26 November 2012

It was 20 years ago today

20 years ago today, Eric Cantona joined Manchester United.

There will be no Weekend Reflections today. Instead, we'll be reflecting on a transfer that changed the destiny of English football's biggest prize 20 years ago today.

The day before 26 November 1992, Howard Wilkinson - the manager of Leeds United, the last team to win the Football League Championship before the Premier League was born - made an offer to his Manchester United counterpart, Alex Ferguson.

Ferguson takes up the story, "Leeds came on the phone asking if we'd sell them Denis Irwin. It was a non-starter.

"But jokingly I suggested we'd swap him for Eric Cantona, and there was this pause at the other end..."

Ferguson was in need of a new striker at Old Trafford. The Red Devils had come second to the Whites in the previous year's title race, but now they were 8th in the table. In their last 13 games, they had found the net a mere nine times on the way to just two victories.

The Scot searched everywhere in England for a new forward. He inquired about Southampton's penalty expert Matt Le Tissier and Sheffield Wednesday's exciting striker David Hirst. He also looked into the possibility of signing Brian Deane, who a few months earlier became the Premier League's first goalscorer as Sheffield United won 2-1 against Fergie's men.

Cantona's goalscoring record with Leeds wasn't something to write home about. He scored nine goals in 28 league matches for the Yorkshire club - not absolutely brilliant by a forward's standards, but he did set up plenty for Lee Chapman, who was their main goalgetter. The France international also bagged himself a hat-trick in the season-opening Charity Shield against Liverpool.

On 25 November, Ferguson was in a meeting with United chairman Martin Edwards, who received a phone call from the other United's managing director, Bill Fotherby, who enquired about Irwin.

Edwards said a straight no to Leeds' offer, but after failing in a counter-offer for Chapman, he saw that Ferguson had scribbled Cantona's name on a piece of paper. When Edwards mentioned the name of the man who would become King Eric, Fotherby confessed that the enigmatic Frenchman was unsettled at Elland Road, and within hours, the two clubs had agreed a fee of £1.2million.

Eric Cantona signed for Manchester United on 26 November 1992, and the rest, as they say in France, is histoire.

In his five years at Old Trafford, Cantona scored 82 goals in 185 appearances, won four PL titles and two FA Cups, and then quit football abruptly to become an actor.

His impact on English football as a whole was just as significant as that he made at United, if not even more so. He became the Premier League's first superstar, paving the way for other big names like his two successors as United's number 7 - David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo - to enjoy unprecedented fame and riches.

There's a brilliant article on the now-neglected Dubious Goals Committee blog that asks what would have happened if Ferguson agreed to send Irwin to Leeds, and DIDN'T get Cantona in return.

Arguably, Manchester United wouldn't have been quite as successful as they actually were. Maybe it would've been Aston Villa that made history as the first Premier League champions. Maybe Ferguson would, right now, be playing golf and enjoying his retirement rather than coaching United's players in his 27th year in charge.

Therefore, it isn't hyperbole to say that Eric Cantona's transfer from Leeds United to Manchester United was the most important in the 20-year history of the Premier League.

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