Eric Cantona saga epitomises the Manchester United-Leeds rivalry | Paul Wilson

Manchester United versus Leeds will always be one of the most evocative fixtures in top-flight English football, even if Sunday’s game at Old Trafford will be the first league meeting for more than 16 years. Their rivalry is surprisingly intense given that Leeds won their first title in the Don Revie era in the 1960s and have spent much of their time outside the Premier League since becoming the last winners of the old First Division in 1992.

Ignore anyone who tells you this has anything to do with the Wars of the Roses, though historians pointing out there were decades of bitter trans-Pennine competition between the wool trade in Yorkshire and the ultimately more dominant King Cotton in Lancashire are probably close to the mark.

Certainly in terms of the urban, industrial areas of the two counties there has never been much love lost between inhabitants of Lancashire and Yorkshire and football in the past half-century or so has simply provided a convenient platform for mutual distrust.

Yet much as supporters of the two sides love to dislike each other, the clubs have far more in common than might be imagined. Unlike a traditional rivalry between clubs in the same city, players have been able to move freely and easily in both directions along the M62 in recent years. The number of big names to have played for both sides is quite remarkable.

There are players such as Johnny Giles and Gordon Strachan, who enjoyed limited success at Old Trafford before going on to win titles with Leeds, and there are players who did the opposite, such as Rio Ferdinand and Alan Smith. Joe Jordan and Gordon McQueen travelled west across the Pennines when Leeds began to fade post-Revie. But best known of all, and poignant to remember in the week following Gérard Houllier’s passing, is the only player to have won titles at Manchester United and Leeds.

Roy Keane scores for Manchester United against Leeds in 1996
Roy Keane scores for Manchester United against Leeds in 1996. Photograph: Ted Blackbrow/ANL/Shutterstock

As Manchester United supporters have been somewhat mischievously reminding everyone in the past few days, Eric Cantona might never have ended up at Old Trafford but for Houllier, then manager of France, complaining to Alex Ferguson that his top striker was mouldering in the reserves at Elland Road.

Cantona had been the catalyst for Leeds’s 1992 success – even the last title won by an English manager owed a lot to a Frenchman – though by November in the following season Howard Wilkinson had lost trust in the player and begun to look for alternatives in the forward line.

This was not entirely a new experience for Cantona. He had arrived in England in the first place because Michel Platini, Houllier’s predecessor as national coach, felt he had burned too many bridges in France. Platini knew Graeme Souness and tried to fix up a move to Liverpool first, but the-then Liverpool manager declined the invitation on the grounds that Cantona would almost certainly disrupt the dressing room harmony at Anfield.

So when Ferguson talks of Cantona arriving at Old Trafford with his collar turned up, his chest out and a sense of excitement at finally arriving on a grand enough stage, he is selling himself a little bit short. The £1.2m transfer fee United paid Leeds may be viewed as the bargain of the century given what subsequently happened, but managers in this country were not falling over themselves in the race to sign a troublesome Frenchman, even at an affordable price.

Joe Jordan celebrates a goal for Manchester United with Gordon McQueen
Joe Jordan celebrates scoring for Manchester United with Gordon McQueen, who also travelled west across the Pennines when Leeds faded post-Don Revie. Photograph: Colorsport/Shutterstock

Ferguson decided a player of Cantona’s talent could and should be accommodated and the slew of titles and doubles that immediately followed were reward for his boldness. The managerial reputations of Wilkinson, in particular, and Souness never really recovered.

Nevertheless, Wilkinson was still in charge of Leeds in April 1996 when they turned up at Old Trafford in a poor run of form, to play a Ferguson side that had just overtaken Newcastle to move top of the league. Even though they lost their goalkeeper, Mark Beeney, to a red card early in the first half, 10-man Leeds put in a redoubtable performance, with Lucas Radebe, the emergency goalkeeper, making several impressive saves and only being beaten by Roy Keane’s 72nd-minute winner.

The Leeds support who had barracked their players a few days earlier after a lacklustre performance against Chelsea applauded them from the pitch in Manchester.

What happened next is part of Premier League lore. Ferguson, partly out of loyalty to his pal Wilkinson and partly because it was true, said if Leeds played like that every week their manager would not be living in fear of the sack. He added that while teams generally like to raise their game when visiting old Trafford, it was not much use to under-pressure managers if they could not try as hard in all their games.

The Manchester United manager may, just may, have been attempting to gee up the Leeds players for their match against Newcastle in 12 days’ time, though it is extremely doubtful he was attempting to wind up Kevin Keegan, much less set in train the sequence of events that led to the Newcastle manager’s celebrated “I’d love it” outburst a few days later.

Manchester United’s Eric Cantona challenges Leeds’s Carlton Palmer for the ball in April 1996.
Manchester United’s Eric Cantona challenges Leeds’s Carlton Palmer for the ball in April 1996. Photograph: Action Images / Reuters

No one now remembers it that way or even wants to remember it that way. The idea of Ferguson playing deliberate mind games and Keegan biting like a perch on live television is far too treasurable to abandon.

Keegan never played for either United, though he did memorably fly off the handle in Liverpool’s 1974 Charity Shield game against Leeds at Wembley. After the most soporific Manchester derby in history last Saturday, it would be good to see just a little sparkiness back when northern rivals meet. It is a tall order without crowds, but if anyone can rise to a non-occasion, Manchester United and Leeds have a better chance than most.