“If ever there was one player, anywhere in the world, that was made for Manchester United, it was Cantona. He swaggered in, stuck his chest out, raised his head and surveyed everything as though he were asking: ‘I’m Cantona. How big are you? Are you big enough for me?’”
– Sir Alex Ferguson
Of all the changes in English sporting culture over the last 25 years, the influx of foreign players into football’s top flight is perhaps the most pronounced. From a total of 13 non-British players on the Premier League’s opening day in August 1992, almost every squad now has domestic players in the minority. Foreigners occasionally captained sides, lifted trophies and scored winning goals; they now form the bedrocks of our clubs. An irreversible continental revolution has occurred.
Eric Cantona was not only a trailblazer as part of this transformation, but a game-changer. Of those 13 foreigners in 1992, four were goalkeepers, importation required given the comparatively shallow domestic pool in that position. Of the other nine, none had the swagger of Eric. He was the first superstar of the Premier League era, more responsible than any other individual for dragging the game out of Division One and into the light. ‘1966 was a great year for English football. Eric Cantona was born.’ The best jokes have their foundations in fact.
An arrogant, charming, swaggering Marseillaise enigma changed the rules. Style and passion were not just rendered mutually inclusive, but harmonized. The collars of school shirts were turned up in playgrounds across the land. Cantona’s story does not begin and end with Manchester United, but there is plenty enough material between his arrival and departure to write an entire series of novels. For if Cantona altered the future of the Premier League as a whole, he also sparked the advancement of its most successful club.
The conversation between Gérard Houllier and Sir Alex Ferguson
Taming the beast was not the answer. Protecting it, even tolerating it in moderation, proved to be the only way to benefit from the spectacular results. Gérard Houllier, then the technical director of the national team, had looked on deep in thought for a while as he witnessed the wild transgressions and magical performances. He was one of the few who could look past the incidents where he physically attacked teammates at Montpellier and Bordeaux, and understand that underneath the storm was a man of extreme professionalism and drive. He stressed this to Alex Ferguson when the Scot enquired about his suitability in 1992.
“Close your eyes and take him,” he said.
“The only thing you have to be careful of is management. He’s a good guy who loves his work, and needs to be trusted, not messed about.”
For a man of many words, Cantona led through example. Ferguson referred to him as United’s “can opener”, but in truth the Frenchman was a whole kitchen-ful of utensils. His impact was instantaneous, United winning eight and drawing two of his first ten league games. The 1992/93 split is outrageous: 1.5 points per league game before his arrival; 2.3 points per league game afterwards.
Cantona would score 82 goals in 185 games for United, but was far removed from a typical striker. Instead he played as an early prototype of the false nine, dropping deep to drag central defenders out of position and allow overlapping runs from midfield. He was as comfortable creating chances as finishing them.
Most importantly, Cantona was an inspiration. He taught United’s players to dream beyond functionality, persuading the squad to express themselves on the pitch. If confidence is the first step to achievement, Cantona was the one who released the shackles of pressure and made Old Trafford an enjoyable place to play football. Put simply, he gave Manchester United their swagger.
Thus Cantona’s connection with United supporters (and indeed the wider footballing world) runs deeper than natural aptitude and effort. Players regularly attract worship for their physical achievements, but few forge a link that is verging on spiritual. Cantona’s name is still sung by United supporters, but Thierry Henry, Alan Shearer and Steven Gerrard do not receive the same treatment at their respective former clubs. Ken Loach may have been ‘Looking for Eric’, but supporters felt as if they knew him already, and still do.
The most obvious reasons for that bond are the deep flaws in Cantona’s persona. United supporters loved Cantona because, while his talent made him divine, his character made him human. Cantona, impetuous and moody, stood up for what he believed was right. He was (and is) a man unafraid to make noise and to fight justice, even if his own concept of it just may be occasionally off-kilter.
When the seagulls follow the Trawler
Wednesday 25 January 1995. Alex Ferguson kicks open the door to the away dressing room at Selhurst Park and executes one of his infamous rants.
“Manchester United does not settled for a draw against Crystal fucking Palace!”
After a few carefully selected obscenities directed at his players 53-year-old Ferguson turns to Eric Cantona, who had been sent off after 61 minutes of the game:
the gaffer pauses, his players expecting their boss to hand down a first ever hairdryer treatment to the maverick Frenchman, and then calmly says,
“you can’t do that.”
