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.