighting to retain their title in the inaugural Premier League season, Cantona was centre stage as Leeds imploded. For a number of reasons, Cantona’s relationship with Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson deteriorated, leaving the Frenchman to file a transfer request. A matter of days later, his arrival at Old Trafford was announced.
The move was seen as a risk for Manchester United and a shrewd deal for Leeds, who made a £200,000 profit for the player with a sale of £1.2m and had got shot of a bad egg. However, Cantona would go on to become a Manchester United legend.
Cantona inspired Manchester United to win the Premier League four times in his five seasons at the club, before retiring at the age of 30. Including his time at Marseille and Leeds United, the Frenchman won the league in six of the last seven seasons he played – the only time he missed out on a league title was with Manchester United was in 1994/95, when he was suspended for eight months for attacking a fan.
That crazy misdemeanour at Selhurst Park would go down as just one of the iconic moments that Cantona provided throughout his career. However, on another level, it underlines just how important Cantona was to that dominant mid-90s Manchester United side. Without him in the side, they just weren’t as good.
Manchester United’s number seven shirt is amongst the most iconic garments in global sport. Younger generations will remember the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham, those slightly older will marvel at Bryan Robson and those even longer-in-tooth will romanticise about George Best. A case can be made for Cantona providing the best fit for that number seven shirt.
The chipped goal against Sunderland; the collar-up celebration; the nonchalant, effort-free assists; the “au-revior” line in that Nike ad… Eric Cantona was the birth of the Premier League superstar.
Plenty of players will have more medals than the four Premier League titles and two FA Cups that Cantona won during his time in Manchester, but few – if any – have left such a legacy.