26th November, 1992. I was staying at my Grandad’s house for the night when I heard the news. ‘Fergie has signed Cantona!’ I was told. For some reason I was delighted by this, but I didn’t really know why. Sure, he had skill and class on the pitch like no other player I had seen in England, but as a striker his goal record was hardly inspiring, scoring only 9 goals in 28 games for Leeds United over the course of a couple of half seasons. Would he really be any better than Mark Hughes and Brian ‘Choccy’ McClair? Plus we had new signing Dion Dublin to come back towards the end of the season after his leg break, and promising youngster Jovan Kirowski waiting in the wings. But still, to sign arguably the Champions’ best player showed a real sign of intent and could potentially put Manchester United back in the title race after a pretty average start.
But how did the signing come about? After all, we’d all heard the names Alex Ferguson was after – David Hirst, Matt Le Tissier, Brian Deane even (!?) – but Eric Cantona had not once been mentioned. If the move for Cantona appeared in any way to be a curve-ball, that’s because it was – even to Ferguson. When Leeds United contacted the Manchester United hierarchy to enquire about the ever-reliable left-back Denis Irwin, Fergie not only turned it down, but he put in a cheeky counter-bid for Cantona. Surely he didn’t expect the response he got?
“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…”
- Sir Alex Ferguson
Yet, his £1.2m offer was accepted and the rest, as they say, is history… Why Wilkinson felt the need to replace title winner and England international Tony Dorigo in the first place is beyond me, but The Dubious Goals Committee takes a look at what might have happened if ‘Wilko’ had not felt the urge to sign Denis Irwin…
With United languishing in 10th place in the Premier League part way through the season, after a seven game win-less run is broken with a victory over Oldham Athletic, Alex Fergson decides enough is enough. With Dion Dublin out with a leg break, and striker Brian McClair on a highly-unimpressive 3 goals by late November, striking reinforcements become a priority for Ferguson.
With Alan Shearer rejecting United for Blackburn, a second bid is put in for Sheffield Wednesday striker David Hirst (Ferguson’s first bid of £3m was rejected in the previous summer, leading to the signing of newly-crocked Dublin). Testing Sheffield Wednesday’s resolve, Ferguson stubbornly offers £3m again only to see the The Owls stand firm and instantly reject the proposal once more, meaning only a British record transfer fee would secure the signature of one of the best all-round strikers in the country. Nevertheless, £3.5m is deemed by Ferguson as a bargain and during a press-conference presenting his new hit-man, he describes Hirst as “the saviour of our season”. During his first game in United (away) colours, at Arsenal, a horror tackle by Steve Bould leaves Hirst with a broken ankle and out for six months. With the team absolutely devastated and demoralised at the thought of ‘Choccy’ McClair leading the line for the rest of the season, another win-less run up until Christmas leaves a title challenge miles from anyone’s mind, and the Manchester United board running out of patience with their manager. The season is summed up on January 9th in a game against ‘Spurs at Old Trafford. With the game poised at 0-0 in the 52nd minute, Denis Irwin marauds down the left flank, and beyond the static defence. The ball is rolled to Brian McClair, who attempts a delicious chip pass over the defence straight into Irwin’s feet, only for the ball to be shanked into the stands and McClair is jeered from all sections of the half-full stadium. Another chance gone begging.
However, despite the lack of flair and imagination in the side, United manage to finish 5th in the Premier League after the return of Dion Dublin in April 1993 leads to a run of seven games unbeaten, with Dublin nodding in 5 goals in the process, all from promising youngster Ryan Giggs’ crosses. Giggs’ meanwhile manages to pick up the PFA Young Player of the Year accolade from his peers, and title winning captain Paul McGrath wins PFA Player of the Year as Aston Villa pip Mike Walker’s Norwich to the first ever Premier League championship title. Fifth place, however, is not a good enough return from Ferguson, and he is unceremoniously sacked by the Manchester United board who, after seven years of patience, were unhappy to make do with one Rumbelows Cup, a Cup Winners Cup and a lucky FA cup win. With some new blood required at Old Trafford, in comes Dave ‘Harry’ Bassett bringing with him beanpole striker Brian Deane, United’s nemesis on the opening day of the previous season.
