Cantona brief encounter’s sliding doors moment in Sheffield Wednesday’s history

The irrepressible French legend may have thought he was on trial at Hillsborough but Trevor Francis never intended on buying him — much to fans’ disappointment, writes Laura Lawrence.

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In January 1992, Eric Cantona landed on English soil not knowing the impact he would make on the game. On the 30th anniversary, I wanted to look at the mythology about Cantona’s arrival.

To Sheffield Wednesday fans it is a sliding doors moment in our history. The legend is that Trevor Francis, the then-Owls manager, brought Cantona in for a trial. The northern winter was harsh and outdoor training wasn’t possible. There’s footage of the Frenchman playing in the gymnasium at Hillsborough like an indoor PE session. According to Francis in his 2012 autobiography, One in a Million, Cantona only played on “an Astroturf pitch in Rotherham” and “an indoor game against an American team”.

That “indoor game” Cantona played was an Masters tournament at Sheffield Arena. This match is legendary among Wednesday fans. It’s the only time he donned the blue and white stripes of the Owls. Sheffield Wednesday won the match 4-3, with Cantona scoring a hat-trick.

While Cantona believed he was at Hillsborough for a trial, Francis disputed this version of events in his autobiography. “He was there purely as a favour for Dennis Roach and (Michel) Platini. I had made that clear right from the start.” Roach was an agent who negotiated Francis’s transfer to Sampdoria.

Cantona had announced his retirement from football the month before in a dramatic end to a turbulent few years in France. In the 1988/89 season, he was banned from international matches for insulting Henri Michel, the national team manager. A few months later during a friendly match with Marseille, he kicked the ball at the crowd and threw away his shirt after he was substituted. The club banned him for a month. This led to loan moves where there were fights with team-mates and further bans. When he did return to Marseille, Cantona threw the ball at a referee and was banned for a month. Instead of accepting his punishment gracefully he called every one of the committee panel an “idiot” resulting in an extended ban.

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The English newspapers salivated at his possible transfer to England. ‘Mad Eric’, ‘Eric Le Brat’ was coming out of retirement. Whatever Cantona believed Francis never intended on buying the volatile player.

“Before agreeing I told Dennis (Roach) that I didn’t mind helping as long as it did not cost the club any money – air fares, hotels, other travel – everything had to be paid for by his party.” While we saw the briefest glimpse of Cantona in blue and white, it was in the white of Leeds United that he would play. Leeds would go on to win the last ever First Division title before the Premier League’s inception the following August. Sheffield Wednesday would finish third.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, unless you’re a Sheffield Wednesday fan reading what could have been.

Follow Laura on Twitter @YICETOR

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