“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.
Before Cantona, there was a mistrust of foreign players, if more through ignorance and inexperience than outright xenophobia. They were circus animals, capable of delighting crowds on a momentary basis but forever destined to live on the periphery of our sporting identity. Foreigners never quite ‘got it’, whatever ‘it’ was.
An arrogant, charming, swaggering Marseillaise enigma changed the rules. Style and passion were not just rendered mutually inclusive, but harmonised. The collars of school shirts were turned up in playgrounds across the land. “Eric was the guy who opened the door for so many other Frenchmen in the English championship,” Emmanuel Petit says. It’s a view shared by many other nationalities.
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.
When Cantona arrived at Old Trafford in November 1992, United were in a rut. Alex Ferguson had taken them to second the previous season, but they sat eighth in the Premier League with summer signing Dion Dublin out injured. Ferguson’s team had won two of their previous 13 matches, and there were serious questions over the Scotsman’s job security. United had not won the title for 25 years.
Signing Cantona was a masterstroke, but he arrived amid the reservations of players and many supporters. Hindsight suggests that Leeds were foolish to let the Frenchman leave, but the reality is that Cantona had fallen out with Howard Wilkinson just as he had with multiple clubs in France, finally leaving Ligue Un after throwing a ball at a referee. Gary Pallister, Steve Bruce and Bryan Robson all expressed significant concerns over the reputation of this enfant terrible, but it was Lee Sharpe who most candidly disagreed with the signing: “This bloke’s a total nutter, what are we doing?”
Ferguson deserves immense credit for his faith, forging his reputation on successful hunches that would form the backbone of his Old Trafford dynasty. Having taken advice from Gerard Houllier on Cantona, United’s manager trusted that view and made his move. Rather than the flash foreigner who would damage Ferguson’s career, Cantona became United’s lodestar.
In his wonderful biography, Philippe Auclair offers the hypothesis that, throughout his career, Cantona was searching for the father figure who could understand his personality, manage his flaws and nurture his individual brilliance. It is a testament to Ferguson’s man-management skills that Cantona found that paternal influence in him.
The story of how Cantona joined United is open to debate, but the known truths are that when Leeds enquired about Denis Irwin, Ferguson persuaded chairman Martin Edwards to make a counter offer. Keen to offload their dysfunctional foreign fancy, Leeds agreed to the sale. Never has a million pounds been better spent in English football history.
Cantona soon opened Manchester United’s eyes, building the ladder with which the club climbed onto Liverpool’s “f**king perch”. During the Frenchman’s five years in Manchester, United won the Premier League title on four occasions. Four would surely have become five were it not for Selhurst Park and Matthew Simmons.
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.
“Collar up, back straight, chest stuck out, he glided into the arena as if he owned the f***ing place,” Roy Keane recalls. “Any arena, but nowhere more effectively than Old Trafford. This was his stage. He loved it, the crowd loved him.”
Half a decade of success brought innumerable moments of majesty, but never was it more coolly displayed than in his chip over Sunderland’s Lionel Perez. Collecting the ball on the halfway line, Cantona twists past two opposition players and strides forward with the ball. After playing the pass to Brian McClair and demanding it back, you detect the moment Cantona makes up his mind over his next move. Perez is seven yards off his line, making the chip not only the most spectacular option, but the most logical.
The brief moments during which a forward knows the ball is heading into the net are some of the most glorious in sport, and therein lies the splendour of a chip. It prolongs those moments to their maximum. Perez never stood a chance, because Cantona never countenanced doubt. The celebration, a slow-motion turn to his audience, was of an artist who had mastered his art. The artist now intended to milk his magnificence.
If Cantona’s first achievement was to bring immediate success to Manchester United, his lasting legacy was to inspire the club’s next generation. Ferguson is given due credit for the ‘Class of 92’ phenomenon, but it was Cantona who set the example to follow. Had he been a genius through talent alone Cantona would have been a distant deity, easy to worship but impossible to mimic. Yet beneath the cavalier exterior lay a determination and work ethic far beyond any existing player at Old Trafford. Paul Ince marvelled at Cantona’s willingness for extra training sessions, while Robson commented on his ‘practice makes perfect’ mentality.
“The young lads had always been in awe of him,” said Gary Neville, while Ryan Giggs believes that it was Cantona who most gave the club’s young players the confidence and example to succeed. As ever, it is left to Ferguson to epitomise: “Many people have justifiably acclaimed Cantona as a catalyst who had a crucial impact on our success while he was with the club, but nothing he did in matches meant more than the way he opened my eyes to the indispensability of practice. Practice makes players.”
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.
So to January 25, 1995, and to Selhurst Park and Simmons, who still (farcically) claims to have taunted Cantona with the words “Off you go Cantona, it’s an early shower for you” as if he were about to take part in a Victorian gentleman’s duel. The more likely quote contained a series of well-aimed expletives, but nothing justified Cantona’s acrobatic assault. He was banned for eight months, and only Ferguson’s persuasion stopped him quitting English football.
“Millions of times people say these things, and then one day you don’t accept it,” was Cantona’s explanation. “Why? It’s not about words. It’s about how you feel at that moment. I just wanted to do whatever I wanted to do. If I want to kick a fan, I do it. I am not a role model. I think the more you see, the more you realise life is a circus.”
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.
“I loved the game but I no longer had the passion to go to bed early, not to go out with my friends, not to drink, and not to do a lot of other things, the things I like in life,” he explained to his devastated disciples, most of whom almost instantly understood. Of course Cantona would leave by and for such means.
“I don’t feel let down,” said Ferguson, his mentor. “There can’t be any recriminations in my heart.” Nor should there be among any of us. Remorse is natural when someone special departs suddenly, but sadness could only ever give way to gratitude for what Cantona achieved. Never has it been better to have loved and lost a player, than never to have watched him play at all.
This Portrait of an Icon series will be released as a book in early-2017. Proceeds from sales will go to the wonderful Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, which is committed to discovering more effective ways to detect and treat cancer.
If you all bought a copy upon release, we’d raise loads of bloody money. Consider this a guilt trip.