About a month ago, Paul Ince compared Virgil van Dijk at Liverpool with Eric Cantona at Manchester United in the early 1990s. Some of Ince’s remarks have drawn ridicule of late—“I could have done the same,” he said when Ole Gunnar Solskjær racked up his sixth straight win as United boss back in January—but when it came to Cantona, Ince had first-hand knowledge. He was a young midfielder when Sir Alex Ferguson brought him from West Ham to United in 1989. With time Ince learned more about the club’s stature and its heroes—George Best, Bobby Charlton, Steve Coppell—and he found it strange that United had not won the league since the 1960s. “How can this club not win a title in twenty-six years?” he thought.
Not even Ferguson had been able to end the drought. Since taking charge in 1986, he had led United to 11th, 2nd and 11th. After Ince came on board United had ended 13th and 6th. Then in 1992, they threw way the title by losing three of their last four games, allowing Leeds to race clear. When the 1992/93 season began, United were still licking their wounds, struggling to get points and goals. The pre-season featured draws against Swansea City, Bristol City, Elfsborg and Lillestrøm. United won five of their first fifteen league games. They exited the League Cup against Aston Villa, and crashed out of the UEFA Cup after losing on penalties to Torpedo Moscow. Something had to be done.
One rainy day in November, Ferguson headed to the office of his chairman, Martin Edwards, to discuss his attacking options. Ferguson had tried to sign Alan Shearer (from Southampton) and David Hirst (Sheffield Wednesday), but Shearer had rejected him and Hirst was not for sale. Ferguson had instead opted for a young striker from Cambridge United named Dion Dublin, who had started well before fracturing his leg. Now Ferguson was looking at other names when Edwards got a call from Bill Fotherby, the Leeds chief executive. Fotherby wanted to buy Denis Irwin. Edwards said no. As Fotherby and Edwards were chit-chatting, Ferguson scribbled something on his chairman’s writing pad:
‘Ask him about Eric Cantona.’
Edwards duly asked about Cantona, and heard from Fotherby that the forward had some issues with the coach, Howard Wilkinson. Fotherby said he’d get back to Edwards within an hour.
Edwards hung up and turned to Ferguson. “Why Cantona?” he asked.
Cantona was not an obvious signing. He had a reputation as a difficult character, and though he had helped Leeds win the title months earlier, he was rumoured to have fallen out with Wilkinson. But Ferguson had heard from Gérard Houllier, the France coach, that Cantona was more professional than his reputation suggested. Besides, United were screaming out for a goalscorer. “Amid the debris of the previous season’s narrow failure,” Ferguson wrote, “my instincts had told me that we needed either someone who could light up the Old Trafford stage and lift the team to a new and dominant level or, at least, a player with the gift of scoring vital goals when games were tight.” If motivated, and if Leeds were willing to sell, perhaps Cantona could do both.
Half an hour later, Fotherby got back to Edwards and said Cantona was indeed available. Not only had Wilkinson grown tired of him; it would also transpire that Cantona had faxed through a transfer request. “The salmon that idles its way downstream will never leap the waterfall,” it read.
Edwards spent the next few minutes negotiating the price, which he brought down to £1m—the same United had paid for Dublin. As Ferguson biographer Patrick Barclay put it: “Had Fotherby suspected what would ensue, he would have demanded a world record fee. Had Edwards and Ferguson known, they would have paid it.”
Cantona would light up the Old Trafford stage. But even more profound was the effect he had on his teammates. After his first training session, Cantona asked Ferguson if he could have two players stay behind to help him practice volleys. Ferguson was taken aback: he had designed the session to include all the training that was needed. But he had heard that Cantona wanted—needed—to train hard. Not only did Ferguson give him two players to put in crosses; he also told a young goalkeeper to join in. The other players soon found out that Cantona was still out training. Such was their respect for him that, at the end of the session the next day, a group of them joined Cantona for his routine. Before long, extra practice had become part of United’s routine.
The players had all worked hard before Cantona arrived. They worked even harder now. “None of us got to know Eric well, although there was a vast, unspoken respect for him,” Gary Neville wrote in his autobiography. “In training, if the ball didn’t get played to him as he wanted he would look at you like he was going to knock you out. He had massively high standards; he was a perfectionist. But because it was Eric, you didn’t feel belittled, it just made you strive to do better. We were desperate to impress him.”
“When he came into the changing room for the first time, he was a big man, a big presence of a man, and his attitude matched our attitude,” Ince told The Times. “He had a will to win titles, he wanted to be successful.” With Cantona in the team United recovered from their woeful season opening to clinch their first league title since 1967. Over the next four seasons, they won another three league titles, plus two FA Cups. Only in 1998, the year after Cantona retired, did United slump to second. Cantona did not just give United the goalscorer they craved; he infused into the team a winning mentality, a kind of arrogance, that lifted them to new heights. “When we brought Eric Cantona in,” Ince said, “it was the final piece of the jigsaw”.
The same year that Cantona retired, Ince joined Liverpool. What Ince found was similar to what he had first encountered at United. “The team we had at Liverpool when I was there was more than capable of winning the title,” he told The Times. “But they never believed it. I could see that desire and determination to win the title at United. Everything was done right, they conducted themselves in the right way, they trained the right way. At Liverpool we had a very good team and quality, but we didn’t have that mindset and professionalism to win the title.”
Liverpool haven’t won the title since 1990. They have gone close, but even then they have seemed to be one or two key signings away from making the final step. In 2014, under Brendan Rodgers, they scored a hundred and one goals but conceded fifty. When Jürgen Klopp took charge a year later, he began a stint in which Liverpool continued to wobble at the back. For two years Klopp had to endure criticism of how Liverpool defended: they couldn’t clear set pieces, they made silly mistakes, they looked uncertain, they lacked authority. Klopp always protected his players. But he too must have known that something was missing.
Then Van Dijk arrived from Southampton in December 2017. Klopp had tried to sign him the summer before, and so highly did he rate him that, rather than going for other options, he decided to wait until winter. Liverpool had conceded twenty-three league goals in the first half of the season. In the second half they shipped fifteen. This season they have conceded as many in twenty-nine games, a figure that has enabled them to keep up with Manchester City at the top. Jamie Carragher now says that Van Dijk is a ‘shoe-in’ for the PFA Player of the Year. Klopp has also lauded Van Dijk—“his mix of both playing ability and leadership quality makes him outstanding”—and compared him to an SUV.
“Straightaway he was organising the defence, he was the leader at the back, and as time has gone on he is even more important,” says Sami Hyypiä. “He gives confidence to the players and makes many other players play better.” These were some of the qualities that made Ince liken Van Dijk to Cantona. “I look at Van Dijk and think he has made the rest of the players around him better,” Ince told The Times. “Liverpool have that presence about them, that presence that we had. Teams have got to be scared about coming up against you. People look and think, ‘Jesus, we have got Liverpool next week.’ This team has that now and that is a good quality to have when you are going for a title.”
“This is a great time to be a Liverpool player,” Van Dijk said back in September. “Everyone is excited, everyone wants to be a part of it and though we know the season is very long, with four competitions to play in, we want to win everything. That is basically our mindset.”