I would like to introduce Bricki, The Stretty Rant’s brand new blogger, who has put together his account on our legendary Frenchman Eric Cantona. I’m sure you’ll give Bricki a warm welcome and comment on his excellent first piece….
It’s now been 13 years since Eric Cantona left Manchester United in much the same way he arrived, a whirlwind. As Eric has started to reappear on British TV screens, in adverts for Sky Sports and L’Oreal, the time feels right to reflect on Cantona’s time in England and the impressions he left behind. Cantona’s arrival at Leeds was preceded by Graeme Souness turning down the chance to sign him while Liverpool manager and Cantona walking out on Trevor Francis at Sheffield Wednesday after being requested to stay another week on trial.
Taking into account that Cantona was a French international, French league winner and had been courted by AC Milan to partner Marco Van Basten in attack, you can understand the annoyance at having to prove himself further. Cantona made 15 appearences for Leeds in the 91-92 title winning team, scoring 3 goals as Leeds took advantage of Uniteds stumbles at the final furlong to pip them to the title. The first real success since Don Revies team of the 60s/70s made Cantona a hero in Yorkshire and he took his good form into the start of the following season making 20 appearences in all competitions and scoring 10 goals.
Like with most great transfers, Cantona’s move to Old Trafford happened by chance. Howard Wilkinson enquiring about Denis Irwin was met with a not for sale response, however the need for a striker at the time led to Alex Ferguson making a cheeky request about Cantona. Surprised to hear he was available, the deal was done in less than a week. Whilst the Manchester United squad contained players of great skill and experience in many areas, one thing it did lack was a real winner, a player who knew what it took to cross the final line and win the title. Cantona had this from his time in both France and England.
Cantona’s first few months with United were fairly quiet, bedding into the team and learning the movements of his new teammates took time. It was at the turn of the new year that Cantona started to show the reasons Ferguson had snapped him up. A goal and an assist in a 4-1 win over Spurs set the tone for the run into the end of the season and a Cantona inspired United won the league by 10 points after trailing Blackburn, Aston Villa and Norwich at Christmas time. It was the first title at Old Trafford since 1967 and Cantona was largely seen as the missing piece of the jigsaw.
With the knowledge now placed in the teams minds of how to win a title, United went on to retain the title in the 93/94 season and also added the FA Cup to claim ‘The Double’ for the first time whilst only missing out on the domestic treble after a loss to Aston Villa in the League Cup Final. A PFA Player of the Year award was conclusive proof that the professionals in the league understood the difference Cantona was making to the United team, adding a cutting edge and focal point to lead the team forward. The first seeds of real controversy started to sprout this season as well with Cantona being sent off in the Champions League at Galatasaray following a stand up row with the referee. Cantona was also dismissed in successive games against Swindon Town and Arsenal, the red card at Swindon being particularly controversial following a stamp in a players stomach in full view of the referee.
93/94 saw Cantona inherit the number 7 shirt on a permanent basis and the first sights of the ‘Cantona 7’ each week. The effects Cantona would have on the number 7 shirt in terms of raising the profile again and drawing comparisons with George Best would follow in the coming years. The 94/95 season would be a watershed in the career of Eric Cantona at Manchester United. Cantona continued to show good form and was heavily involved as Manchester United led the way in the title race but in January 95 an incident occurred that could have finished Cantona’s career in the English Game.
After Cantona was dismissed for kicking out at a Crystal Palace defender on the night of January 25, he made his way to the touchline and towards the tunnel. Whilst being ushered away from the crowd close to the touchline by a United backroom team member, Cantona turned to confront a fan who appeared to be yelling at him. Cantona then escaped the hold of the backroom team and launched a ‘Kick’ at the fan, connecting with him in the chest. A scuffle ensued and Cantona was dragged away. A national outcry followed and Cantona was suspended until 30th September and ordered to do community service.
The enigma of Cantona was created with the famous response to this incident of… ‘If the Seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea’ Without Cantona, Uniteds season collapsed and they ended up empty handed losing the league to Blackburn and the FA Cup Final to Everton. During the summer of 95 Ferguson responded to the loss of the League and Cup Final defeat by selling several first team players and promoting reserve/youth team players in their place. The season started poorly without Cantona as the young players struggled to adapt to the Premier League, this made Alan Hanson quip famously ‘You never win anything with kids’. However Cantona would be the factor that changed the team and his return to the team on 1st October against Liverpool gave instant success. After setting up Nicky Butt to score in the 2nd minute he later converted a penalty to secure a point in a 2-2 draw and the Man United team never looked back.
After Christmas Cantona scored in a 1-0 victory to trigger 10 consecutive wins and coupled with several more 1-0 wins with Cantona getting the goal, United overhauled Newcastle who had led by 10 points at New Year to win the League title. Another 1-0 win in the FA Cup Final against Liverpool, courtesy of Cantona, secured the second League and Cup double in Man Uniteds history. Cantona’s Experience and leadership to the new first teamers were rewarded with the club captaincy for the 96-97 season. As the leader of the team players such as Beckham, Butt, Scholes and Neville were galvanised under Cantona whilst the ever improving Giggs and Keane offered the back up to Cantona’s Leadership.
Cantona was the focal point of the team and his character and ego to take the brunt of the limelight whilst letting the players develop into the great players they would come once Cantona was to retire which came at the end of the 96-97 season after defeat to Borussia Dortmund in the Semi Final of the Champions League. Cantona retiring at 30, whilst a shock, was in keeping with the star that Cantona had been at United. Enigmatic and a Showman, Cantona decided to go out at the very top of his game and keep his legacy. His retirement allowed the players he had led to the title the following season to step out of his shadow and continue to dominate the English game and in 98-99 the team would conquer Europe, winning the Champions League in dramatic circumstances in Barcelona. Cantona’s number 7 shirt has gone down in folklore at United and it could be argued that he was the greatest player to wear the shirt. Whilst players such Bryan Robson wore the number 7 before Cantona, it was the introduction of squad numbers and the impact that Cantona had which created the aura and mystique about the shirt again.
Players to follow Cantona such as Beckham, Ronaldo and Owen have all cited the impact Cantona has had on United as one the reasons they held such pride in wearing the shirt. Cantona’s influence on the training field was important also, he would stay for time after training to perfect his long range passing, shooting and penalty kicks. This rubbed off on the younger squad members who did the same and it is now commonplace to see on a daily basis. Most games at Old Trafford include chants for Cantona, and the love between him and the fans is something he has spoken of at length. Going as far as to say it is the only club he ever felt loved. In 2004 Cantona was quoted as saying, “I’m so proud the fans still sing my name, but I fear tomorrow they will stop. I fear it because I love it. And everything you love, you fear you will lose.
Cantona was one of the first Foreign stars to find real success in England and paved the way for players such as Bergkamp, Henry, Zola, and Ronaldo to join the Premier League and helped to make it the most watched league in the World. The impact of this can be viewed as a positive and negative, positive in the sense it has meant we have been able to see some the Worlds greatest players on our shores on a weekly basis. It can be viewed as negative as it has meant a larger number of ‘average’ foreigners coming into the league and meaning that young British players are not getting the opportunities they may have got before. This of course has had a detrimental effect on the national time, that however would be a debate for a different time. Looking back on Cantona’s career he has helped develop the Premier League into arguably the best in the World and also helped Manchester United recapture the glory days of the 50s/60s.