The story, by now, is part of Old Trafford folklore. It was winter 1992 and Alex Ferguson, six years into his post at Manchester United and with a mere FA Cup and League Cup to show for it, was shooting the breeze with his chairman, Martin Edwards. United had just followed up a failed title challenge with bids for Alan Shearer, Matt Le Tissier and David Hirst. All three had been knocked back. Then the phone rang.
It was Leeds’ managing director Bill Fotherby, asking Edwards about the availability of Dennis Irwin, which, considering Fotherby’s club had just beaten United’s to the league, was a tad on the cheeky side. But Fergie, cottoning on to who was on the other end of the line, had a cheeky request of his own. A couple of days later Eric Cantona, the fiery figurehead of Leeds’ title win, who had remained distrusted by manager Howard Wilkinson, was being welcomed to Old Trafford. Six months later, so was the inaugural Premier League trophy – and an era of Mancunian dominance was born.
Quite how the world would have panned out if this chance chit-chat never happened is one of football’s great what-ifs. Cantona is generally held up as the final piece of Fergie’s jigsaw – the sprinkling of magic dust who elevated all around him and fired a good team to greatness – and indeed the history books pretty much bear that out: the Scot won no titles in his six years BC, four in five thereafter.
Was Cantona’s arrival that straightforwardly seismic? Who knows, but he was far from the only factor at play in United’s rise, the strongest of which was without question his manager. Cantona or no Cantona, you suspect Ferguson would have wrenched the United juggernaut into fifth gear eventually, although his road to doing so wouldn’t have been so smooth. Certainly United would not have gotten anywhere near the league title in that ludicrous season of 95/96, when Cantona’s winners in no fewer than six knife-edge 1-0 wins between January and April helped claw back Newcastle’s 12-point lead and leave Kevin Keegan clawing for his sanity.
Selling Cantona sure knocked Leeds for six. Or more accurately, for sixteen, given that’s how many league positions the club fell once they were shorn of their mercurial forward. Their tailspinning 17th-place finish in 1993 remains the worst so-called title defence since the war. They soon steadied out during the Yeboah Years and before long were recklessly shooting for the moon under Peter Ridsdale and pals, and we all know how that turned out. You can hardly blame Cantona for that, of course, but who’s to know how that trajectory would have altered had they, rather than their cross-Pennine rivals, possessed the best player in the country during modern football’s formative years.
Likewise, Liverpool’s tumble from their perch may have only been brief were it not for Cantona’s arrival in Manchester. History tends to judge the Spice Boys side of the mid-90s with a sneer, yet in truth the difference between Anfield’s young crop and United’s Class of ’92 was slim to none. What separated them wasn’t gifts, but guidance. While Liverpool’s tyros had no one to show them the ropes, United’s had Ince, Schmeichel, Robson and most of all, Cantona, whose desire and dedication, witnessed first-hand, made quite the impression on his wide-eyed team-mates. Over the course of the decade, a side containing the velvet boots of McManaman, Redknapp and Collymore – not to mention the divine intervention of Fowler – never quite made it, while under Cantona’s captaincy, limited triers like Butt and the Nevilles became mainstays of a dead-eyed winning machine.
Then again, maybe that view focuses on what Cantona did for United rather than vice versa. Pre-Cantona United may have been little more than a middling-to-decent outfit, but pre-United Cantona fitted much the same description. He was essentially a journeyman forward – loved at Leeds for his charisma rather than his consistency – somewhat on the goal-shy side, and an attacker who interpreted his position rather too literally. Sheffield Wednesday had turned him down. There was a reason, even if it was a dubious one, that he was allowed to leave for a million quid plus pocket change: as Lee Sharpe put it upon being told of the signing, “the bloke’s a total nutter”.
Cantona fired United into orbit, but the process was entirely mutual. It wasn’t immediate, either. Three years after he joined he was close to being hounded out of the country by a hysterical press after dispensing a spot of rough justice on Matthew Simmons at Selhurst Park. Fergie demurred, and was rewarded with a level of sustained individual magnificence unseen since. It’s unlikely, in other words, that Cantona’s career would have panned out the same way under Wilkinson.
Perhaps, had that phone call never happened, Cantona’s career would have continued to chug along unremarkably, and British football would simply have been denied one of its most hallowed figures. In hindsight, Cantona was a founding father of the Premier League not just by helping cement the hierarchy at the top, but also by providing a magnetic prototype for the TV-ready theatrics and personality-cult silliness that has come to characterise top-level football today.
Cantona adored being hated; as one character in Miller’s Crossing says, “I’ve never met anyone who made being a son of a bitch such a point of pride”. After his ban, Cantona revelled in his hate-figure status, drawing strength from it as a certain Portuguese scamp would a decade later. Would we have been spared Savage, Barton and the rest of the Premier League’s pound-shop panto-villains were it not for Cantona? In truth, probably not – but they have plenty to thank him for nonetheless.
The transformation of the Premier League into what it is today would have happened with Cantona or without him. But it would have happened in a very different way. Maybe we should just be thankful that in the early days of its soap opera-fication, it was given such a gifted performer.