It seems only like yesterday a certain Frenchman strutted his way through the Old Trafford doors, collar up and with a point to prove. A genius piece of business by Sir Alex Ferguson saw Eric Cantona join Manchester United in the November of 1992 from, then, Champions Leeds United. What happened over the course of the next four and half seasons, I don’t think any Red will ever forget for as long as they live.
Eric Cantona scored vitally important goals in his time at Old Trafford. A goal away at Norwich in the 92/93 title winning campaign, two penalties at Wembley in the 1994 FA Cup final to secure the club’s first league and cup double, whilst even reminiscing about the Liverpool winner in the 1996 FA Cup still gives me goosebumps. Like former legendary kit man Norman Davies, Eric was my favourite player as well. In his time at United, the club won three league titles and two FA Cups. Not bad considering the club hadn’t won the league Championship since 1967. United went close in 1992, but just ran out of steam. Eric’s first league title in England may have been with Leeds, but what was about to happen would shape the future in a way no one else could have imagined.
How Eric Cantona signed for Manchester United is more down to a chance phone call from Leeds United boss Howard Wilkinson. Wilkinson had called Alex Ferguson to enquire about the availability of Denis Irwin. Ferguson dismissed the enquiry and stated that Irwin wasn’t for sale at any price, but what about Cantona? There had been reports that Wilkinson had fallen out with Cantona and that he was looking to offload the Frenchman. Its quite unbelievable to think that a player that had made such a difference the season previous could be offloaded to a club’s major rivals. Sure enough, Eric signed for Manchester United for £1 million, 200k less than what was widely reported at the time. Interesting to note that Teddy Sheringham signed for Nottingham Forest the season before for £2 million, whilst Alan Shearer signed for a British transfer record of £3.3 million in the summer. Value, for money indeed.
Eric made his Manchester United debut in a friendly match against Benfica in Lisbon. His competitive debut came as a substitute in the 2-1 victory over Manchester City at Old Trafford, with Mark Hughes and Paul Ince providing the goals. He didnt have to wait long for his first goal, away at Chelsea two days later in a 1-1 draw. He also got the equalizer in a epic 3-3 boxing day clash at Hillsborough with Sheffield Wednesday, before his sublime performance in the 4-1 demolition of Spurs in January 1993. His pass to Denis Irwin for United’s second, having opened the scoring himself, was pure genius and gave United fans a glimpse of his artistry; vision, technique and flair. United would only lose one more game with Eric in the side (lost 1-0 away to Oldham but Eric wasn’t playing) away at Ipswich. Wins away at Liverpool, Norwich and Crystal Palace would help towards United’s championship win. Before Cantona signed, United had found the back of the net 18 times in 17 games. Following his transfer, United scored 49 goals in the remaining 24 games.
The following season saw Roy Keane added to the United ranks as club captain Bryan Robson entered his final season with the club. United were back in the European Cup, the first time since losing to AC Milan in the semi-final of the 1969 semi final. The club were desperate to make an impact in Europe, considering United were the first English club to enter and win the competition. Eric missed the opening matches of the 1993/94 campaign, however – he scored a memorable chip against Southampton, which stood out not simply for the absurd technique, but for the odd mixture of black shirts, black shorts and light blue socks! Cantona was again producing iconic moments that you simply had to applaud. United lost 1-0 to Chelsea away at Stamford Bridge, but the game was remembered for Cantona’s swivel and half volley to lob Dmitri Kharine, who was scurrying back to his goal line, desperately trying to stop the ball crossing the line. He never got close and was only saved by the bouncing ball hitting the bar. Both sets of fans applauded, you had to, it was genius.
The 1993/94 season had some memorable moments, including a ridiculously powerful yet accurate freekick against Arsenal, a superb individual goal against QPR at home and that unbelievable volley against Wimbledon in the FA Cup – a strike that surpasses that of Sunderland 1996 in my opinion. But we also saw the fearless side of Eric, in more ways than one. His ability to arrogantly puff his chest out and raise his collar was admirable as it demonstrated his confidence in his own ability – and to perform in the big stage. There is also a fine line between genius and madness, something his countryman Zinedine Zidane showcased years later. He was sent off against Galatasaray, before being smashed on the back of the head by a policeman. Cameras caught him lashing out at players and then of course, there was that stamp on John Moncur. United drew 2-2 with bottom side Swindon Town and Cantona was rightly sent off for leaving his studs engraved on Moncur’s chest. His dismissal in the following match against Arsenal was extremely harsh, but it meant he would miss the title showdown away at Blackburn Rovers and the League Cup final against Aston Villa.
