Three decades ago Manchester United made a surprise signing that, as it turned out, was to alter the club’s history.
It would genuinely shape the formative years of what was then a young, newly formed competition called the Premier League. It would endorse a great manager’s reputation for bold, instinctive, inspired judgements.
The player acquired was Eric Cantona, then aged 26 but with several clubs already on his CV and a chequered disciplinary record. He was recruited from Leeds United, his seventh employer, where he had played an important role in delivering the 1992 league title.
Cantona’s relationship with Howard Wilkinson, the then Leeds manager, had turned difficult and when a conversation about another proposed transfer between executives of Leeds and Manchester United touched, almost at random, on to the subject of Cantona’s availability, United’s manager Alex Ferguson was taken aback to learn the Frenchman might be for sale. He urged an immediate bid.
The rest is history. In the next five years Cantona would be an emblematic figurehead for a series of domestic triumphs that established United as the dominant force in English football after decades in which they had been only part of a chasing pack.
The seemingly haphazard path that took Cantona from erratic, restless talent to enduring hero of Old Trafford is unlike most modern transfers in elite football because the business has grown so much since, the sums are much higher – Cantona cost United around £1 million – and the buffer zones between clubs negotiating deals is filled with more intermediaries.
Players’ career trajectories are more streamlined, too, and so are the rules around how frequently a player can change employers. Between December 1991 and the same month 12 months later, Cantona had been at Nimes in France, at Leeds, and at Manchester United and also announced his retirement – he quickly rescinded that – from football entirely after being obliged to serve a two-month ban in his native France for throwing the ball at a referee.
Three decades on from the Cantona coup, United are homing in on another unusual but potentially brilliant signing: that of Christian Eriksen, a footballer who is in most respects the opposite of the whimsical, mercurial maverick that ‘King Eric’ was, but whose circumstances and whose situation puts him apart from most players of his star status.
Like Cantona in the early 1990s, Eriksen is available for a relatively cut-price deal because of a chain of out-of-the-ordinary events. Like Cantona, who wanted to leave France because of a ban, Eriksen was obliged to leave a country where he was playing – in Italy for Inter Milan – for very specific reasons.
But much more than Cantona 30 years ago, Eriksen has lived through a truly extraordinary 12 months. Last July, the Dane was thankful simply to be alive. He had collapsed on the pitch during Denmark’s opening European Championship match against Finland with a serious heart problem. Back then, and for many weeks afterwards, a comeback to playing at the highest, or indeed any professional level, seemed most unlikely.
Inter, where after a subdued start he had contributed vitally to the 2020-21 Serie A title, soon had to acknowledge any comeback could not be with them. Eriksen was fitted with a defibrillator, a precaution against a repeat of the cardiac arrest. In Italy, a footballer with a defibrillator is not permitted to play at the senior professional levels.
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But the rules in English football are different, so Brentford invited Eriksen to launch his comeback with them, on a short-term basis, as of January. There he demonstrated that his vision, his playmaking excellence and his eye for goal had not diminished through his period of crisis and his steadily growing hope of recovering his career.
In the past six months United saw enough of the Eriksen they remembered from his best days at Tottenham Hotspur and at Ajax to imagine a partnership that could suit club and player. Erik ten Hag, the new United manager, knows Eriksen from the time that the midfielder, recuperating last year, spent at the training ground of the Ajax that Ten Hag was then coaching.
If the United deal goes through, the Dutch manager will be closely associated with making it happen. If it would be over-ambitious to imagine the Dane could become his Cantona, he can at least hope that this is a signing that can raise spirits at United, a club who over recent years have lost much of their old knack of shrewd, inspired and unexpected interventions in the transfer market.