Jim White

Eric helped players earn king’s ransoms

Last weekend, Manchester United fans celebrated the 20th anniversary of Eric Cantona signing for the club with a march to Old Trafford ahead of the QPR game featuring hundreds of fans wearing masks of their hero.

Amid the welter of excited memories of the Frenchman's time at Old Trafford, however, one fact really sang out. When Cantona signed for United from Leeds in November 1992, his contract was initially worth £3,000 a week. Nothing else quite speaks of the change that has taken place over 20 years of the Premier League's existence than the earnings of the competition's first superstar.

Compare that figure to the sum Arsene Wenger claims Robin Van Persie was offered to join Manchester City in the summer: £300,000 a week. In other words, in two decades, the cost of recruiting the best available football talent has risen a hundred fold.

The easy jibe to make at this revelation would be: is Van Persie really worth a hundred Cantonas? He may possess a pretty smart left foot, his goals may be fuelling United's title challenge, but it is unlikely he will have quite the transformative effect on the club Cantona did. This is no criticism of Van Persie: nobody could.

Another way of looking at it is not so much that Van Persie, Tevez, Torres and Augero and the rest are hugely overpaid, but maybe £150,000 a year was not as much as Cantona deserved to be earning. True, his money had nearly doubled by the time he retired, but in comparison to the muscle his exploits added to United's bottom line, he was entitled to feel short-changed.

Thanks in part to the boost he gave to the Premier League in its early years, adding to its lustre and saleability, its income has shot up exponentially. In 1992, when Cantona joined United, the club's turnover was roughly £25m, of which only £3m came from broadcasting. Last season it was over £330m, of which nearly £60m was television money.

There is a certain logic which suggests that it is largely the efforts of the players that generates that sort of income, so the players should be the major beneficiaries. And they are. Cantona was the League's leading star in 1992. Twenty years on, there is not a player in action in the Premier League this weekend who will be earning less than he was then. When every single worker is on superstar wages, then that is some financial revolution.

And the figures are only going in one direction. The next broadcasting deal, which comes into effect next season, the league's 21st, is absolutely gargantuan. Nearly £3 billion a year from domestic and overseas deals mean that the club which comes bottom of the table and is shown on the box the least will next season receive a larger cheque from television than Manchester City did last season as champions.

A guarantee of over £60m in a season: that is the reason why speculators from the Middle East, Asia and Russia are scrambling to buy up Championship clubs, Leeds but the latest. It is some trough to get your snout into, even if the scoffing only lasts a season.

The question is: what does the game do with all that additional cash? Stadiums have largely been rebuilt, training facilities spruced up, academies developed. The infrastructure is done. Some of us would like to see some of the money recycled back into the grassroots.

Imagine if, as a requirement for membership of the Premier League, every club had been obliged each year to build a floodlit 3G astroturf pitch at a school in their area. Each one costs around £350,000, so it wouldn't be beyond the bounds of plausibility. That would mean, across the life of the Premier League, there would now be 40 state-of-the-art all-weather facilities in Merseyside alone. What a boost that would have given to the game.

But you can't legislate to enforce philanthropy. So it hasn't happened. Instead, the money has mostly gone to the players and their representatives. In order to secure and then maintain a place at the top table, chairmen are prepared to fork out whatever it takes to those they reckon can keep them there. Good for local Ferrari dealerships, perhaps, but not so useful for the rest of society.

And you suspect that is not going to change. With such huge rewards available for securing their services, when it comes to bargaining, players are in the strongest position.

Back in 1979, it was reckoned a pointer of football's coming of financial age when Nottingham Forest signed Trevor Francis from Birmingham City for £1m. 20 years on from Eric Cantona being prepared to bring his magic to Manchester for £3,000 a week, it will not be long now before we see England's first £1m a week player.

Who will it be? Wilfried Zaha? Jack Wilshire? Enzo Fernandes, the son of Zinedine Zidane? One thing is certain: they are out there.