United lost both matches and were beginning to show signs of nerves having been sixteen points clear of Rovers at one stage. He missed the epic FA Cup semi final against Oldham, where Mark Hughes’ sublime volley saved United, who were heading out of the cup. United were in the FA Cup final, but needed to get back to winning ways in the league, having lost 1-0 away at Wimbledon. Having missed a whole calendar month of football, the king was back against Manchester City. Sure enough, United’s number 7 made the difference, scoring the two goals. United held their nerve and picked up their ninth league championship and back to back Premier League titles. There was only one matter left for Cantona and co, to win the club’s first ever domestic double – with Chelsea standing in the way.
Chelsea went into the game confident, considering they’d beaten United 1-0 both home and away – with Gavin Peacock scoring the winner in both fixtures. Ironically it was Peacock who hit the bar in the first half as United looked nervy. As the rain fell, United’s passing became slicker and the conditions suited the league champions. Cantona scored the first of two penalties after Eddie Newton brought down Denis Irwin in the box. Frank Sinclair fouled Andrei Kanchelskis, for Eric to convert another penalty, before Mark Hughes and Brian McClair finished the scoring. United had won the FA Cup for the first time since 1990 and the club’s first league and cup double, with Cantona playing a major role in both.
The following season would be one of the most exciting, frustrating and controversial in living memory. Chris Sutton broke the British transfer record with his move from Norwich City to Blackburn Rovers as Jack Walker looked to strengthen for another title challenge. Cantona again missed the opening few games of the season, but opened his account with a header in the 3-0 thrashing of Wimbledon. He’d also find the back of the net in the 4-2 victory over Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park, a complete contrast to the 2-0 defeat the season before, then there was the derby. The 5-0 thumping of Manchester City in November 1994, will no doubt be remembered for the superb Andrei Kanchelskis hattrick but Eric’s opening goal was quite brilliant. United’s Russian winger spotted the run of the Frenchman and delivered a superb ball. The galloping Cantona then backheeled the ball into his path before smashing a left footed strike past the helpless Simon Tracey.
January 1995 was a very strange month. You saw the brilliance of Cantona, chipping Alan Kelly at a windy Bramall Lane in the FA Cup and getting on the end of a Ryan Giggs cross to head home the winner against title rivals Blackburn Rovers. He was the difference, the inspiration, the driving force – then Crystal Palace happened. United had only recently signed Andy Cole from Newcastle for a massive £7 million and was partnered with Cantona for only the second time. Eric wasn’t getting much joy in the game and kicked out in frustration at Palace defender Richard Shaw. He was sent off and was being led away by Norman Davies. His attention was then diverted to a Palace fan who had run to the front row to shout a numbr of obscenities at the dismissed forward. Cantona snapped. He got free from Davies and like something out of a Bruce Lee film, kung-fu kicked the supporter before punching him. Peter Schmeichel rushed over to be met with a hot cup of coffee, whilst everyone looked stunned at what had just happened.
Manchester United took the step of banning Cantona until the end of the season, although the Premier League felt that was too lenient and extended it until October. Cantona was public enemy number one, with the media hounding him wherever he went. Court cases, seagulls and trawlers followed before talk of Eric having enough and wanting away from Manchester. Legend has it that Ferguson raced around Paris on the back of a motorcycle, chasing his most prized asset into the Parisian night. One of Ferguson’s many great attributes is knowing how important a player is to the side (and of course, when that time is up). Stories of the manager turning a blind eye to Eric’s “unique” personality were common and his Paris pursuit demonstrates he wasn’t giving up on him just yet.
United lost the league to Blackburn Rovers by a single point and lost 1-0 to Everton in the FA Cup final. In the title run in, United drew three games 0-0 at home. Tottenham, Leeds and Chelsea all left Old Trafford with a point and succeeded in stopping United scoring. If Eric had been available, surely he would have carved out a chance or hit the back of the net himself. It speaks volumes that the previous season United had achieved a historic double, but without their talisman – fell short at the final hurdle. Ferguson also had a difficult summer, with Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes all departing – so it was vital that Eric remained at the club, especially considering the maturing Keane was emerging alongside experienced youngsters in Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs, whilst a new batch of ‘kids’ were about to take the Premier League by storm.
Eric was still two months away from first team action when Aston Villa thumped United 3-1 at Villa Park and Alan Hasen uttered those eternally regrettable words. The likes of Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Terry Cooke, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs were now playing in a side without the likes of Cantona, Hughes, Ince and Kanchelskis. Enjoyable victories against Everton away and Bolton at home followed, sandwiched between a first round UEFA Cup exit at the hands of the mighty Rotor Volgograd. Away goals again put United out like last season, but at least Peter Schmeichel’s ridiculously limp header created a memorable moment and kept United’s unbeaten home European record intact. United were also stuffed at home by lowly York City, but it may have taken some time – October 1st was only just around the corner.
