Trevor Francis has revealed the truth behind one of the most controversial transfers in Yorkshire football.
Eric Cantona became a football legend by helping turn Leeds United and Manchester United into champions of England.
But he was introduced to the English game by Francis in the January of 1992 during his time as Sheffield Wednesday manager.
It is part of footballing folklore that Francis missed out on acquiring one of the game’s greatest players because he refused to sign Cantona before watching him play on grass. But in an exclusive interview with the Yorkshire Post, Francis finally gives his version of events.
It will be 20 years ago next week that Cantona helped guide Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds to the Division One title, a season which saw Francis and the Owls finish third.
Cantona would go on to join Manchester United and become one of the world’s best-known players, but Francis is quick to dispute the long-held view that he ‘turned down’ the chance to sign him for Wednesday.
He says the Owls could never have hoped to sign Cantona and that he only took the Frenchman to Hillsborough as a personal favour to Michel Platini so that he could be put in “the shop window” for a move to England.
At the time, ‘bad boy’ Cantona had retired from football after falling foul of the French authorities, but France national coach Platini wanted Cantona to pick up his fractured career in England.
“I don’t think it was ever reported as it should have been,” said Francis. “I was doing a favour for a former agent of mine, Dennis Roach, who took me to Italy (as a player).
“He approached me with Michel Platini, who was the French coach at the time – he had already asked Graeme Souness at Liverpool and he had said no – and asked me if I would do a favour to Platini.
“He was very keen to get Eric Cantona back playing. He had retired from French football and wondered if I would have a little look at him in training.
“I said ‘I’m not really in need of another centre-forward, but as a favour, of course, I will do it’. It wasn’t a problem doing it for Platini, a former great as he was, who I knew from my time in Italy when I played against him at Juventus on numerous occasions.”
Cantona’s arrival in Sheffield caused something of a media circus as he trained indoors at the Sheffield Arena.
“Cantona came over and I was a little surprised when he arrived here,” admitted Francis. “It was built up as if I was looking to sign Eric Cantona which was never, ever a consideration.
“He was here to do a few days training, basically putting himself in the shop window. It took me by surprise the entourage he arrived with.
“He had his team with him, a lot of media attention surrounded him and, at the time, we were in the midst of some pretty bad Yorkshire weather.
“We weren’t able to get on the grass at the training ground. We went onto an astroturf area which was made available to us and had a little kick around up there. Then the following day there was an indoor tournament at Sheffield Arena which made a lot of headlines because I asked him if he wanted to have a play in that and he had a kick around in that.
“After those two days, it was put to me are you going to sign him and I said: ‘Well, I don’t think so. We would like him to stay for a few more days training for him to enjoy himself and for us to have a little look at him’.
“I think his manager took that as a little bit of an insult. I don’t know if it was a breakdown in translation or communication or what but they regarded it as he was Eric Cantona and he was not going to be a player on trial.
“The whole thing got a little bit messy and he came to me and said ‘I have got a chance to go to Leeds’, so he had my blessing and off he went to Leeds and that’s basically it.
“I have never really put my side of the story, but that’s how it was, chapter and verse.”
Francis would go on to build on the legacy left by Ron Atkinson, helping the Owls to both FA Cup and League Cup finals in 1993, and finishing third, seventh, seventh and 13th during his time at Hillsborough.
England internationals like Chris Waddle, Des Walker and Andy Sinton helped turn the Owls into one of the best teams of the Nineties, but at the time of Cantona’s arrival at Hillsborough, the team mainly comprised players recruited on Division Two wages.
“Later on, the likes of Sinton, Walker and Waddle came to the club and the average wage increased, but at the time we had only just come in to the top league and the majority of our players were on Championship (Division Two) contracts,” recalled Francis.
“To even contemplate getting Cantona into our ‘little’ Sheffield Wednesday team was never really a starter, but, unfortunately, the story got kind of twisted.
“There was never a realistic chance that Wednesday would sign him. It was never a consideration of mine to bring Eric Cantona to the club.
“It was only a phone call and a bit of a favour that I was doing for a couple of friends, Dennis Roach and Michel Platini, and the rest is history.”
Cantona’s arrival at Elland Road helped the Whites go on to be crowned English champions, before a surprise £1.2m move to Old Trafford where, Francis acknowledges, he gained legendary status.
“He went to Leeds and did okay,” said Francis, who is currently at home in the Midlands recovering from minor heart surgery having suffered a mild heart attack two weeks ago.
“I became very friendly with Howard Wilkinson in Sheffield and in the year that Leeds won the championship, Howard couldn’t find a regular place for Cantona.
“I don’t think Howard was too perturbed when he received a million pounds – obviously he wasn’t otherwise he wouldn’t have let him move on to Manchester United.
“The success of Eric Cantona is legendary. Not so much at what he did at Sheffield Wednesday – he was only there for two days – or for that matter what he did at Leeds, yet at Manchester United he was just incredible.”