Eric Cantona: A guiding light for those who just don’t fit in…

Date published: Friday 7th August 2020 3:20 - Matthew Stead

Eric Cantona Man Utd

Who’s this then?
Eric Daniel Pierre Cantona is now 54 years old. A 6′ 2″ colossus, he can lay claim to have been the primo mercurial football genius of his generation. A player like no other. Perhaps because he was the son of a dressmaker and painter, who for a time lived in a cave before attaching a house to it, he was destined to become a football artist.

Born in Marseille, he started his career at Auxerre, signing professional papers in 1986. He debuted soon after and was already making waves by punching his own goalkeeper in the face, as you do. The following year, after a high kung-fu kick of sorts at a Nantes player, there followed a three-month ban, reduced to two. He would learn his lesson.

The first time we were aware of him in England was when he scored a hat-trick for the victorious France side in the U21 1988 European Championships.

This got him a move to his hometown club of Marseille for 22million French Francs: a national record fee. However, it wasn’t long before he was banned for a year from the France side for criticising coach Henri Michel – “I am not far from thinking that he is a bag of shit” – and then there was a slight matter of a massive strop when substituted in a friendly in January 1989 which also got him suspended for a month.

All of this led to him being loaned to first Bordeaux for six months and then Montpellier for a year. Naturally it wasn’t long before he was throwing his boots in the faces of his teammates and falling out with almost everyone. Nevertheless, he played well: Montpellier won the cup and Marseille took him back. They won Ligue Un the next season but notorious owner Bernard Tapie wasn’t a big fan and in 1991 transferred him to Nimes.

He would calm down somewhat, only throwing a ball in the face of a referee and being pulled up before the FFA disciplinary committee and banned for a month. Reports say, perhaps prophetically, in a scene that looked like it came straight out of a movie, our Eric walked around the room jabbing a finger at each committee member calling them an idiot.

They promptly doubled his ban.

What did Eric do? He retired, that’s what. Yup. He was just 25.

At this time he was seeing a psychoanalyst and it was suggested a move to England would be advantageous. Whether this was because it was felt you could kick people in the chest, punch goalkeepers and throw a ball in an official’s face with impunity there is unclear.

He was offered to Graeme Souness at Liverpool: a man fond of kicking people in the chest or indeed any other part of the body, of course, but the mustachioed maestro turned him down, feeling it wouldn’t be good for dressing-room harmony to have a Frenchie in there, no doubt wearing a striped shirt and pushing a bike with strings of onions from the handlebars.

He had a trial of sorts with Sheffield Wednesday but they couldn’t afford him, so in stepped Leeds United manager Howard ‘Sargeant Wilko’ Wilkinson, a man who could turn you to stone with one passive-aggressive stare. Also a man who Steve Anglesey, once of this parish, interviewed at Leeds training pitch, in the middle of which Howard took out what we must medically describe as his old lad and voided his bladder mid-sentence as though it was a perfectly normal thing to do.

Though it might seem unlikely now, at the time Wilko was thought one of the most advanced and progressive minds in English football, even though he deployed Lee Chapman as a cross between a cruise missile and a Sherman tank. In January 1992 they paid Nimes £100k and took him on loan, with £900k to follow if they signed him permanently.

Cantona was very much the Turkish delight in a team of coffee creams and helped them to the title. While he scored only three goals, his imperious manner and creativity helped to ensure the already excellent Leeds side became a title-winning team. To see him set up goals for Chapman was to see satin and steel in perfect harmony.

Naturally he was signed on a permanent basis and paid a massive £7k per week. He scored a hat-trick in the Charity Shield 4-3 win over Liverpool and became the first player to score a hat-trick in the newly rebranded Premier League. He played 20 games for the Whites that season and scored 11 times, but relations with his manager deteriorated along with Leeds’ form, leading to him putting in a transfer request, one Wilkinson was all too keen to accept. He signed for Manchester United on November 26, 1992. It was to be the start of an iconic period for him, for the club and for English football.

There was the odd £1,000 fine for spitting at a Leeds fan, but his arrival galvanised the team and helped deliver a title. This made him the only player to win two consecutive championship medals with two different clubs at the time.

The following season he won the PFA Player of the Year award and collected another league title as Manchester United’s top scorer.

Next year the old trouble came back to haunt him in the infamous game against Crystal Palace. But it only helped cement Eric’s reputation as a dangerous maverick. He was sent down for two months but that was suspended on appeal and scaled down to community service. All this seemed very over the top. He later reflected: “I have a lot of good moments, but the one I prefer is when I kicked the hooligan.”

