I could’ve gone with “Five Gold Rings” of course, given that LA Galaxy has that exact amount, but I already plan to write about my time as a Galaxy fan in another post.
Eric Cantona. The King. L’enfant Terrible. If Alex Ferguson was the architect of Man United’s success in the Premier League era, Eric was the corner stone.
There have been many skillful players, many showboaters with flashy tricks. Cantona did so many things that could be deemed showboating, if only it hadn’t looked so natural while he was doing them. The man had all manner of moves and tricks, yet rarely did it look like he was performing them for any reason other than it being dictated by his instinct. Even when Cristiano Ronaldo himself pulled out a series of shimmies and step-overs, despite being the more talented player, it felt like he pulled those moves out far more deliberately than Eric did.
Even when Cantona attempted an audacious chip from the halfway line, it felt less like a cheeky effort and more like it struck him as exactly the right thing to do at the time.
Eric Cantona arrived at Old Trafford early in the 1992-93 season, fresh from winning the title with Leeds United (boo!) and having scored a hat-trick in that year’s Charity Shield. 1.2m million pounds sterling. About a hundredth of a Pogba in modern currency.
While a few other United players throughout history may have matched his presence on the field, I don’t know that any exceeded it. Many players are technically gifted. I’d say that Ronaldo and George Best were more so than Cantona (though of course, the number of players more talented than those two could be counted on the fingers of a set of oven mitts). Eric with his puffed-out chest and flipped-up collar seemed to make the team better just by being there. It was like his sense of self-belief permeated the squad.
Even with his hot temper and vicious disdain for many in authority, even with the extroverted ego and accusations of arrogance, he sat among his teammates not as a preening prima dona but as a leader.
Few other than Eric could utter the words “I am not a man, I am Cantona” (playing himself in the movie “Looking for Eric”) without coming across as a complete douche bag, though it was probably a good piece of direction to have him grin mischievously after delivering the line.
Of course it goes without saying that Eric could certainly be a prick.
The only example I can think of, of Cantona deliberately disrespecting a teammate was in his frustrated attitude towards the then-struggling Andy Cole. I recall an incident where Cole was angrily arguing with a referee. As Captain, Cantona stepped between them pushed Cole away, exasperation clearly framed in his body language.
Then there was the aforementioned “red mist”. Cantona had already been effectively expelled from French football due some monumental disciplinary issues. This was in fact, why he was in England in the first place.
After wowing us with his brilliance, the old problems started to resurface, materialising in the form of dirty play and violent fouls. Then came Selhurst Park.
We all know the story. Sent off for a foul on Crystal Palace’s Richard Shaw, as he walked off the field, he stopped and retaliated to an insult from a member of the Palace support by throwing a jump-kick at the fan, followed by a punch.
I choose not to gloss over the incident because whatever the supporter had said, there was no excusing what Eric did. If I’m going to get my back up over the ugly behaviour of the likes of Luis Suarez, I can’t give Cantona a pass. It was an absolutely ridiculous act and he was lucky not to see jail time over it.
However, the resultant suspension and global ban also demonstrated the difference he made. Without him, United went to the wire in the title race and reached the FA Cup final but failed to win either.
Then upon returning the following season, he helped Man Utd overhaul a huge Newcastle Utd lead in the league, scoring and endless stream of match-winning goals. He then completed the story when he scored the winner in that year’s FA Cup final against Liverpool. As Martyn Tyler said when Cantona scored on his return against Liverpool earlier in the season: you just couldn’t write this script.
To both his and Ferguson’s credit, he finally seemed to get his disciplinary issues under control. A smart move on Fergie’s part was handing him the captaincy. This added responsibility appeared to add focus to his discipline. Out of frustration Cantona had even attempted to leave the club during his suspension, feeling he had no future in England. Sir Alex talked him out of it.
I should probably also mention the immortal line:
|When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much|
The most amusing part of that quote was how the media seemingly failed to get the point. For the five people who don’t know, this was his sole comment in the press conference following the end of his worldwide suspension. It was presented by the media as a weird, nonsensical quote. My interpretation was that he viewed them as bunch of scavengers, who he likely resented due to the (not undeservedly) bad press coverage he’d received.
Perhaps more than any player in the Fergie era, he was a catalyst for success. He ramped up United’s pursuit of the league title in 1993, was vital to the team winning the double in 1994, scoring two penalties in the final.
He would win the league one more time in 1996-97 before an abrupt and shocking retirement.
I think we were all gutted. For all his demons, he had overall served the club well and was central to an exciting brand of football.
At that point in time, barring the 1994-95 season during which he picked up that lengthy ban, he had been part of a league-winning team every season from 1990-91 (with Marseilles) onward.
Nonetheless, he left on his own terms. He was still a great player but while his 96-97 form had been more than good enough, it was a little below his usual standard. For Cantona that was sufficient to the decision. He had no desire to become a declining version of himself, so retired at his peak.
As sad as it was to see him go, I have nothing but respect for that decision.
In the end, he was a controversial player whose personality seemed to mix an artistic depth, with an incredible fire and passion, that despite fueling infamous moments of madness, also produced an incredible drive.
In my lifetime at least, I don’t think there has been a more vital Man United player.