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Jordi Cruyff opens up about his time at United, Roy Keane and his ‘chauffeur’ Eric Cantona

Former Dutch international explains why moving to Red Devils freed him from living in the shadow of his legendary father

Barcelona sporting director Jordi Cruyff spent four years at Manchester United. Photo: Getty© Getty Images

Jordi Cruyff celebrating a goal in August 1996 with David Beckham, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Allsport/Getty Images/Hulton Archive)© Hulton Archive

Jason BurtTelegraph.co.uk

It is one of football’s sliding-doors moments, but it could have been Jordi Cruyff and not David Beckham who scored that goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon on the opening day of the 1996-’97 season.

“I tried before but mine didn’t go on target – I’m serious,” laughs Cruyff of a moment that not just launched the ball over Neil Sullivan’s head but also launched ‘Becks’ onto the world stage.

“I’m not going to say I gave him (Beckham) the idea,” Cruyff adds. “But it was in the same game; I tried, but it didn’t work – and if people don’t remember, then that shows it wasn’t very memorable . . . but the way Becks hit it was amazing.”

It seems strange looking back, but at the time Cruyff was more of a star than Beckham, having that summer joined United from Barcelona following the trauma of the Catalan club forcing out his father, Johan, as coach.

​He chose United over Real Madrid due to the “liberation” from the “stress” of being compared to his father, joining a club that was embarking on an unprecedented period of success under Alex Ferguson.

“That’s where I was just myself. It was just more down to earth,” Cruyff confides. “It freed me because in Spain they loved this eternal comparison, but, come on, it was an impossible battle . . . it was simple. For me, it was liberation.”

But Cruyff is now back in Spain and back at Barcelona, where the 49-year-old is the sporting director, working closely with coach Xavi and director of football Mateu Alemany.

Barcelona, nine points clear at the top of La Liga and on their way back with Cruyff crucial to their re-build, face United in the Europa League tonight. It is a monumental tie that stirs memories for Cruyff not just of his father, of the clubs’ rich histories – “two huge magnet clubs” – but also his time at Old Trafford.

And so over 90 minutes inside the Camp Nou, Cruyff discusses the “special generation” he played alongside, the pain of missing out on a Champions League winner’s medal, Ferguson’s shock when he asked to leave – and what it was like to have Eric Cantona as his chauffeur.

“First of all, it was about mentality,” he says of that formidable United side. “In Spain, if you had a Roy Keane tackle or a Ryan Giggs dribble, people appreciated the tackle, but the dribble, people would get on their feet for that. But in England, it was the opposite. They liked the dribble, but the tackle . . . they would be shouting: ‘Wow, come on!’

“I remember that because I was so surprised and would be thinking: ‘Didn’t you see this dribble? Come on, that was from another planet’. That was the difference.

“Now, I like Roy Keane and I would love to have this guy in my team. If he could let you fly a few metres but also touch the ball . . . perfect. Some things changed in my football mentality. You think about the beauty, romance, the dribble. But if you add the toughness and winning mentality, then you have the mix.”

It helped that United had a genuine superstar in their ranks. “Cantona was the franchise player and everyone else was under that, and he took all the pressure,” Cruyff adds. “Cantona was a wow, absolutely. But when I met him, I thought he was a super normal human being, super friendly, and I remember he was the one who picked us up from the hotel, took us to training, and he was the one who took care of us when we first arrived.

“You wouldn’t say that from the outside, but he was an amazing human being with an amazing heart, not super easy, he tried to make us feel at home . . . but on the other hand, when you’ve been in the dressing room with Romario (as Cruyff had at Barcelona), you’ve also seen greatness.”

The problem for Cruyff was injuries. The former winger underwent a relatively routine knee operation as a teenager in Barcelona but never truly recovered. “The fact is the last time I jogged was about 10 years ago. I can’t do it. My knee’s gone,” he reveals.

Cruyff also learnt about Ferguson’s “different mentality; he was way ahead of his time” and his foresight with squad rotation, which frustrated him, admitting he was sometimes a “smartass” with the manager simply because he wanted to play. Which is how he also ended up shocking Ferguson by asking to leave.