United welcomed old rivals Liverpool for Eric Cantona’s comeback game. Sky, as they would do for any event in the years that followed, built it up as the return of the king. United fans knew it was the return of the king and had October 1st 1995 circled in their diary for months. Although this was about Eric Cantona, United were up against a decent Liverpool side that featured Robbie Fowler, sporting a horrendous bleached blonde crop, Jamie Redknapp, Steve McManaman and the veteran Ian Rush – still sporting the same 1983 moustache. 4pm came and the players emerged. There he was, chest out, arms tucked up along with his collar and out of the tunnel, last.
It would be absurd to assume that Cantona wouldn’t have a dramatic say in the match and it didn’t take long. Moments after kick off, United’s talisman found some space on the left flank. He drove in towards the Stretford End and placed a left footed cross right into the path of Nicky Butt. Butt’s first touch was good, but it required an athletic stretch to finish pass the outcoming David James. Cantona was back and he’d setup a goal. Robbie Fowler beat Schmeichel at his near post to equalise, before out muscling Gary Neville in the second half to put Liverpool in the lead. United’s fallen rivals looked as if they would indeed spoil the return party, however, after Ryan Giggs was brought down in the are by Redknapp, United had a chance with a penalty kick. Denis Irwin had been entrusted with penalties, following the madness of Selhurst Park, but there was only one man now. Cantona stepped up and inevitably, tucked it home. The East stand were delighted to see James dive in the other direction and Eric clinging on to a black pole behind the goal in joyous celebration. He was back, Le Roi was home.
The first part of the 95/96 season didn’t really see Eric and United get going. Yes, there was the 4- 1 away win against Ruud Gullit and Chelsea, with a superb nutmeg from Eric on the former European player of the year – but Cantona was quiet in comparison to what his ridiculous talent was capable of. He didn’t find the back of the net until Nottingham Forest away at the end of November, and that was again from the spot. He came to United’s rescue against Sheffield Wednesday at home, with a stunning last minute half volley having already scored earlier in the match. That was his last goal of 1995. The Christmas period brought mixed emotions, with United losing to Leeds 3-1 but beating league leaders Newcastle United at home 2-0. New Years day also brought that famous 4-1 hammering at White Hart Lane, surely this wasn’t what 1996 had in store?
Thankfully, it wasn’t. United were involved in some roller coaster games. 2-2 at home to Sundeland in the FA Cup, the 2-1 victory over City in the same competition, but what stood out, more than anything, was how many 1-0 victories United had, with the Frenchman finding the back of the net. Whether it be the tight angle at West Ham, or the mazy dribble against Spurs or even the stupendous volley against Arsenal – Eric was proving to be the difference in key matches. The biggest of them all coming away at Newcastle. United were playing catch up to the Geordies, who had a fine team, including Albert, Beardsley, Ferdinand and the erratic but insanely talent Faustino Asprilla. Newcastle battered United in the first half. It could have been 4-0, had it not been for the excellent Schmeichel, saving everything. United braced themselves for the second half, but it never came. United mounted a rare attack, with Phil Neville pushed on from left back. The young fullback crossed to the back post following good work from Andy Cole. John Beresford had been distracted, and had gone inside to leave Cantona with some space. Eric volleyed home a right footed shot, past Newcastle’s Czech goalkeeper Pavel Srnicek before being jumped on by Keane, Butt and Irwin. He let out an almighty roar to the heavens, the title race and redemption was on.
He scored a dramatic late equalizer at Loftus Road, before playing his part in United’s 3-1 defeat to Southampton. The infamous grey strip was to blame of course. These were the only points dropped by United for the rest of the season. Newcastle, and Keegan, cracked and United regained the title with a 3-0 victory over Middlesbrough. The small matter of the FA Cup and the ‘double double’ remained. No team had ever won two league and cup doubles, and United were on course to do so, but the 1986 double winners stood in their way, white suits at the ready. Liverpool had beaten United 2-0 at Anfield earlier in the season and would do everything in their power to stop United achieving something they couldn’t do, despite all their success a decade and a half earlier. Turns out, the final was awful. Both sides cancelling each other out.
It took a readjustment of feet, a David James fumble and a half volley to make the difference. Gone was the pain of Selhurst, gone were the memories of Alan Shearer lifting the Premier League and gone was a life without Cantona. He’d shown character, unbelieveable belief and leadership, combined with his natural talent and mesmerising flair to get into this position. The ref blew his whistle, and it was over. The players ran to Cantona, the match winner, to show their appreciate of his gifts. United’s captain that day led his colleagues up the stairs and was presented the FA Cup. He hoisted it above his head and let out another almighty roar. Unlike the release of tension and pressure, this time it was more of relief and acknowledgement of accomplishment. Eric was left out of Aime Jacquet Euro 96 squad, so had the summer to relax.
