Twenty five years ago, Bill Fotherby made a phone call that changed English football.
The former Leeds United managing director asked about the availability of Manchester United defender Denis Irwin.
By the end of the day he had managed to send Eric Cantona on his way to Old Trafford.
Eric Cantona’s move from Leeds to Manchester United changed the course of English football
Fotherby does not regret ringing up his Manchester United counterpart Martin Edwards after a request from then Leeds manager, Howard Wilkinson.
‘We were struggling,’ says the 86-year-old, still proudly wearing his Leeds blazer when we meet at his home in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.
‘Howard said to me, ‘Bill, you know Martin Edwards, can you ring and ask him if there’s a chance we could have Denis Irwin?’
‘Edwards says, ‘Oh Bill, there’s no chance of getting Denis Irwin, no chance at all’.
‘But he asked whether we’d let Cantona go. ‘Impossible! You must be crazy,’ I replied, ‘He’s a star. We’ll be hung drawn and quartered’.’
Bill Fotherby has no regrets about making the call which led to Cantona being sold to United
Wilkinson was out looking for a new home in Leeds, so Fotherby spoke to one of his coaches, Mick Hennigan. ‘All the conversations with Howard and Mick Hennigan were, ‘If you can get Cantona out of Leeds, get him out’,’ reveals Fotherby. ‘On our training ground they would go through set-plays and moves. Howard was very strict.
‘He would say, ‘You, Cantona, you stand in front of the centre-half.’ Cantona would reply, ‘I don’t do this’.’ Fotherby mimes someone spitting.
‘He wouldn’t stand there and head the ball. He walked off. This made them want him out. He was causing a little bit of friction.
‘So I went to Hennigan, I told him the story. He said, ‘Bill, if you can…’. I didn’t tell Howard, left it a few hours and rang Martin back. ‘I can’t believe what Howard just said to me,’ I said, bluffing. ‘He’ll let him go, but I want £1.5million’.’
Fotherby admits Leeds couldn’t afford to keep Cantona after signing him for £500,000
Fotherby admits the club could not afford to keep Cantona after paying a fee of £500,000 to sign him permanently in August 1992.
He continues: ‘I don’t think I’d have changed anything.
‘The relationship I had with Howard… whatever he suggested to me (I did). We were very tight for money at that time. It was done that night. And then all hell was let loose.’
Months earlier, Leeds had been crowned champions of England. Everyone had assumed the 1991-92 season would bring Alex Ferguson’s first title at Old Trafford, but unfancied Leeds had other ideas.
‘Everyone was sky high,’ Fotherby recalls. ‘Ferguson used to say to me, ‘Aye Willie, how are you Willie?’ ‘To win that championship… especially from Manchester United!’
Cantona poses with the United shirt alongside Sir Alex Ferguson after sealing his transfer
Fotherby is proud of taking Leeds from the second tier to the Division One title and his legacy in leaving a stable Premier League side with a crop of young talents when he was succeeded by Peter Ridsdale in June 1997.
He made sweeping changes to the commercial side of the club and certainly understood the power of publicity.
Once, he says, Fotherby approached Diego Maradona’s agent Jon Smith about trying to buy the Argentina star.
‘Jon said, ‘Bill, you couldn’t afford Maradona. No chance. Do you realise that you’re talking £8million?’.
‘Everyone thought we were crazy. But I got Smith up to Leeds and we had lunch in the box, looking onto the pitch. ‘Look Bill,’ he said. ‘We’re bringing him over for a match between England and the World XI. Now, the possibilities of him having a game at Leeds… what could you do?’
Fotherby flew to Rome in an attempt to sign Paul Gascoigne as a replacement for Cantona
‘I said we could fix it up with the city council, make it a big do. ‘But it mustn’t leak out.’
‘We go have dinner after dropping him off. There are two people I know there, big Leeds fans. ‘We saw you at the airport. Who are you going to sign?’. So I said, ‘All I’m going to say is, think of Evita’. Soon we were getting phone calls from Buenos Aires about Maradona. Directors of Arsenal and Tottenham are asking: ‘Are you going for b****y Maradona? Where have you got the money from?’
But Fotherby came closer to signing a replacement for Cantona in Paul Gascoigne. He flew to Rome to try and seal the deal, only to arrive at the England star’s villa in the dark and find Gascoigne was not there.
‘I’ll never forget, big gates, rang the bell, no answer. I went round and rang the next villa’s bell. All of a sudden a b****y big dog jumped up at the gate and frightened me to death.
‘I went back and had dinner with the (Lazio) chairman. He told me: ‘We’ll do a deal, but you must not tell a soul that you’re here for him’. I agreed.
Fotherby called United chairman Martin Edwards to discuss the availability of Denis Irwin
‘I got up the following morning and went down for breakfast. I got the Gazetta newspaper. Headline: ‘Fotherby, managing director of Leeds United, here to sign Gascoigne’. The deal fell apart.’
Fotherby pops with energy as he talks about battling Brian Clough and hiring Wilkinson after discussing the details with him in a service station car park — Wilkinson’s wife was fearful that Fotherby was part of the mafia because of his favourite fedora hat.
He may be best remembered as the man who sold Cantona, but the emotion in his voice is clear when he talks about his time at Elland Road.
‘Leeds was the best thing I ever did,’ he says. ‘It was my life.’
He didn’t manage to get Denis Irwin, though