Some 18 months later, 21-year-old David Beckham successfully copied his hero against Wimbledon – another team who used to play at Selhurst Park. David Beckham famously said
“When Eric Cantona came up to me afterwards, and said “good goal”, that was more important to me than scoring it,”
Ferguson didn’t actually see Eric jump into the crowd because he was too busy plotting how to set up his team’s tactics with 10 men, but was later told what had happened. Not impressed with the officials, Ferguson blamed Wilkie for letting the game get out of hand, and tore into the ref after the game. “This is all your fucking fault!” Ferguson screamed. He was right of course. According to author, Michael Crick Ferguson was so incensed that a police officer had to intervene and drag the manager out of the referee’s quarters to stop the Scottish tirade of abuse.
Cantona didn’t play again that season. He missed six games in the FA Cup and 16 in the Premier League. United finished in second place, a massive 11 points ahead of third placed Nottingham Forest, but agonizingly one point behind Henning Berg’s Blackburn. Of the six seasons Cantona spent in England, including one at Leeds United, the 1994/95 season was the only campaign in which he didn’t win the league.
Eric never really revealed why he remained so calm, so many times, with all the abuse he received in England only to lose it with Simmons. According to Luke Beckley, then eight-years-old, Simmons shouted
“fuck off, you motherfucking French bastard!”
Eric received plenty more of the same on many occasions, but this time it was too much. Adding to the anxiety, perhaps, Cantona’s father Albert was sick and had been hospitalised for several weeks in Marseilles.
Shocking as the incident had been, no one could have predicted the near hysterical reaction by the country’s fourth estate, especially Sky. The difference, of course, being that the top division was now called “the Premiership” and Rupert Murdoch’s marketing men knew how to milk the most out of Cantona’s kung-fu kick. New subscriptions to the channel have never been higher, in shorter amount of time, than after 25 January ’95.
It wasn’t even the first time something like this had happened; 35 years earlier Busby Babe and Munich air disaster survivor Harry Gregg beat up a fan who stormed on to the pitch. In fact list of sportsmen doing something similar goes all the way back to Dixie Dean who struck a fan who insulted him in the early ’30s. Birmingham City’s Alberto Tarantini got into a fight with his own fans after a game against United in ’78. No punishment ensued in case. And everyone just laughed at Craig Bellamy when he struck a Manchester City supporter who stormed onto the pitch against United in 2009.
Eric was an easy target though. Foreign, French and a United player. Just the mix that the FA and the ‘anyone but United’ clique loved to hate. Even a sober newspaper such as the Telegraph published two editorials on 28 January – one about the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The other about Eric. Perspective.
Amidst the outcry and the disgracefully duplicitous FA – chief executive Graham Kelly privately said that a punishment from the club would be enough – few said it better than comedian Danny Baker. “Why the moral outrage?” he asked.
“Most football fans just found it incredibly funny.”
It still is, 20 years on.
There was something Christ-like in Cantona’s Manchester United career, from spreading the gospel in the Premier League to his public crucifixion (Graham Kelly, the Football Association chief executive, called Cantona “a stain on the game”). It was Cantona’s reincarnation that should be cherished most.
Even Christ only departed once. Cantona’s spectacular second exit came in 1997, when Manchester United’s best player retired from the game at the age of 30.
Whatever be the stage: Eric is the lead actor
The date was 21 December 1996 and Eric bestowed upon the 70,000 adoring Old Trafford crowd the most aesthetically pleasing Christmas present their eyes would gaze upon that year. On a dreary and dark winter evening, United were playing Sunderland. The match was largely devoid of drama, incident or spectacle, despite the 4-0 scoreline to United. It had been a leisurely stroll against a toothless Sunderland that were merely making up the numbers. Cantona decided to impose one last parting blow on the hapless visitors.
Turning sharply on the halfway line, Cantona strode elegantly forward with the ball, brushing off the attentions of Steve Agnew and Paul Stewart, who both had only been on the pitch for 15 minutes. Laying the ball off to Brian McClair, Cantona continued his run to the edge of the area and, receiving the return ball from his teammate, United’s number 7 executed the deftest of chips, the ball sailing over the helpless Lionel Pérez and skimming the inside of the post before nestling in the top corner.
A goal of supreme quality yes, but it was eclipsed by what followed. Turning around to the fans, chest puffed out and head held high with the captains armband fastened round his right arm, Cantona gave a look of power that expressed his stature at Old Trafford. He announced his retirement five months later at the age of 30 and never returned but his legend lives on in the Theater of Dreams. The celebration that day against Sunderland said it all; he was The King, and that was his kingdom. That was the real Eric Cantona.