Have you heard the one about the club that picked up the phone to sign a full-back and hung up having sold the most iconic player of the Premier League era?
Don’t bother. The punchline ends with Eric Cantona leaving Leeds United for just £1.2m and going on to win four Premier League titles in five seasons with bitter rivals Manchester United.
This week marks 25 years since Leeds managing director Bill Fotherby made the infamous deal with the Red Devils, moving the enigmatic Frenchman on having rung to enquired about the availability of Denis Irwin. It’s the stuff of legend, of course, and one that many mark as a seminal moment in the history of both clubs.
As is so often the case, the context of the story has been embellished far beyond reality. Hindsight renders the decision ridiculous, but the fact is that Cantona was far from a key man at Elland Road and with Leeds’ financial state in a poor bill of health, the transfer made sense to many.
Some claim that Cantona won the first division title for Leeds in 1992. They couldn’t be further from the truth. The role of the French maestro in that famous side was consigned to that of a handy and impactful substitute and the fact of the matter is that very few understood his potential as a Premier League great.
He played 15 times during that campaign, scoring only three goals, with his contribution to the side being an assist-maker to top goalscorer Lee Chapman. The 1992/93 season had started with more joie de vivre, however, and after a stunning triple in the Charity Shield against Liverpool, Cantona bagged the first ever Premier League hat-trick in a 5-0 midweek win over Tottenham Hotspur.
Reports suggest he had struggled to fully integrate into the changing room. Leeds had agreed to pay Cantona £500,000 if he stayed beyond a certain time frame, and with the clock ticking and Leeds’ financial situation far from flourishing, it was decided that a transfer across the Pennines made a lot of sense.
“I rang United about Denis Irwin, who had been at Leeds as a young boy,” Fotherby later told The Independent.
“Martin Edwards said there was no chance but I asked him to at least speak to Alex (Ferguson). Normally, I wouldn’t have expected him to ring back. This time he did, offering me a different player I knew Howard would not be interested in.
“It was then he asked about Eric. I said absolutely no way and that it was impossible. But obviously I knew what Howard felt about him, and I knew this additional payment was due.
“As I had done before, Martin asked if I would talk to Howard.
“On that particular day Howard was out house-hunting in Leeds, so the only person I actually spoke to was (coach) Mick Hennigan. I just said ‘I can’t believe it. Guess what has come right out of the blue. Howard will absolutely love it’. I left it a couple of hours, rang Martin back and said ‘I can’t believe this but Howard is willing to let the boy go’.”
The rest is history, of course, and it is perhaps fitting that Howard Wilkinson’s time at the club was ended by a 4-0 defeat by the Red Devils in which Cantona scored a last-minute goal in front of the Kop.
In the words of a famous Manchester band, for Leeds fans, that joke isn’t funny any more.