Player, Manchester United, 1980-1986 & 1988-1995
Eric Cantona was the first forward I played with who would drift into spaces.
Predominantly, during my playing career, teams played 4-4-2. One striker came short and the other went long, and you just played off each other.
I played with my back to goal. I saw my job as being about retaining possession, resisting challenges, bringing people into the game.
But not Eric. He was constantly looking for spaces where he felt he could have an impact – and if he did get the ball in those spaces between the lines, as we call it now, he could be very dangerous.
He would mix up his game, too. Sometimes he would come up alongside me, other times he would drop 20 or 30 yards off me. I’d be thinking: “I’m supposed to be playing with a partner here.” But he was very, very clever – he understood the game really, really well, and he knew how he could have the best possible impact in any situation.
Watching him, and understanding what he was trying to do, enabled me to add something to my own game, too. I’ll always be grateful to him for those insights.
I wasn’t a forward when I first arrived at Manchester United as a teenager.
As a kid, I was never without a football. At weekends, I would play for my school in the morning, my youth club in the afternoon and then with my mates in the street until it went dark.
In those teams, though, I was always a midfield player. But I went to United, and six months in I wasn’t really progressing. Maybe as a last throw of the dice, my youth team coach Sid Owen decided he was going to play me up front against a Norwegian team. I’d never had any coaching in the position and didn’t really know what I was doing, but I ended up scoring three goals.
I think the view then was: “He’s not going to make it as a midfielder, so let’s persevere with him up front.”
Managers were generally reluctant to throw kids in to the first team back then, so it was a couple of years before I made my debut – and even that owed to circumstances. It was a League Cup game and Arthur Graham had, shall we say, an upset stomach. He was in a little bit of trouble in the dressing room, so I was told minutes before the game that I was playing.
My view was always that, if you got an opportunity, you had to try and take it – you never knew when you might get another one. So I played, and scored a goal that took the tie to a replay we won. I didn’t play particularly well, if I’m honest, but I got the goal, got a few headlines and made an impact.
I’d got my foot in the door, and there was a little bit of trust in me from the manager, Ron Atkinson. He saw that I could be effective at that level, so from then on it was up to me to keep building on my performances.
From there, I had two good years. I broke into the team, scored goals and was named PFA Young Player of the Year for 1984/85. I was in a good place, and then all of a sudden a year later, this opportunity was presented to me to go to Barcelona.
The reality from my point of view is that I didn’t want to go. I was having a great time, playing in a good team in a fantastic stadium with great fans. I was enjoying every minute of it, and I really should have just come out and told the club that. That would have been the end of it.
Instead, because of circumstances surrounding my contract, there was maybe a feeling that I was likely to leave. The club had to protect themselves and push for a fee they felt was representative of my value at the time, and so the move happened.
“Gary Lineker was out in Barcelona with me, and we were flying by the seat of our pants”
As a player, I think I was viewed as being quite aggressive. Transferring my natural game, the game that had got me to the level I had reached with United, into Spanish football was a challenge. The game was refereed very differently over there, and referees were on me almost immediately.
I became frustrated, because I was at a new club and I wanted to impress. I was struggling to score goals, and because the build-up was a bit slower I wasn’t getting the quality of ball I was used to and in areas where I felt I could be more effective.
In the end, I was playing the type of game that wasn’t really what I was about on the pitch – and struggling a bit off it.
At that time, there was no support structure in place for new players – clubs didn’t have the departments dedicated to player liaison and support that exist now. I was just stuck in a hotel and told to make my own way to training grounds and stadiums. I had no language and nobody to really help me. Gary Lineker was out there with me, and we were flying by the seat of our pants. Gary had just got married and had his wife with him, but I had only just met my future wife and she wasn’t always there with me. They were difficult times.
Things were different at Bayern Munich. They had football people in charge there: people like Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, who was already very high up in the club. They understood what was important to players and what players needed to be comfortable off the pitch and perform on it. I was really impressed with Munich and enjoyed playing there – if it had been any club other than United coming back in for me, I would almost certainly have stayed there.
By the time I returned, in the summer of 1988, Sir Alex Ferguson was manager. He picked me up, I think he took me to my medical, and we just drove and talked about football. I’d heard that he was a strong manager who suffered no fools – he was prepared to be a very strong presence in the dressing room, and I was okay with that. In fact, I was looking forward to it.
