How Leeds sold Cantona
Former Leeds United chairman Bill Fotherby has recalled the day when the then-champions sanctioned the controversial sale of Eric Cantona to fierce rivals Manchester United.
The Frenchman moved across the Pennines 20 years ago after Howard Wilkinson lined up a bid for Denis Irwin, with the phone call between the two clubs becoming the stuff of legend.
Shedding more light on that fateful conversation, Fotherby revealed to PA Sport that another player was offered to Leeds before the deal to send Cantona to Old Trafford was struck.
“I remember that phone call clearly, as though it was yesterday,” said Fotherby, who was managing director at the time.
“We had initially signed Eric on a recommendation from Michel Platini, who told Howard Wilkinson he had to look at the boy. Platini said he could be very difficult to handle but that he had the potential to be a great player.
“My job was to go and see the player and talk to his agent. Then Howard spoke to him and we tried to convince him Leeds United were the club to come to.
“We agreed to pay him something like £500,000 if we kept him after the initial period of six months. It was an immense amount of money for Leeds but we agreed to it because we had this recommendation from Platini and we judged the most important thing was to get the player. We wanted to do whatever it took and deal with the rest afterwards. 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. Although we had won the title, there was just no connection between the two and, in the end, he told me to try and find Eric another club
“We had a disaster against Rangers in the European Cup. Eric was poor and we were coming up to the point where this additional £500,000 had to be paid.
“At the same time, our right-back Mel Sterland got an injury that was going to keep him out for a bit, so Howard told me to ring Martin Edwards and ask whether Alex [Ferguson] would sell us Denis Irwin, who had been at Leeds as a young boy. Martin said there was no chance but I asked him to at least speak to Sir Alex, which he said he would do.
“Normally, I wouldn’t have expected him to ring back. This time he did ring about an hour later, 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 me if I would talk to Howard.
“On that particular day, Howard was out house hunting in Leeds. The only person I actually spoke to was [assistant manager] 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’. The only stipulation was that it had to be done by midnight that night so Manchester United needed to get in touch with Eric’s agent pretty damn quickly.”
The Reds managed to get the transfer completed of course and Fotherby admits it was a fabulous piece of business from Sir Alex.
“There is no other assessment you can make other than Eric was absolutely magnificent for them,” he conceded. “But we got something similar when we got Gordon Strachan from them. He took us from Division Two to champions. Before that, Jonny Giles came from Manchester United and look what he did for Leeds. It happens. 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.
“Howard Wilkinson 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. It is wonderful to have someone like that in your team, who can produce that little bit of magic, but not if it came at the expense of the team.
“If the situation came round again, I would do exactly the same thing. When Howard said find a club for him, I did it.”