“I went to Ferguson and I said, ‘I cannot anymore. I want to be a good pro. But I am reaching that point that is not healthy: I want my team to lose because I want to play. Let me go. I don’t want to be a bad sub, I don’t want to be against what the team needs. You have to let me go’,” Cruyff recalls of a request Ferguson agreed to on the final day of the transfer window in January 1999.

“I did write a letter (to the other players) and, to be honest, you could smell it: it was going to be a historic season. You could feel it. The energy was there, the destiny, the Gods, whatever. And I knew it when I left. I played in three or four of the 11 Champions League games.”

But Cruyff, who joined Celta Vigo on loan, did not receive a medal when United completed the historic treble that season with the extraordinary 2-1 comeback against Bayern Munich – at the Camp Nou, of course.

Jordi Cruyff celebrating a goal in August 1996 with David Beckham, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Allsport/Getty Images/Hulton Archive)© Hulton Archive

Cruyff was there, having been invited by United, and with the scoreline 1-0 to Bayern in injury-time was making his way down the stand to console his team-mates.

“And then a few minutes after, we were celebrating on the pitch!” he says. “I didn’t get a medal. I never understood why because I played more than some others who did get a medal, so that’s life.”

Cruyff eventually joined Alaves, but before he left, Ferguson asked if there were any players he should sign from Spain. Cruyff nominated two team-mates at Celta Vigo.

“I told him: ‘Michel Salgado is going to be a good right-back’. He had 10 years at Real Madrid. And I told him ‘(Claude) Makelele’. I said ‘This guy, what a midfielder’. He eventually went to Chelsea. So I advised him these two, and he didn’t take anybody! At least I came up with a good list,” Cruyff notes.

Was that the first sign he was destined to be a sporting director?

“I used to play Championship Manager on my laptop. I loved that game. Loved it. I remember at Man United, we had a lot of bus journeys and I would play this game a lot. More than with a joystick and trying to shoot in the top corner, I was trying to sell and buy players, make the line-up and tactics,” Cruyff explains.

His career, as a coach and sporting director, has taken him to Malta, Cyprus, Israel, China, Ecuador and now, finally, back to Spain. It was in Israel, with Maccabi Tel Aviv, that he considered hiring Erik ten Hag as coach. “I remember looking at various Dutch coaches we could bring and he (Ten Hag) was an option,” Cruyff says. “Ten Hag is doing a very good job (at United). That’s clear.”

Cruyff turned down several previous approaches to work for Barcelona but, in 2021, felt “it was the right time” partly because it is “probably one of the most difficult moments” in the club’s history given its crippling financial crisis and mis-management.

It felt destined as Cruyff talks about the effect his father, who died in 2016, had on the club as a player and a manager but more than that, how his “rebelliousness” chimed with the Catalans and how Johan determined to join Barcelona himself after Ajax struck a deal behind his back to sell him to Real Madrid in 1973.

“My father just did the opposite: ‘You can choose what you have for your dinner. I choose my destiny’,” he says, smiling as Johan with his “hairstyle, all those chains” became a flamboyant standard-bearer for “freedom, liberty”, just like the 1974 Dutch national team.

​“You have a generation who know him as a coach, and they admire his craziness of the way he played football,” Cruyff says. “And now you have the other generation, who normally talks about his value on (the video game) Fifa. So there are all the generations and how many people can say they have two stadiums (in Amsterdam and Barcelona) in their name? That means you’ve left something behind. As the son, I can only say I’m extremely proud.”

There will be pride, also, when Cruyff finally returns to Old Trafford for next week’s second leg. Despite his peripatetic career, it will be the first time he has been back inside the stadium in almost 23 years. “From me always, as a player, when you look at results, the first thing you do is look for the results of your old team. And United have had very, very difficult years. Not easy,” he adds.

“It’s been too long. I hope – not against us – but I hope they will absolutely get back on track because it’s a historic club, a great magnet of a club. There is something special about it.”

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