Friday, 14 October 2011
What If? #2 Cantona Hadn't Signed For Manchester United
November 1992, Alex Ferguson's office. The phone rings.
"Alex, it's Martin. Listen, Leeds are on the line again. Howard Wilkinson wants to speak to you."
"Did he say what about? It better not be bloody Irwin again."
"No but he's very keen apparently. You're not going to sell him Denis Irwin are you?"
"No chance. But put him through. There's something I've been thinking about asking him anyway...
"Howard, how are you?"
"Good thanks, Alex, good, yeah. Look I know I've asked you about this before but Mel Sterland's got a knock and I'd really like to get Denis Irwin in, we need a right back and you know, with respect, Irwin's right-footed and well, you keep playing him at left back. The board's willing to pay good money this time and you could make a good profit and use the cash to buy a proper left back."
"Look Howard, I'm not even interested. Denis is a top lad, one of the best. He'd play anywhere for me. Ask George if he'll sell you Lee Dixon. He's always up for doing a deal and he got that kid in from Scandinavia last year, no idea why. But listen Howard, while you're on, how much would you want for Cantona?"
"Cantona? Are you pulling my leg Alex? We're the league champions and he's the guy that did it for us. He's brilliant, a winner, my talisman, a French philosopher amid the stodge of Chris Whyte humping long balls up to Lee Chapman. I'm going to build my next team around him, I've got some great kids coming through. I reckon Eric could be the guy to take English football to new heights of professionalism and technical excellence. I know the Irwin thing was a bit cheeky but were you really thinking I'd sell you my best player for a million quid?"
"Fair dos Howard, fair dos. I might put a bid in for Brian Deane instead."
"Yeah he's a good lad Deano, I've been thinking about getting him in myself."
June 1993. Ron Atkinson's Aston Villa are the inaugural Premier League champions. Arsenal have won both domestic cups. Having rallied into contention following the winter signing of Brian Deane, Ferguson's United fell backwards again towards the end of the season under the psychological pressure of 25 years without a league title and Atkinson's now legendary 'mind games' clearly got under Ferguson's skin. Ferguson refuses to resign but after lengthy consideration the United board decide to part company with him and - in a sop to unhappy senior pros in the dressing room - install Bryan Robson as player-manager. Later that summer Roy Keane signs for Blackburn after Robson tells him that he would be used mostly as a utility player to cover when "Incey is injured or when Brucey, Pally, Sparky or I have had a few too many on a Friday night".
August 1995. Jack Walker-backed Blackburn are now back-to-back champions. Robson has failed to arrest United's league title drought or his own on-pitch decline but retains the residual support of the fans following a 1994 FA Cup win and has the backing of the dressing room. Ince has signed for Inter Milan. However Robson is distrustful of introducing United's talented crop of youngsters such as Paul Scholes, who he sees as too lightweight for English football and not direct enough. Ryan Giggs is regularly left out for Lee Sharpe, whom Robson prefers for his early crosses aimed at his first choice front pairing of Brian Deane and Dion Dublin rather than Giggs' preference for cutting inside, playing a pass or beating a man. David Beckham is given one start away at Wimbledon but is hauled off after attempting an audacious chipped shot from behind the half-way line. Later that month he is sent for a second loan spell at Preston. After Ferguson opines that United will "never win anything with kids" only Nicky Butt is given a regular starting spot in place of Paul Ince. Gary Neville signs for Leeds.
July 1996. Britain is booming and with Sky TV money pouring in football is at the heart of a new pop culture at home and cool Britannia image abroad. The middle classes flock to the game with its all-seater stadiums and glamorous new Champions League. Wilkinson's rebuilt Leeds are again the league champions, pipping Kevin Keegan's attractive Newcastle, and - on the back of their success - are selling millions of shirts in Asia, funding a massive redevelopment of Elland Road and fuelling a financial dominance of English football. Robson's United are a less attractive prospect than Leeds' combination of Cantona and an exciting crop of kids, Keegan's Newcastle or Liverpool's emerging Spice Boys side and, with the costs of redeveloping Old Trafford prohibitive, a move to Manchester's planned 2002 Commonwealth Games stadium is mooted while Giggs joins Ince at Inter.
However Robson is boosted by his participation in England's Euro '96 campaign and, his own playing days having been curtailed by a career-ending knee-high tackle at Blackburn ("take that you cunt, not bad for a utility player" - Roy Keane will later reveal to have said to him), decides to bring Paul Gascoigne back to English football and sign Paul Merson to keep him company. But with a drinking culture still prevalent in the United dressing room this proves to be the worst possible environment for them and, after a disastrous run of results in mid-season, Terry Venables is brought in alongside Robson to help stave off relegation.
May 1997. Robson is relieved of his duties. Seeking to imitate Arsenal's success with an unheralded foreign manager who encourages clean living, Manchester United move quickly for Grasshopper's promising Christian Gross. Cantona shocks football and retires from double champions Leeds United to take up a post as creative director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the heart of an artistic and cultural revival in the city that has become the powerhouse of the northern economy.
July 1998. In a bid to revive the club's flagging fortunes, new United chairman Ken Bates (the head of a consortium backed by Fred Goodwin of RBS and US investment bank Lehman Brothers) installs Peter Risdale as chief executive and Glenn Hoddle as manager and embarks on a speculative spending spree designed to catapult the club into the Champions League, leveraged against future TV income and a plan to sell off Old Trafford after moving to the Commonwealth Games site once it has been rebuilt as luxury flats to be sold in the booming sub-prime mortgages market in Salford. Hoddle appoints Eileen Drewery as his assistant with responsibility for conducting all 'medicals' of prospective new signings. Recruits include Dean Richards, Seth Johnson, Robbie Fowler and Robbie Keane, who are lured with vast long-term contract offers. Keane declares himself delighted with the deal, saying he was always a Man Utd fan as a child.
May 1999. Wilkinson seals a decade of dominance over English football with a miraculous comeback in the Champions League final that completes an unprecedented treble and sends him to the Palace to arise as Sir Howard. However, while Cantona's stay in his new job proves to be short-lived (he quits before being sacked over a violent assault on a member of the audience sat in the front row), his influence on Leeds' football team lives on in the golden generation of youth team players including Jonathan Woodgate and Harry Kewell, and shrewd acquisitions such as Rio Ferdinand and - in a stunning coup - Andy Cole that he nurtured and inspired.
With Keegan now England manager and his recommended successor at Newcastle Alan Shearer not faring so well - and Liverpool's Spice Boys having imploded in a blaze of bad publicity (Stan Collymore's marriage to Victoria Adams ending in a messy divorce centring on dogging claims) - Wilkinson's spell is broken only by Arsene Wenger's arrival at Arsenal and, later, Roman Abramovich's investment in Chelsea, but he retires gracefully as one of the all-time greats and finest manager England never had. Ferguson has long since become a regular pundit on the BBC, in a deal arranged by his son and agent Jason.
*This piece was filed before we realised that the chaps over at The Dubious Goals Committee had got there first. But check theirs out here.