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‘Can we say it’s £1.2m’: How a chance phone call changed the course of the Premier League

Unwanted at Leeds, Eric Cantona went on to join Manchester United and establish himself as a cult figure at Old Trafford. But if it was not for a phone call, the French footballing star may never have helped the Red Devils to glory. The new details of Cantona’s stunning transfer have come to the light with the release of the book King Eric: Portrait Of The Artist Who Changed English Football by Wayne Barton. Cantona’s legacy at Manchester United can easily be measured in the team’s achievements as a whole, winning four English top-flight crowns and two FA Cups during this five years under Ferguson.

In 1992 Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson had grown tired with Cantona but when managing director Bill Fotherby picked up the phone to speak with United, it was never with the intention of offering him the Frenchman. “I rang United about Denis Irwin, who had been at Leeds as a young boy,” Fotherby said. “United chairman Martin Edwards said there was no chance but I asked him to speak to Alex. “Normally, I wouldn’t have expected him to ring back. “This time he did. It was then he asked about Eric.” Fotherby scoffed at the suggestion but Wilkinson’s strained relationship with Cantona meant he was willing to let him go. “Having read about the falling out between Howard and Eric, I remembered how important he’d been to Leeds’ title win in 1992,” Edwards said. “If he hadn’t gone there, I am sure we would have won it.” “I called Alex and told him of Bill’s enquiry about Irwin. He said no, as expected. “Then I said, ‘Would you take Cantona if I could get him?’ Alex replied, ‘Too bloody right I would!’

The negotiations were not as straightforward as that though. “Bill said, ‘We’re open to selling him, but we have one problem at our end. He’s very popular. The crowd love him. We’ll get slaughtered. Howard will do it, but only if we do it very quickly. And very quickly they did and after a brief exchange, Cantona was off to United and at a fraction of the asking price Leeds had first asked. Edwards: “What do you want for him?” Fotherby: “£1.6m.” Edwards: “I won’t pay that. But we’ll take him off your hands for a million.” Fotherby: “I can’t do a million! I told you I’d get slaughtered. I’d get lynched at that price. I can’t go any lower than £1.2m.” Edwards: “Bill, I’ll give you a million.” Fotherby: “Well, can I say it’s £1.2m?” Edwards: “You can say what you like.” “I called Alex to tell him and he couldn’t believe it,” said Edwards.

Cantona was a loose cannon, disciplined early in his career in France for punching a teammate in the face and copping a three-month suspension for his dangerous kung-fu style tackling technique. So Ferguson asked French-born former UEFA president Michel Platini for his opinion on Cantona’s past indiscretions. “You should sign him, his character is underestimated - he just needs a bit of understanding,” he said. It was enough to deliver United what was a massive bargain but what turned out to be an inspired purchase. Cantona immediately had an impact and helped the Red Devils build a dynasty on top of the domestic competition. Leeds, on the other hand, fell from league heavyweights to relegation candidates. A big-name purchase without any of the normal fuss, according to Ferguson. “I’ve never seen a deal done as quickly as Eric Cantona’s,” he said. “That must have all been done in half an hour.” It was a bold move but one that paid off and a decision Leeds would come to regret. A misfit, once misunderstood who ended his career a Manchester United icon having been the catalyst for one of the club’s most successful periods on the field.

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