Youngster Ryan Giggs, takes the tag ‘the new George Best’ a little too literally, with Bassett turning a blind eye to his famous off-the-field partying with team-mate Lee Sharpe. Simon Tracey is brought in to replace departing goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel who demands to leave as he was promised trophies when he joined in 1992, and Denis Irwin is snapped up by Leeds United manager Howard Wilkinson in a swap deal for Tony Dorigo. Seemingly not in Bassett’s plans, Mark Hughes is sold to Chelsea for £1.5m with Bassett preferring two from the three other forwards at his disposal, Dion Dublin, Brian Deane and David Hirst. However, despite the departures, the core of the team remains and Bassett sets up the team to play direct football, with crosses and long balls being punted onto the heads of the D & D ‘goal factory’ (Dublin and Deane, obviously). Hirst never fully recovers from his injury from the previous season and becomes a bit-part player, struggling to make an impact and dislodge the two target men up front. Gary Pallister remains a rock at the back, but is found to be even more useful when thrown up front in the dying minutes to salvage draws from the clutches of defeat. The ugly football style leads to the fans staying away, with the newly-completed Stretford End only partially-filled by the ever-increasingly frustrated die-hard Reds.
United finish the season in 9th place and, after long deliberation, the Manchester United board, yearning for stability, sack Dave Bassett in May 1994. After losing both the dressing room, and the fans, his position was considered untenable.
Prior to his sacking, Bassett manages to sanction the sale of Welsh troublemaker Ryan Giggs to Italian giants Inter Milan in January 1994 for a staggering £4.5m. Other promising players from the youth ranks, David Beckham and Gary Neville, join lower-league Leyton Orient and Bury respectively, for a combined fee of £150,000.
Another youngster, Paul Scholes, is released, as he is not deemed to be tall enough to score goals at the highest level, and is picked up by hometown club Oldham Athletic on a free transfer. Blackburn Rovers start their dominance in English football by cruising to the Premier League title and continue to snap up the biggest names in football, breaking the British transfer record twice in one summer, by signing midfield pair Roy Keane and Frenchman Zinedine Zidane from Nottingham Forest and Bordeaux respectively.
The start of the 1994/95 sees Manchester United in a buoyant mood however, with Bassett replaced with an in-house appointment, Bryan Robson, who takes on a player-manager role. The Chairman and Manager are both positive that the future is bright, with a crop of youngsters waiting in the wings, and Robson sticks to his word by blooding the inexperienced Chris Casper, Kevin Pilkington, Pat McGibbon, Simon Davies, Ben Thornley and George Switzer (who was offered a long contract in 1993 as Bassett had seen more than enough in him to convince them he could make it to the very top) on the opening day of the season. The game becomes a disaster as United roll over to a 4-0 defeat at the hands of Queens Park Rangers. Upon retrospect, Robson was not the manager the board had hoped he would be, and, with United in 15th at Christmas, there is no option but to bring in another new manager. The only high-point in the season, however, is an FA Cup win against Everton masterminded by new manager Mike Walker who joined in January 1995 from the Goodison Park side, who he had lead to safety the previous year when they were odds on to go down. Finally, some silverware for the United fans to celebrate, and Walker managed to succeed in securing a 12th place finish for United, with Blackburn again winning the league, becoming the first team to retain the Premier League championship.
With all stability gone from the Old Trafford club by this time – the young team shorn of confidence and the big names long gone – United are no longer a force. 1995/96 sees a break in the Blackburn dominance, however. Kevin Keegan ‘loves it’ as he leads his attacking Newcastle United team to a spectacular title win, including 4-3 victory over Liverpool late on in the season all but sealing the Championship.
After another disappointing finish of 11th under Brian Kidd, the Manchester United board begin looking overseas for a new manager and the 1996/97 season sees the appointment of Frenchman Arsene Wenger from Grampus Eight in Japan, who instantly stamps his mark on the United team by demanding the marquee signing of Remi Garde, as well as unknown Senegal-born youngster Patrick Vieira.
Wenger takes United to a highly-impressive 3rd place finish in his debut season. Blackburn’s dominance over the Premier League was over the following season, and thanks to the signing of the likes of striking sensation Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit, and jet-heeled winger Marc Overmars, Manchester United power to a League and FA Cup double, with the attacking prowess complimented perfectly by the strong back five, including Tracey, Switzer and Garde.