There was plenty of pressure around the club, of course. We had been in the shadow of Liverpool and their great teams of that period. We always felt that we were the greatest club, but we weren’t the greatest team. There was always that feeling that we weren’t where we needed to be or where we should be.
“The papers were telling everybody that Ferguson needed to win or he’d be sacked – as players, we never felt that”
Sir Alex was obviously strong-willed, but he understood exactly what was required. United had been allowed to drift, maybe, and the standards and behaviours of players and people around the club weren’t where they needed to be if the team was to be as successful as it should be. He understood that from the off, and was clearly going to do something about it.
He also had the total support of the chairman and board of directors; they knew he was the best man for the job, but also that it was going to take time. The question has often been asked as to whether he would have kept the job for so long in this day and age, given that we weren’t playing particularly well and it had been two or three years without any success. At a club like United, clearly he would have been under pressure a lot sooner.
I remember that FA Cup tie against Nottingham Forest in 1990, when the papers were telling everybody that he needed to win or he was going to be sacked. As players, though, we never really felt that was the case – and the United fans were great on the day, coming out in their thousands and really backing him.
People from the outside might have been saying: “Fergie needs to go, his time’s up.” But the club held strong, and that was clearly a key moment.
As a coach, you come to learn that you are never as bad as people think you are when you’re having a bad time – and that you’re not as good as people say when things are going well. Every coach has those sliding-door moments through their career, where things can go either way – that line between success and failure. They are fine margins, but they can shape your career – and that FA Cup win in 1990 was perhaps that moment for Sir Alex.
After winning the FA Cup, we won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991 – we beat Barcelona 2-1 in the final, and I scored both goals – and then the League Cup in 1992. We got a taste for winning things, and I think that’s important for a group of players – to develop an understanding of what it takes to get over the line and lift a trophy.
We still hadn’t won the league title, though, and with every season that passed without us doing so, the pressure grew. So when we got so close in the 1991/92 season but missed out again, there was that feeling that maybe it wasn’t going to happen for us as a group.
“Senior players would look at what Eric was doing and think: ‘We need to get involved in this’”
At that point, Sir Alex could very easily have ripped up that team and started to build a new one. But he had trust in us. I think he knew we were a group of predominantly strong individuals who had what was needed to get us over the line. Clearly he needed other players – and Eric’s arrival was the catalyst to bring it all together – but I think people sometimes forget that we weren’t a bad team before that.
We weren’t a million miles away, but Eric brought that little sprinkling of stardust we had maybe just lacked before then. His presence and his manner were as important off the field as on it, too. He was a first-rate trainer, always first out and last in, and that permeated right through the club.
Senior players have big egos, but we would look at him and think: “What’s he up to today?” He’d be out there doing flicks and volleys and skills, and we said: “Right, we need to get involved in this.”
So we joined him, and that group got bigger, and then in time we had the likes of Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Paul Scholes watching on. As they came through, they developed exactly the same mindset.
Having finally won the league in 1992/93 (above), we followed up with the double the following season – I scored a goal that got us out of jail against Oldham in the FA Cup semi finals – but then in January 1995 the club bought Andy Cole. The writing looked to be on the wall for me; the idea was obviously to pair Andy with Eric up front.
I was never a player who was comfortable just to say I played for Manchester United – I needed to be on the pitch, not sitting in the stands, so for me I thought that was it. But then, within weeks of Andy signing, Eric had his little moment at Crystal Palace.
At the time, I didn’t think he was going to be able to come back from that – so, with Eric not in the frame, I signed a new contract and expected to continue my United career. When it became clear that he would be returning to the team in the autumn, I knew it was time to move on.
I don’t recall ever sitting down with Sir Alex and going through my situation or his thoughts on my future. I knew things were being put in place to move me on, but you have to accept it sometimes. I wasn’t happy, of course – United was my club, I’d been there since I was 14 and I’d had a fantastic time there.
But Sir Alex’s thinking was always that, once a player got to 30 or 31, he could move you on but still get a bit of value for you. I think the club got about £1.5m when they sold me to Chelsea (above), so I can understand now exactly what he was thinking.
I was 31, but I didn’t think any of my skills or strengths had diminished. I still felt like I had a lot of time left in the game as a player.
Thankfully, in subsequent spells with Chelsea, Southampton, Everton and Blackburn, I think I was able to prove it.
Author: Tony Hodson