Tuesday, 22 February 2011

When Eric (Cantona) met Trevor (Francis)

1992 was a great year for English football – Eric Cantona signed for Sheffield Wednesday.

Well, maybe not, but he might have done as it was the blue-and-white striped jersey of The Owls that he first wore in England.

At the turn of the year in the 1991/92 season, Trevor Francis' team were ten points off the pace in 5th place.  Having recently seen his team humiliated by League leaders and Yorkshire rivals Leeds United – managed by ex-Owls boss Howard Wilkinson - 6-1 at Hillsborough and facing a mini injury-crisis up front, manager Francis knew he had to take action.

At the same time, Cantona had just announced his decision to retire from football - a move made in a fit of pique after he received a two-month ban for throwing a ball at a referee and then calling each member of the disciplinary panel an ‘idiot’ (clearly football's philosopher-in-chief had a way with words from a young age). 

However, French national boss Michel Platini and technical director Gerard Houllier persuaded the 25-year-old to chance his arm in England instead. Graeme Souness, then at Liverpool, was the first to turn down the chance to sign l'enfant terrible, saying he thought he'd be too much of 'a problem' (seems Jamie Carragher was right about that 'fucking perch' after all).

And that's how Cantona ended up training with Hillsborough's cosmopolitan squad which boasted two whole foreigners already (although one of them was American John Harkes, so he doesn't really count, right?). Given Cantona's fiery temperament the tabloids lapped it up with headlines such as ‘Trev swoops for Mad Eric’ and ‘Eric Le Brat’.

This will never last.

He spent a week training with Wednesday and although the weather prevented him playing on grass he did feature in a six-a-side match against Baltimore Blast at the Sheffield Arena. Wednesday lost 8-3 and Francis, perhaps not convinced Cantona could hack it on a cold night at the Victoria Ground, asked the French international to stay on for another week's trial, an offer Cantona promptly refused.

Having passed up the opportunity to become Eric The Wed, Cantona re-emerged at Elland Road just a week later and the rest, as they say, is history, although Cantona's influence on Leeds United's title season is perhaps over-stated - they were already top when he joined and he scored only three goals in 15 games (from which they won 26 points).

Arguably, the greatest factor in Leeds' title success was Manchester United's spectacular collapse in the run-in, which saw Alex Ferguson's team take 21 points from their last 15 games - winning just three of their last 11 and falling off top spot in the process. Ironically, despite missing out on Cantona, Wednesday had the best run-in of the three teams, gaining 28 points from their last 15 games. (Maybe this post's entirely pointless...).

Of course, any 'What If...' discussion about Cantona has to take in a stop at Old Trafford, where the Frenchman really did have an impact. Before they signed him in December 1992, the club was lying in fifth having won just seven of their first 17 games, but they won 17 of 25 after his signing taking the title by 10 clear points, now that's impact.

Would he have spent less than a year at Hillsborough had he signed for Wednesday? It's an interesting question; Cantona left Leeds after Wilkinson made an approach for Manchester United's Denis Irwin and Ferguson turned the conversation on its head. Interestingly Ferguson's interest in Cantona was prompted by the fact he had several bids for Wednesday's David Hirst turned down, perhaps they would have rebuffed his advances for Cantona too.

Either way, had Cantona not signed for Manchester United, it seems unlikely they would have broken their title duck that season and perhaps Ferguson would be a footnote in Old Trafford history, not a managerial Colossus and The Owls wouldn't be languishing in League One.

Now doubt there'll be a few Sheffield United fans out there having a good old chuckle at their cross-city rivals, and why not? But let's not forget that in 1978 The Blades agreed to sign a young Argentinean but ultimately couldn't cobble together the cash. His name? Diego Maradona. Ouch...

1 comment:

Just Football said...

Haha I never knew that about Maradona! Imagine if El Diego had ended up at Bramall Lane - I suspect the entire course of football history would have been permanently altered and the world as we know it would be spinning on a different axis entirely! ;)

Nice article Roger.