The next ten years sees the title changing hands between United and Blackburn, a certain Eric Cantona becomes a movie star after retiring from football in 1994 – starring in films such as the Karate Kid 4 (Daniel in Paris) and Kung Fu Panda – and Alex Ferguson managing the likes of Manchester City and Arsenal, with little real success…
So at a base level, if Howard Wilkinson hadn’t thought to bid for Denis Irwin all those years ago, things could have been so different… However, perhaps the move wasn’t such a shock given how management saw Eric Cantona in the dressing room, throughout most of his career. At Nimes, Cantona was seen to be workshy, egotistical and disruptive. In December 1991, he threw a ball at the referee during a game, having been angered by one of his decisions. Cantona was was summoned before the authorities and forced to attend a disciplinary hearing by the French Football Federation – he was banned for a month. Cantona responded in typically anarchistic fashion by walking up to each member of the hearing committee in turn and calling him an idiot. His ban was increased to two months. Unhappy, Cantona subsequently announced his retirement from football on 16 December 1991, aged 25.
Michel Platini, then manager of the French national team, persuaded Cantona in to a return to the game, but suggested a move to England to rebuild his career. A trial at Sheffield Wednesday came and went, Graeme Souness refused to touch the Frenchman with a barge-pole and he ended up in South Yorkshire. Despite a promising season at Elland Road, Cantona did not take long to revert to type and the Elland Road hierarchy found him particularly obdurate and naturally bullish toward the footballing establishment.
“Eric likes to do what he likes, when he likes – and then fucks off” – Howard Wilkinson, 1992
So, when Wilkinson received the counter-bid for Cantona, perhaps Leeds saw a chance to remove a problem from their dressing room, for what was essentially a £300,000 profit. If the thought of him going to Manchester United was surprisingly shocking to the footballing fraternity, it was also a surprise to the potential suitors – Ferguson has pulled off an incredible coup de grace upon the League Champions.
In my opinion, Cantona, along with Peter Schmeichel, was one of the most important signings Sir Alex Ferguson ever made. Without those two players, things could have been so much different… I truly believe that without Eric Cantona, Manchester United would not have won the 1993 Premier league title. He was Players’ Player of the Year and Football Writer’s Player of the Year in his debut season at Old Trafford – a relative steal at £1.2m. I also believe that this would have tested the board’s patience with Ferguson, and without the success that the first league title brought, I do not think that United would have gone on to dominate the Premier League era in the way they have done.
Throughout, I have speculated what could have happened. But, without hypotheses or hyperbole, what I do know is what would not have happened, had Ferguson not signed ‘King Eric’… THAT pass to Irwin… THAT goal against Sunderland, Matthew Simmons would not have been a household name, seagulls following trawlers, kids all around the country would not have spent the 90s with the collar of their shirts up, Manchester United would not have won numerous Premier League titles and FA Cups. In many ways, it was a moment of sublime serendipity by Alex Ferguson in signing the enigmatic Frenchman; he could not have dreamed just how great and glorious a catalyst Cantona would prove to be for his developing team.
In 43 games over the course of 1992 (in the period before Cantona signed) they won 17 times and amassed 67 points – the following year it was 31 wins and 102 points. When Cantona arrived in late 1992, United had not won the league over 25 years; by the time he departed, just five years later, they had won four, including two doubles in five years, when only three had been won by anyone all century. Both were secured with Cantona scoring in the final. During this time, when Cantona was the eponymous Tour de Force, Alex Ferguson was slowly building himself a squad that would form the backbone of Manchester United winning an unprecedented treble in 1999.
Sure, Eric Cantona had long since departed Manchester United and the corridors of Old Trafford by then. He may have been absent physically, but spiritually he was always there – credited with a lead role in building the Theatre of Dreams. As Manchester United marched to their 19th League title, some would say he still is. The Premier League’s Overseas Player of the Decade’s influence and legacy lives on throughout the team that Fergie has built. A team that Fergie had time to build, all thanks to that one truly inspired signing in November 1992.
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For other insights into what might have been, see other articles in The Butterfly Effect series: