Martin Edwards, Manchester United’s president and formerly chairman between 1980-2003, was the man who negotiated signing some of the club’s best players.
"Looking back on my time with Manchester United I've always said that my best two buys were Eric Cantona and Peter Schmeichel, but if I had to pick a third, Denis Irwin would definitely be the one," explains Edwards, whose autobiography Red Glory is released this week.
The story of Edwards bringing in Cantona from Leeds United in 1992 after asking speculatively about his availability is well known. What is not known is how he negotiated a contract to keep Cantona at Old Trafford after he had been banned from playing football following a Kung Fu kick against a fan at Crystal Palace in 1995.
Watch Cantona's Kung Fu kick
“When Eric returned from his suspension, I renegotiated a new three-year contract with his agent Jean-Jacques Bertrand,” Edwards explains. “I played it canny: ‘Look, we’ve got to be protective towards the club here, because if Eric does anything crazy again we can’t be paying big wages with him sitting on the touchline for eight months.’
"So the idea was for the new contract to be related to results. Eric would still get a wage, although there would be no monetary increase, but if we won the league he’d get a big bonus. And it would be the same if we won the Cup.”
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Edwards needed to sell the idea to Cantona and his agent.
“Eric was training the day Jean-Jacques Bertrand and I were going through this new contract, and I could see that the agent was not entirely won over by it,” he explains. “‘Eric could end up with less than he was getting before,’ Jean-Jacques pointed out.
‘But if we win things, he’ll get more,’ I replied. ‘And we have been winning things.’
‘We’ll have to put this to Eric when he’s finished training,’ Jean‑Jacques said.
“After training, Eric arrived at my office and I began to explain what we had done; that if we lost the league he could end up with less, but if we won it he got more. ‘So what do you think for the next three years, Eric?’ I asked. ‘How many times do you think we’ll win the league?’ His reply was immediate. ‘Three times,’ he said. Jean-Jacques Bertrand’s face fell. ‘Eric, no, be quiet, it is not in your interest to say that; there is no guarantee that you will win the league.’ But Eric looked at me: ‘Of course we are going to win the league three times.’
"Even though it was against his own bargaining position, Eric couldn’t bring himself to say anything less. No, we will win the league three times in the next three years.”
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Cantona would win the league in 1996 and 1997, the year he decided to quit football. He was 31.
“It came as a complete surprise to everyone at the club and was revealed to me during a private meeting Eric had requested in my office on the afternoon of 15 May,” Edwards explains. “He gave a number of reasons for his decision. First, he didn’t believe that United were capable of winning the [Uefa] Champions League. He also said that having played football for thirteen years, which he said was a long time, he wanted to take his life in another direction and pursue other things.
“Added to that, it had always been his plan to retire at the top. Eric wanted it known that his four and a half years at Manchester United were the happiest of his football career, along with his relationship with the manager, coaching staff and players, and not least the fans. And he wished Manchester United even more success in the future. Finally, he asked me to release the statement about his retirement while he was on holiday, when the press would be unable to contact him.
“Obviously we didn’t want Eric to leave and I tried my hardest to persuade him to stay, but if a player wants to retire you can’t do anything about it. You have to let him go.”
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News of Cantona’s retirement stunned football, but he is still remembered as a hero among United fans, one of the club’s greatest ever players. And as for that contract deal, it could not have worked out better for both sides.