The story that surrounded Cantona’s move to Manchester is a bizarre one, starting with an enquiry from Leeds about the possibility of re-signing full-back Denis Irwin.
United manager Alex Ferguson was fairly clear that Irwin was not for sale, but instructed chairman Martin Edwards to counter enquire about Cantona instead.
The Frenchman had won the league with Leeds just six months earlier, but some onlookers viewed him as a potential troublemaker due to his chequered past in his homeland. Leeds chairman Bill Fotherby decided to take the deal, selling for £1.2m.
It was modest fee even by 1992 standards, given that United had paid £1.7m for Paul Parker just over a year earlier, as well as more than twice that each for Paul Ince and Gary Pallister in 1989.
At the time, United were eighth in the inaugural Premier League table and in the club’s 26th year without a league title. They trailed early leaders Norwich by nine points and, until victory over Oldham in the days immediately before Cantona’s arrival, had gone seven games without a win.
Cantona was signed too late to make his debut in the trip to Arsenal at the end of November – Mark Hughes scored the only goal at Highbury in a crucial momentum building win against the side who were second in the table at the time.
The Frenchman’s first appearance in a United shirt, wearing number 10 on his back, came in a friendly against Benfica on 1 December to celebrate Eusebio’s 50th birthday.
But it was a few days after that, exactly 27 years ago today (6 December) in the Manchester derby that Cantona made his official debut as a Manchester United player. In the days before fixed squad numbers, he wore 12 on his back.
That game against Manchester City was otherwise fairly unremarkable. United took a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Paul Ince and Hughes and eventually prevailed 2-1. Cantona came off the bench at half-time to replace Ryan Giggs, who had just celebrated his 19th birthday.
Then came Cantona. He netted his first United goal in the next game to equalise and rescue a point against Chelsea, repeating the trick on Boxing Day against Sheffield Wednesday. Two more goals and three assists came as 1992 became 1993 – United finished New Year’s Day only three points behind Norwich in second place, having all but wiped out the lead.
Cantona ended the 1992/93 season with nine goals and 11 assists in 22 Premier League appearances for United, with the team winning 15 of the games he played. That ensured they finished top of the pile, 10 points clear of second place Aston Villa, yielding a first league title since 1967.
With a taste for winning, United went on to claim a Premier League and FA Cup double in the 1993/94 season, while Cantona himself placed third in the 1993 Ballon d’Or standings. Another double followed in 1995/96 as the Frenchman also acted as mentor to a new younger generation of players, while he wound down his career with one league triumph in 1996/97.
Ferguson’s managerial brilliance was responsible for everything United achieved. But Cantona’s arrival was the necessary catalyst for success at Old Trafford, not just during his own relatively short time at the club, but for two long decades of dominance that came after 1992.
27 years on from his debut, as United prepare to face Manchester City again, a talented but inconsistent squad falling short of its full potential is crying out for a catalyst once more to finally drag the club into a new era.
The time is now, but who will step up, answer the call and assume that role?