The Worst Decisions in Football – Part Two: Le Roi
To set the scene, let’s run through a potted history of Le Roi’s time in France.
Eric Cantona was recognised as an extraordinary talent from a very early age, and after Guy Roux brought him to Auxerre from his local boyhood club, his ability was shining through in training. He played with the reserves at Auxerre, gradually working his way up to the first team, eventually securing his place in the starting XI.
The national team beckoned. Cantona became a star for the u21’s, and by the age of 22 had five full caps, scoring against Germany on his debut. A transfer request at Auxerre later – Cantona claimed Roux didn’t match his ambition, one of many spats that would define the player’s career – and he was at Olympique de Marseille, having scored 23 goals in 82 games at Auxerre.
Here is where Cantona’s story starts to go awry. His time with OM was going well. He’d scored his first goal, was in the first team and was looking promising. Then, France manager Henri Michel excluded Eric from the teamsheet for an upcoming game. Michel claimed Eric ‘wasn’t on his best form.’ Eric responded by calling Michel a ‘shitbag’, not only announcing his retirement from French football for as long as Michel was in charge, but also receiving a 12 month international ban. It was becoming clear that any manager would be taking a risk in signing Eric Cantona.
Shortly afterwards, Michel was sacked, Michel Platini (an ardent supporter of Cantona) was installed as France manager and Cantona’s ban was overturned. However, in true Cantona fashion, this was the least of his worries. His relationship with Marseille was crumbling, he was barely playing, and he was about to receive an indefinite suspension for throwing his shirt at a referee in disgust at seeing his number come up for substitution.
In the next couple of seasons, Cantona would be punished for throwing his boots at a teammate’s face while on loan at Montpellier, throwing his shirt at a referee in disgust and whispering the word ‘idiot’ into the shocked ears of every member of the subsequent disciplinary panel.
After this final incident, in the words of Nick Hancock: ‘Eric Cantona retired for the first time’.
In stepped Platini, once again. Platini was convinced that English football would suit Eric. Eric’s decision to retire had filled him with a certain amount of regret – something Eric would never readily admit to, he was once quoted as saying “he who has regrets cannot look himself in the mirror” – and he was ready for a fresh start. But who would take a risk on a player like this?
Oh la la, les mauvaise décisions
Now, this story is littered with bad decisions. Almost everything Cantona ever did had a bad decision linked to it somehow. Kicking fans, calling the manager of his national team a shitbag, throwing his shirt at a referee – all of this can be filed under ‘bad decisions’. However this is what makes the legend of Cantona such a compelling one, the idea of the duality of a genius who is at times his own nemesis. Cantona’s bad decisions, therefore, are not the focus of this article – the decisions of those around him are the baffling ones.
Bad decision #1
Upon hearing that Cantona was angling for a move to England, Sheffield Wednesday manager Trevor Francis decided to give him a shot. Rather than stump up a paltry £1m for the French international with a good goalscoring record and European football experience, he opted to give Eric a one week trial. Since the weather dictated Francis could only see Cantona play on astroturf, he requested the trial be extended by a further week. Cantona walked out in disgust.
So, Trevor Francis, the man who would one day pay £2.4m for Ade Akinbiyi, wouldn’t pay £1m for Eric Cantona because he wasn’t convinced he could play on grass. Because French football, as we all know, is played on croutons.
Bad decision #2
Down the road, Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds team were vying to win their first league title for nearly 20 years. Wilkinson heard that Cantona wasn’t destined to join The Owls, so he duly swooped on the Frenchman himself. Cantona joined Leeds in 1992 and helped them to the league title, narrowly holding off a resurgent Manchester United team seeking their first championship since 1967. Although Cantona’s contributions were relatively minor in comparison with the bigger Leeds stars like Gordon Strachan, his place as a fan favourite had been secured. He had won the hearts of Leeds supporters, and seemingly the feeling was mutual. Cantona added an element of flair to Leeds, and with Platini bringing him back to the French team, his career was back on track.
His next season with Leeds started with Cantona flying out of the traps, scoring 11 in 20, but a predictable rift was forming between Eric and Howard Wilkinson. Rumours abounded of Cantona getting up to no good and causing disruptions in the squad, and with Cantona’s chequered past people weren’t exactly reluctant to believe them. Whether Wilkinson thought Cantona had become bigger than the club, or whether he just didn’t like the Frenchman, Cantona had to go. Here begins one of the worst transfer decisions in English footballing history.
The legend has a few versions. They all follow a similar theme, just sometimes the names of the players change. Here’s one: Bill Fotherby, Chief Exec of Leeds United called Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards to enquire as to the availability of full back Denis Irwin. Fotherby was promptly informed that Irwin was not for sale. During the phone call however, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson slipped his boss a note, instructing him to ask about Eric Cantona. Fotherby informed Edwards that Cantona would be allowed to move across the Pennines for the mind bendingly tiny amount of £1.2m.
The deal was sealed, and much to the chagrin of Leeds United supporters, their French magician moved to their most hated rivals in November 1992. Could Ferguson succeed where so many other managers had failed in bringing Cantona into line?
Cantona’s relationship with his new manager was different to those in the past. He’s since been quoted as saying “he (Ferguson) was very special to me, because he treated me like a man, not a boy.” Ferguson clearly had the measure of his occasionally erratic new signing.
Cantona’s time in Manchester has become the stuff of legend. In Ferguson he had a manager who would always show faith in him, and that faith was repaid tenfold. He played a huge part in delivering United’s first league trophy for 25 years, “becoming the first foreign player to win back to back league titles with two different clubs”.
In his five years with United, Cantona won four league titles, two FA Cups and three Charity Shields, as well as being voted PFA Player of The Year, FWA Player of The Year and recently being voted United’s Greatest Ever Player by Inside United Magazine.
Yes, his career was still mired by controversy. He kung fu’d a fan and has never displayed the slightest bit of remorse. He was arrogant, cocksure, divisive – but geniuses often are. Love him or hate him, the decision to sell him to your most fierce rivals was always one that would come back to bite Howard Wilkinson on the behind. And it did, in 1995, when Cantona scored in a 4-0 dismantling of Leeds that signalled the end of Wilkinson’s time with the club.
When Cantona announced his retirement in 1997, his legacy as one of the greatest, most memorable players to call Old Trafford home was sealed. Manchester United would become dominant, with Cantona playing a huge part. Leeds United haven’t won the top flight since, while the player their manager inexplicably sold to their most hated rivals for peanuts will be remembered as a club legend there for generations.
Still, if he’d have stayed, we probably wouldn’t have had Looking For Eric, and I’m assured Howard Wilkinson loves that film. All’s well that ends well, eh Howard?