I hate seeing Eric Cantona on TV or wherever as it always leaves me wondering what could have been had we not sold him back in 1992.

Howard Wilkinson’s arrival at Elland Road in 1988 saw the same turn in fortunes we’re all hoping to see under Simon Grayson’s leadership, but was Wilkinson’s reign as successful as it should have been and was the sale of Eric Cantona the catalyst for Manchester United’s continued success?

Leeds United have long been described as the team that ‘should have won more’ despite an history of reasonable success. Don Revie for example guided Leeds United to domestic and European glory, but that team played in many more finals than it ever won. His achievements at Elland Road should be in no way undermined, but the success of our glory years doesn’t come close to that of Liverpools and Manchester Uniteds.

Howard Wilkinson was way ahead of his time as a manager. He developed a youth system at Elland Road that’s still producing stars today and has been mirrored by teams up and down the country. He not only bought well, but bringing stars such as Gary Speed and David Batty through the youth system saw the team promoted in 1990 and go on to win Division One (the Premier League) in 1992. He remains the last English manager to achieve this feat.


Eric Cantona lifting the 1991/92 Division One (Premier League) trophy for Leeds United

However, the following season it all went a little wrong for Sergeant Wilko. The League Champions made a shock decision to sell influential talisman, Eric Cantona to bitter rivals Manchester United. The move was met with complete derision from the Leeds United faithful, especially since the fee was a mere £1.2m. Wilko had seemingly lost the plot.

In a bizarre attempt to justify the sale of Eric Cantona, a rumour was started suggesting Eric had been sleeping with the wives of his fellow team-mates, including Lee Chapman’s wife, Leslie Ash. The rumour was completely unfounded, although as it turned out during a pre-match pint at the Exeter game, there are some that still believe it to this day!

Whilst Manchester United went on to win the “first” Premier League title in 1992/93, with Eric Cantona massively influential in their success, Leeds took a massive leap backwards finishing the season in 17th place.

Howard Wilkinson steadied the ship and got Leeds back on track the following season. The team finished in fifth place but still had to look on enviously as Eric Cantona led Manchester United to another title. The 1994/95 season saw some respite in Manchester United’s dominance as Blackburn Rovers won the league, but they were soon back at it the following season whilst Leeds stumbled back down the league finishing 13th.

The reign of Howard Wilkinson came to an end after Leeds United were destroyed by Manchester United at Elland Road in September 1996. The match ended 4-0 with the final nail being hammered into Howard Wilkinson’s coffin by none other than Eric Cantona. The irony was lost on no one.

Never has one manager suffered so much for one decision as Wilkinson did for the sale of Cantona. The pathetically low fee of £1.2m seems pittance when you consider the success Manchester United achieved with him leading the charge. Had Leeds United kept hold of Eric Cantona, you have to wonder whether we would have continued the brief success we achieved in 1991/92 and gone on to win a whole host of Premier League titles.

Of course, there are many more things you have to factor in to both Manchester United’s success and Leeds lack of success thereafter, but there’s little doubt this was the turning point. Wilkinson should be celebrated as a Leeds United manager for the things he did achieve. The youth setup is second to none and he’s the last manager to achieve anything at all at Elland Road, despite massive spending during David O’Leary and Peter Ridsdale’s ‘living the dream’ fiasco.

Without that one sale then maybe we’d be the ones living our second glory years now. Maybe it’d be Manchester United plummeting through the divisions whilst a never-ending line of dodgy and inadequate chairman take their shot at destroying the fragile remains of their horrible club. Instead, we can only pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and try and get back to a position where we can make them mistakes once more. Always wondering what could have been.

12 Responses

  1. Grumpy Older Man

    Cantona, whilst a good player, wasn’t pivitol to the success Wilkinson’s teams had in 1992. Lots of people forget how important Steve Hodge was early in that championship winning season and how pivitol the Whyte-Fairclough centre-back partnership was.

    Interesting given the OTT discussions on Beckford’s value to the present side, maybe we could flog him to ManU and maybe he will have the same effect on their silverware total as of our last major sale to them ;-) (no disrespect to Alan Smith).

