Leeds United nostalgia: Cantona’s capture changed the face of English football

Eric Cantona

Eric Cantona

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when eric Cantona made his Leeds United debut 24 years ago today, he changed the landscape of English football forever.

Walking onto the turf at Oldham’s Boundary Park, little did anyone know how much influence the then 25-year-old would have on ‘the beautiful game’.

He may not have been the best foreign player to grace English football, he certainly wasn’t the most skilful or the quickest, but his very presence on a pitch was enough to strike fear into even the most hardy of defenders.

Just 55 days earlier, Cantona had announced his retirement from the game, after being faced with time on the sidelines after throwing a ball at a referee during his spell with Nimes, a Ligue Two club in his native France.

Trevor Francis brought him to England to trial for Sheffield Wednesday, but after the Owls turned him down – a mistake they would later rue – Howard Wilkinson snapped him up and brought him to the hallowed turf of Elland Road.

Leeds were perched at the top of the table when they travelled across the Pennines to face Oldham, a must-win game if they were to hold off pressure from second-placed Manchester United.

But it wasn’t to be. Goals from Andy Barlow and Paul Bernard sent Leeds spinning into second with a 2-0 defeat, gifting the red United a temporary upper-hand in the race for the title.

A second-half substitution gave the travelling Leeds support a glimmer of hope however when Wilkinson sent Cantona on for his debut in place of Steve Hodge.

And if the Leeds fans had any doubts about the new French kid on the block, Cantona had one supporter who had every faith in his ability – his new manager.

“We knew quite well that a mutual adventure would soon be bringing us together,” Cantona said. “There would be no question of a trial period, my examination would take place on the field.

“Howard Wilkinson had been very clear with me from the first training session.

“He was convinced that I could rapidly impose myself on Leeds United, but he also let me understand that he didn’t want to push me too quickly.

“English clubs, it is true, display a certain distrust of foreign players.

“Their football is made out of aerial duels, of hard running and of tackles which cannot be endured unless a player’s physical condition is almost perfect.

“The British establishment also thinks that while a footballer who comes from the south of Europe may have irreproachable technical skills, they do not believe that his body will be able to stand up to the strains of northern football.”

In a time of stark contrast to today’s game as we know it, Cantona proved that foreign players could bring an added spark to English football, and it wasn’t long before rallying chants of “ooh, aah, Cantona” rose from the Elland Road terraces in support of the fans’ new folk hero.

He only ever scored nine goals in a Leeds United shirt, but Cantona played an instrumental role in catapulting his new team to the Division One title that year, memories that still reign supreme among a generation.

And however much fans claim to dislike him after his controversial switch to Old Trafford, Eric Cantona will always be part of Yorkshire’s own class of ’92.

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FACT FILE

February 8, 1992: Cantona makes his debut for United, coming on in a 2-0 defeat to Oldham.

February 29, 1992: He scores his first goal in a Whites shirt as Leeds beat Luton Town 2-1.

May 2, 1992: Cantona is part of the Leeds squad as they lift the Division One trophy in front of a jubilant Elland Road crowd.

November 26, 1992: Cantona signs for Manchester United for £1.2 million.