THE man who made the fateful phone call that resulted in Eric Cantona joining Manchester United 20 years ago has insisted he would do exactly the same again.
It has become the stuff of legend how Leeds managing director Bill Fotherby rang United chairman Martin Edwards about Denis Irwin and ended up selling Cantona to United instead. What is less well known is that Fotherby never even bothered contacting Leeds’ manager of the time, Howard Wilkinson, about United’s request. Cantona went on to win four Premier League titles in his five seasons at Old Trafford, securing his status as one of the great United figures. Leeds, in comparison, never recovered. Indeed, a 4-0 defeat by United at Elland Road in September 1996, in which Cantona scored a last-minute goal, marked the end of Wilkinson’s time at the club. Remarkably though, Fotherby has no regrets. Now 81 and based in Harrogate, he remembers the entire Cantona episode clearly.
“We had got Eric on a recommendation from Michel Platini, who told Howard Wilkinson he could be very difficult to handle but had the potential to be a great player,” said Fotherby. “At the time, we didn’t have any money. People thought we had won the pools, but we were actually potless. Because of that, when we met his advisors, we agreed to pay Eric something like £500,000 if we kept him after an initial period of a few months. It was an immense amount of money for Leeds – not money we had at any rate – but we agreed to it because we had this recommendation from Platini and we judged the most important thing was to get the player and deal with the rest afterwards.”
But there were difficulties almost immediately. “Apart from Lee Chapman, no-one in the squad spoke fluent French and for Howard it was a bit of a nightmare. Although we won the title, there was just no connection between them. We had a disaster against Rangers in the European Cup and were coming up to the point where this additional £500,000 had to be paid. Howard told me to find Eric another club.”
Fotherby had not acted on the request when long-serving full-back Mel Sterland was injured. “I rang United about Denis Irwin,” said Fotherby. “(Chairman) Martin Edwards said there was no chance but I asked him to at least speak to (manager) Alex (Ferguson). It was then he asked about Eric. I said it was impossible. But I knew what Howard felt about him, and this additional payment was due.
“Martin asked if I would talk to Howard. On that particular day Howard was house-hunting in Leeds, so the only person I 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’.”
So the deal was rushed through, for a fee of just over £1million, which looks ludicrous now given the success Cantona was to enjoy.