    • MOT

      It was actually Beckford that made me think of previous players leaving and changing our fortunes. Still angers me thinking of the pathetic sum of money we got for Cantona. Becks is even being rumoured as more valuable than that!

  2. TC

    The main reason we struggled in the seasons following being crowned champions was the change in the back pass rule. Wilkos philosphy was always to have a strong defense and build from there. The Leeds defense of its day and Wilko never really came to terms with a formation and playing philosophy that came to terms with no back pass.
    Eric Cantona was a fantastic player for Leeds and Man Utd and instrumental in Leeds winning the title, but he had a far bigger impact at Man Utd.
    I’m not convinced he would have continued with this at Leeds.

  3. Paul South Wales

    The simple answer to that question is how important is it to go up, oppose to remain in this division? Which is what would happen if we sold our star talisman. Monday demonstrated life without him, and although Becchio only had a bit part, even he isn’t a prolific marksman. We seem to struggle to score from anywhere else on the park which is alarming. I’m expecting a lot more from Andy Robinson this season, as too bradley Johnson. The former was a regular on Swansea’s score sheet but has struggled since coming to us.

  4. musiclover

    Lesley Ash would have had more taste I’m guessing. We can have hardly let him go for the money, unless someone took a bung. I never did know the real reason, but it felt like an own goal at the time and still does.

  5. Paull

    Dont forget Strachan, Mac and Batty in the middle they all made a strong contribution to the title winning team. But Cantona was a bit special loath him or loath him.

  6. Dawley white

    Strachan claimed in his auto biography that the real reason Cantona was given the elbow at Leeds was as the result of a bust up between Cantona and Wilko at a team meeting before a match against Crystal Palace and had nothing to do with the fact he may have been bedding the wives of half the first team squad.

  7. Henry V

    I think ‘Dawley White’ has the reason.
    Eric was difficult and Wilko was inflexible.
    Ferrgie was prepared to build the team around Eric – which was ALL he wanted.
    Wilko and Fergie were/are very close.
    I saw Fergie many times at Elland Road in those days.
    According to the story at Man U, Fergie phoned Wilko about someone else
    and Wilko offered him Eric – hence the price. He wanted rid of him!!
    Fergie says Eric was his best signing!!!
    Nothing sticks in the throat of fans more than good players sold cheaply.
    Lennon’s sale to Spurs for £1 million!!! AAAgggg!


    • Hunter's boots

      Your right Henry, how financially stupid has this club been. 1.2 mill for the galic scum wizard. Then later the wonderkid Thomas Brolin I think was bought for 4 mill. We paid the wages of untalented Palmer in midfield but could not compete with the wages of those giants of world and European football Coventry City when trying to keep Macca, argubly the best midfielder then in the Prem.The list of errors goes on, so, maybe one thought,If Bates had been over-seeing the club in these times would he have been so generous?

  8. Guy

    The sale of Cantona was supposedly due to a breach of disipline when he showed up at an official team blazer and tie meeting “dressed like a walk on a beach”., and it was Ferguson making an enquiry about Chapman(?) which allowed Wilko to bring up the Cantona sale option… supposedly!
    The origin of the Leslie Ash rumour was the result of some deliberate mischief making in the Man City boardroom at an after match drinking session…. also supposedly of course. But this one came from a City fan who`s mate as a sponsor was there in the boardroom…suppos blah blah.

  9. Wizzy

    The benefit of hindsight tells us that Cantona’s contribution to the success on the feel is probably a little bit overstated, in fact probably overshadowing the fantastic work the rest of the players did during the title winning season (Villa away and Sheffield Wednesday away are key pre-Cantona examples of this).

    However Cantona’s contribution to the Leeds fans’ experience cannot be understated, in an era where the foreign player was very much the exception rather than the rule, whilst I still recall the numbness of the night he was sold as if it were yesterday.

    I don’t believe he would have shone as brightly at Leeds as he did at Scum, largely because of the narrow approach Howard Wilkinson took to the game and the management of the individual players, a problem that continued to plague him for the rest of his Leeds career.

    That said, a mediocre Cantona at Leeds and a further trophyless decade at the Theatre of Wet Dreams is something I would have definitely preferred!


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