Manchester United lied about Eric Cantona's real transfer fee to save Leeds from embarrassment
"'So, the next day I called Bill and said we would take Cantona off their hands. As though we were doing them a favour!"
Eric Cantona remains one of the most iconic players to have graced the Premier League. There have been better, and more consistent, players in the division over the past 25 years, but the former Manchester United forward was a unique talent, and unlike any player before him in the English top flight.
Built like a boxer, with the grace and balance of ballerina, Cantona's spatial awareness, technique and power made him a formidable prospect. The nomadic striker found a home at United, and a manager who would indulge his individuality and offer the perfect stage to fully express his considerable talent.
With his collar up, back straight and chest out, Cantona would stride onto the Old Trafford pitch. At the time, English football played in two banks of four, with two burly strikers leading the line. Cantona drifted between the lines, and suddenly it all clicked for Alex Ferguson's team. The player United fans had waited two decades for was the catalyst to restore the club to the summit of English football. Fans of the club still sing about him two decades later.
The story of how Cantona ended up at Old Trafford has been told several times since November 1992, when he made the move from Leeds United to their bitter rivals. United needed a striker, after new signing Dion Dublin suffered a terrible injury and Alan Shearer turned down the club for Blackburn Rovers. Then a chance phone call led them to Cantona.
According to Ferguson's account, Leeds' chairman Bill Fotherby rang Martin Edwards, the United chairman, inquiring about the availability of Denis Irwin. Ferguson wouldn't entertain any notion of selling the full-back, but the topic of Cantona came up. The French forward and Howard Wilkinson, the Leeds manager, had fallen out and Leeds wouldn't stand in the player's way if a transfer could be arranged. The league champions agreed a fee, worth a reported £1.6m, for Cantona and he arrived at United. He would become a club legend and spark a spell of dominance.
Edwards, in a new book about his time at United, has contradicted Ferguson's account somewhat, and revealed that United got Cantona for a lesser fee than the one widely reported. The former United chairman says he kept the actual fee for Cantona secret, as Leeds wanted to appease their fans. Edwards also claims Ferguson wasn't present when the deal was made, and that it was his idea to try sign Cantona.
"I am in my office and Bill Fotherby rang and asked about buying Denis Irwin. I said no but, thinking on my feet, just said: 'What about Cantona?'," Edwards said.
"I had never had a conversation about Cantona with Alex but had read that Howard Wilkinson and him didn't get on. So I blurted it out. I actually rang Alex at the training ground and told him. He said: 'Too right I would have Cantona'. So the next day I called Bill and said we would take Cantona off their hands. As though we were doing them a favour! We got him for £1million but Bill asked that we say it was £1.6m to appease the Leeds fans. I said: 'You can say what you like…'
While £600,000 is derisory in the current market, where squad players cost £40m, it wasn't a small fee at the time. For example, Irwin cost United £650,000 from Oldham Athletic in 1990, and he would go on to be one the best full-backs to play in the Premier League.