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'No regrets about selling Cantona to Man Utd'

26 Nov 2015
Eric Cantona in action for Manchester United

Bill Fotherby, Leeds managing director at the time, recalls transfer of Eric Cantona in 1992

Eric Cantona joined Manchester United on 26 November 1992 and played a starring role in four titles across the first five seasons of the Premier League era.

But it could have been very different had it not been for a chance phone call to Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of Man Utd, from the then Leeds United managing director Bill Fortherby.

Cantona was at Leeds and had inspired them to the old First Division title in 1991/92, making them defending champions going into the inaugural 1992/93 Premier League campaign, but Fotherby was enquiring about the signing of Red Devils defender Denis Irwin before Ferguson managed to convince the Yorkshire club to sell Cantona for a fee thought to be about £1million.

Eric Cantona joined Manchester United in November 1992
Eric Cantona joined Manchester United in November 1992

Fortherby insists he would do exactly the same again. He rang Man Utd chairman Martin Edwards enquiring about buying full-back Irwin but ended up selling Cantona instead. What is less well known is that Fotherby never bothered contacting Leeds' manager of the time, Howard Wilkinson, about Edwards' request.

While Cantona went on to secure legendary status among Man Utd fans, Leeds never again reached the heights of the 1991/92 season.

Indeed, a 4-0 defeat by the Red Devils at Elland Road in September 1996, in which Cantona scored a last-minute goal, marked the end of Wilkinson's time at the club. But Fotherby has no regrets.

"We had got Eric on a recommendation from Michel Platini, who told Howard Wilkinson he could be very difficult to handle but had the potential to be a great player," Fotherby told PA Sport. "At the time, we didn't have any money. People thought we had won the pools but we were actually potless.

Cantona scored as Man Utd won in Howard Wilkinson's last match as Leeds manager
Cantona scored as Man Utd won in Howard Wilkinson's last match as Leeds manager

"Because of that when we met his advisors to put together a deal we agreed to pay Eric something like £500,000 if we kept him after an initial period of a few months.

"It was an immense amount of money for Leeds - not money we had at any rate - but we agreed to it because we had this recommendation from Platini and we judged the most important thing was to get the player and deal with the rest afterwards."

"Sometimes people just move to a certain club at a certain time and become something they would never have been anywhere else."

Bill Fotherby on Eric Cantona

But there were difficulties almost immediately. "Apart from Lee Chapman, no one in the squad spoke fluent French and for Howard it was a bit of a nightmare," Fotherby said. "Although we won the title, there was just no connection between them.

"We had a disaster against Rangers in the European Cup and were coming up to the point where this additional £500,000 had to be paid. Howard told me to find Eric another club."

Fotherby had not acted on the request when full-back Mel Sterland got injured. "I rang United about Denis Irwin, who had been at Leeds as a young boy," said Fotherby.  "Martin Edwards said there was no chance but I asked him to at least speak to [manager] Alex [Ferguson].

Leeds won the 1991/92 league title with Cantona in the side
Leeds won the 1991/92 league title with Cantona in the side

"Normally, I wouldn't have expected him to ring back. This time he did, offering me a different player I knew Howard would not be interested in. It was then he asked about Eric.

“I said absolutely no way and that it was impossible. But obviously I knew what Howard felt about him, and I knew this additional payment was due.

"As I had done before, Martin asked if I would talk to Howard. On that particular day Howard was out house-hunting in Leeds, so the only person I actually spoke to was [coach] Mick Hennigan. I just said, 'I can't believe it. Guess what has come right out of the blue. Howard will absolutely love it.'

"I left it a couple of hours, rang Martin back and said, 'I can't believe this but Howard is willing to let the boy go'."

And so the deal was rushed through.

This lob against Sunderland was one of Eric Cantona's greatest PL goals
This lob against Sunderland was one of Eric Cantona's greatest PL goals

"Our fans were bothered," said Fotherby. "They were really bothered. But I would do exactly the same again.

"Eric was absolutely magnificent for them but it is not all one way, we got something similar when Gordon Strachan came to us and took us from Division Two to champions. Before that, Johnny Giles came from Manchester United and look what he did for Leeds. It happens.

Cantona won four Premier League titles at Man Utd
Cantona won four Premier League titles at Man Utd

"Sometimes people just move to a certain club at a certain time and become something they would never have been anywhere else. The fact it was Manchester United gave it an edge I suppose but they were the ones who made the offer for a player our manager did not want.

"Howard was an absolute perfectionist. He wanted his players to be disciplined and adhere to a certain team pattern. Eric just didn't fit it.

"Alex Ferguson gave him a free role and probably wasn't quite as strict with Eric as Howard would have been. Eric liked to play to the crowd. That wasn't Howard's way at all."

And Fotherby refuses to criticise Wilkinson.

"It is not a question of blaming Howard," he said. "I believed in him and won't hear a bad word against him. He was Leeds' best manager since Don Revie - and probably still is.

"He brought in Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister and Tony Yeboah. He won us the league. And all the time we were doing it on a shoestring, asking sponsors to chip in here and there to make up the bits we didn't have. For eight years, it worked."

To look back season reviews and records from the first 23 Premier League seasons, visit the premierleague.com history section by clicking here.

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