Manchester United would never be the same again after Salford’s favourite Frenchman entered Old Trafford. Eric Cantona’s signing was probably the bargain of the century, £1 Million from bitter rivals Leeds (and at the time English Champions) was a stroke of genius.
Eric Cantona’s time in France was overshadowed by moments of sheer madness that gave him the reputation of a rebel. His comments about the French Football Federation and actions like throwing a ball at a ref when a decision went the other way raised question marks about his sanity. The French footballing public are a fickle unpassionate bunch of people. They cheers on les blues only once they have achieved a respectable position within a major tournament. So no wonder they didn’t always take to the unorthadox Cantona. He announced his retirement from Nimes and football in 1991 at the tender ago of 25.
In the early part of the 92/93 season, United had found goals hard to come by losing on the first day of the season to Sheffield United 2-1. Cantona had visted Old Trafford with Leeds earlier in the season when United put two past Leeds (Bruce and Kanchelskis the scorers) but it was a phone call with Howard Wilkinson with which Cantona’s future was to be decided. Legend has it that Wilkinson gave Alex Ferguson a call to discuss a potential fee for Denis Irwin. Alex Ferguson dropped into the conversation about Eric Cantona and he must have nearly fallen off his chair when Wilkinson was open to offers. So in November 1992 Eric Cantona signed for Manchester United and was about to embark on the most influential career a foreign players has ever had in football.
His debut was against City in a 2-1 win over Manchester’s third team and his first goal came against Chelsea two weeks later, Cantona had certainly arrived. His creative flair and genuis combined with his influential arrogant nature was the missing piece of the puzzle for Ferguson’s team. Cantona had an immense presense about him and the Old Trafford crowd took to him for this.
United went on to win the league title for the first time since 1967. It was a huge weight off the shoulders of the club and many put this win down to the inclusion of Eric within the squad. United had some excellent footballers, Ince, Giggs, Sharpe, Kanchelskis to name a few but there was something missing from the side and Eric filled that void.
The following season United achieved the domestic double, the first time in the clubs long and rich history. With the addition of a young Roy Keane to the side United went from strength to strength and flourished even further under the watchful eye of Alex Ferguson. This season marked moments of genius from Eric but also gave us a glimpse of his volatile nature. Cantona was dismissed in a 2-2 draw with Swindon for stamping on John Moncur and then a week later against Arsenal for a nothing challenge on Tony Adams. He returned in style with two goals in the Manchester derby.
Cantona received the players player award for 93/94, a great tribute to his skills and goals in that season. The season was rounded off with Cantona scoring two goals in the cup final against Chelsea (who had been United’s bogey team that year). Memories of Cantona in a red and white wig kissing the FA Cup will live long in the memory. For the record, this was one of the best United’s side I have ever seen and would have gone much further in Europe if it wasn’t for the foreigner rule.
The season that United ended up with nothing will be remembered for Cantona’s kick on an abusive fan at Crystal Palace in January 1995. United where on course having beaten Blackburn the weekend before, with Eric getting the winning goal from a Ryan Giggs cross. However, it all changed after the 2-2 draw with Palace. United had goal less draws against Leeds, Chelsea and Tottenham in the title run in towards the end of the season. Surely if Eric Cantona had been avaliable for these games United would have received an extra six points from these games.
His jump in the crowd received a vast amount of critcism from all parts of football and the media. However, i’m sure there where many player who understood the reasons for this moment of madness. When black players had bananas thrown at them, when footballers personal lives where subject of violent and offensive chanting. Should a fan be allowed to say anything to a player? Cantona obviously didn’t think so.
United lost the league and FA Cup to Blackburn and Everton respectfully. The summer of 95 was a hard time for United fans as we saw three players leave the club. Three major players that where a massive part of the side. We also where reminded daily that Cantona was about to walk out on United and read stories like the famous one of Alex Ferguson chasing him around Paris on a motorbike. However, the next season would show the world what Alex Ferguson, Manchester United and more emphatically what Eric Cantona was made of.
October 1st 1995 saw the return of the great man against the old enemy Liverpool. It was a fairy tale start for the Frenchman, setting up a goal in front of the stretford end for Nicky Butt. Liverpool played very well that day and Fowler was exceptional scoring two very good goals. At 2-1 down and time running out, Giggs broke through the midfield and was brough down by Redknapp. There was only ever one man to step up and take it. Cantona sent James the wrong way and started his incredible journey from banned outcast to global superstar. The king was back.
The start of Cantona’s comeback wasn’t as spectacular as the second part of the season with United losing to Leeds and Liverpool within a week. The second part of the season saw United win six games (including the FA cup final) 1-0 with Cantona scoring the only goal. That is 25 points (the league games obviously) that Cantona helped to achieve with his goals. Also, a late equalizing goal against Q.P.R had rival fans fuming. The Frenchman was back and back in some style.
United won the double for a second time, the first club to do so in the history of the English game. Cantona scored a goal in the 85th minute to give United an FA Cup win. One of the most entertaining and eventful seasons was at a close and the King was back and had come back in some style.
The final season of Eric Cantona’s reign in England was slightly disappointing compared to the previous season. A more fuller looking Eric with a convict style hair cut was on a mission to win the one trophy that had eluded him at club level, the European Cup. To do this United had to get out of the group stage, a stage in which they found so difficult in 94/95. United achieved this after beating Rapid Vienna and Fenerbache. United looked raw and times but the magnificent 4-0 over the team in form at the time, Porto, sent shockwaves through Europe. United where on course for their first European Cup semi final since 1968.
The games against Dortmund where very disappointing. A 2-0 defeat on aggregate against the future European Champions was hard to take considering the amount of chances we created in Germany and at Old Trafford. Cantona came under some critcism for his apparent “jump” out of a tackle which led to the goal in Germany. It was more of a flash flick rather than Eric losing his bottle. For one thing the man may have been flash but you could never doubt he had strength and courage.
His mood at this time could be summed up at the end of the Dortmund game. Walking off, shirt off, towards the stretford end with his head down. Was this the moment that Eric Cantona had decided he had enough? Was this the moment that Eric the King decided to give up his throne at the young age of 30? Ferguson always commented that Eric took a trip to Barcelona in the winter of 96 and never returned the same. Something had happened to Eric the King that made him lose his passion and love for the game.
Eric Cantona conclusion
Eric Cantona was the greatest player to play at Manchester United since George Best in the sixties. He combined power, strength and vision with skill, confidence and influence. He played a major part in developing the English game and the way in which kids play football today. Cantona was loved by the United fans, and rightfully so. He had left Leeds high and dry and saved his best footballing moments for the theatre of dreams. People say he underachieved in Europe, however he only had one full season in 96/97 where we reached the semi-final of the European Cup. Sheringham is still playing the age of 40 because he still has the football brain. Cantona could well have achieved the same height as his replacement and been part of the 1999 European Cup winning side. It’s all if’s and but’s however I believe he still had much to offer United and football in general. Old Trafford will never forget the amazing moments that Eric provided and these great footballing moments will always live in our memories.