United started the 96/97 season with a bang. Having missed out, yet again, on Alan Shearer to runners up Newcastle in the summer – both teams faced off at Wembley in the Charity Shield fr the season’s opener. It was an extremely one sided affair, with United hammering Newcastle 4-0 and Eric getting on the scoresheet. Of course, Newcastle got their revenge in the 5-0 thrashing at St James’ Park, but at the time – it was like where we’d left off. United were back in the Champions League, a tournament Cantona had romanticised with, when he watched his hero Johan Cruyff inspire Ajax to the first of their three wins in the 70s. United were completely outplayed in Turin against reigning champions Juventus, but beat both Rapid Vienna and Fenerbahce, with Eric getting on the scoresheet in Turkey.
United lost the return fixture against the Turks, which was the club’s first defeat at home in forty years on European football. Elvir Bolić scored on the counter attack with around ten minutes to go. United were coming up short in a tournament the club was desperate to do well in. An Alessandro Del Piero penalty was the difference in what was a much closer match. United had to beat Rapid Vienna and hope Juventus, who had already qualified, could help them out in the Stadio Delle Alpi. They did and a 2-0 win against Rapid Vienna saw United book their place in the next round of the tournament.
The English Champions were drawn against the dark horse of FC Porto. Porto had beaten AC Milan 3-2 in the San Siro and were favourites for the neutral to get through to the next round. What happened at Old Trafford in early March, no red will ever forget. David May opened the scoring with a powerful header, Eric got the second before two second half goals from Ryan Giggs and Andy Cole. United hammered them and the trip to Portugal was a formality, with the game finishing 0-0. Ottmar Hitzfeld and Borussia Dortmund, awaited in the semi final.
It was the first European Cup semi final United contested since that 1968 tie against AC Milan. United went into the game on the back of a 3-2 defeat, at home, to struggling Derby. However, confidence was high going into the game. The furst leg was in the Westfalenstadion, but United were dealt a blow when Peter Schmeichel was ruled out of the match through injury. Dutchman Raymond van Der Gouw replaced him and despite Nicky Butt hitting the post, United went down 1-0. Cantona was criticised in some quarters for ‘jumping’ out of a tackle with Rene Tretschok, who proceeded to smash the ball past van Der Gouw. Although a bitter blow, United were confident the deficit could be over turned in two weeks time.
Schmeichel was back in goal and Ferguson fielded Eric Cantona, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Andy Cole in attack. Just over five minutes had gone before Lars Ricken swivelled and smashed a low shot past the Dane. United were two nil down and Dortmund had an away goal – it would have to end 3-1 to see United through. Both Cantona and Cole were guilty of missing clear cut chances in the first half. How Dortmund and the excellent Jurgen Kohler didn’t concede, I’ll never know! But the tie ended 1-0 and Dortmund were through to the final.
Besides the obvious and well earned German celebrations, something else stood out following the final whistle. Cantona marched off the pitch, head down with his thoughts elsewhere. He had removed his shirt and his famous native Indian tattoo was all display. Something wasn’t right as United’s captain exited the field. Had the Dortmund defeat been the last straw in Eric’s decision? Sir Alex Ferguson would later comment on a Christmas 96 trip Cantona took to Barcelona. On his return, he appeared different, like he’d lost something. In later years he would be critical of the club with regards to image rights – but on April 23rd 1997, he did not look his usual confident self.
Defeat in Europe was tough to take but United were yet again successful domestically, winning a fourth league title in five years. The 96/97 season also saw one of the finest Old Trafford goals. Cantona picked the ball up on the half way line and mesmerised two Sunderland players before playing a one two with Brian McClair, which found the Frenchman on the edge of the area. He then proceeded to chip the ball over the onrushing keeper, post and in, a superb goal. Eric, in typical confident fashion, had realised his own brilliance and turned around, chest puffed and lifted his arms in celebration. It was truly, a remarkable goal – but not as good, for me, as his volley at Selhurst Park three seasons earlier.
Cantona played his final competitive game against West Ham United at Old Trafford on the final day of the 96/97 season. His last game came in David Busst’s testimonial, but this of course was a friendly match for the former Coventry defender who had broken his leg horrifically at Old Trafford the season before. A few days after the testimonial and just shy of his 31st birthday, Cantona announced his retirement from football. Many reds were shocked by the decision and couldn’t believe that Eric wouldn’t feature for United any more. His exit was as surprising as his arrival four and a half years earlier.
You look at the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand – who have all played for the club a lot longer than the Frenchman and it dawns on you that four and a half years in football, appears a relatively short time. But what Cantona did and what the team achieved in that time will be passed down generation to generation. United achieved their first title in 26 years, won the double double and got to a European Cup semi final. It was this team that set the benchmark for future sides to go on and compete with. Many reds still believe that the 1993/94 side was the best of the bunch. Greater than the treble winning side and the Moscow 08 side. Of course, its all subjective – but one thing is certain, Cantona found his footballing home at Old Trafford and repaid the club with his genius.