Eric held a press conference and further underlined his status as an eccentric.

“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.”

This was painted in the notoriously anti-intellectual tabloid English media as the words of a madman and treated as possibly the most insane words ever uttered by a human being, when in reality, the metaphor is hardly the most difficult nor cryptic to decipher. Only football could look on quite so slack-jawed at that and say, “eh? You what, like?”.

It seemed ironic that the assembled people who were sniggering, shrugging their shoulders and making the circling finger to temple sign to each other at such an apparently incomprehensible message were the actual target of them. I’m sure that gave Eric a lot of quiet pleasure. This was the same media that reported his referencing of the poet Rimbaud as one of heroes as Rambo.

As an aside, this reminds me of a story I was told by a footballer, who, when he informed a teammate he was going to see the Monet exhibition, thought he was going to look at some money.

Of course, Eric, in true action hero-style, set up one and scored a penalty on his eventual return, helping United to another cup and league win, latterly given the captaincy.

1996-97 was to be his final season as a professional footballer. It was the campaign of that chip against Sunderland, perhaps his most iconic goal of all. United won the title, Cantona’s sixth in seven years, and he retired aged 30.

Why did he quit? “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.” Which seems like a bloody good reason to you and me and every other sentient creature. He had played 185 games for United and scored 82 goals.

His career total was 439 games and 165 goals as well as getting 45 international caps, scoring 20 times. He continues to make sardonic, amusing appearances in adverts, always seems to get in on the action for European Championship and World Cup promotions and generally behaves like the eccentric man he has always been. With age has come reflection but his is a flame that still burns white hot.


Why the love?
There are people who don’t like Eric. I know, it is hard to believe, but they’re out there. For them he’s the epitome of a badly disciplined player who squandered his considerable talent in the crucible of his own temperament. A slave to his emotions and his ego, he never fulfilled his potential. That is their view and they are entitled to it. But to those of us who seek the higher things in life and who know that real rock ‘n’ roll should never be perfectly in tune, these are the elements which we love about him. Better to walk your own path, take all the glory and all the heartache, burn bright for a few summers and then retire to pluck the silver apples of the moon and the golden apples of the sun.

That collar-up moment is perfectly symbolic of his spirit. It was always a rare sort of heartbeat that drove him on, but even so, this sort of individuality, this foot up on the stage monitor of life seems gone from the game now, at least in England, deprived of oxygen by the all-smothering blanket of corporate obedience, pernicious and reactionary media scrutiny combined with the mob fascism of social media, making being different more difficult, more stressful and simply not worth the effort.

But Eric, by how he played the game and how he conducted himself, somehow embodied freedom; a freedom of spirit and belief. His career was a massive fuck you to the oppressors of thought and deed. Yes, there were casualties along the way, not least his own career. But, hell fire, it was all worth it to walk the long and troublesome road to immortality.

Only King Eric could have had a movie made around him by Ken Loach in 2009’s Looking For Eric. Loach said of the film: “We wanted to deflate the idea of celebrities as more than human. And we wanted to make a film that was enjoying the idea of what you and I would call solidarity, but what others would call support for your friends really, and the old idea that we are stronger as a team than we are as individuals.”

A beautiful philosophy. No wonder Eric wanted to be involved.

There was poetry to how he played, by which I mean there was an inner rhythm and physical timbre to it that searched to express something greater than the mundane. He wanted to do things differently, not by choice but out of instinct and nature. The desire to do that was the tap root for all that he achieved, especially at United.

His was an easy talent to enjoy: the wonderful, long, raking diagonals; the outrageous volleyed goals and delicate chips. And he was generous with it, as his assist numbers indicate. This was no misunderstood genius – the fans knew exactly what he was all about even if the authorities didn’t like it. His emotional outbursts and uncontrolled anger mirrored our own frustrations in life. The need to kick out against people we feel are oppressing us one way or another, people who are devaluing us, abusing us, is a universal emotion. When he kicked and punched the Palace fan, in quite a profound way he was doing it for all of us and I think many of us implicitly understood that and felt he was very much on the side of fight and decency.

That famous kung fu kick in response to the comically alleged taunt of “off you go Mr Cantona, it’s an early bath for you” or the more likely reported “”Fuck off back to France, you French bastard” attracted opprobrium and hand-wringing from all corners of the media and the authorities. But we all know that actually, the majority of football fans bloody loved it and are even now all in favour of mouthy fans having to take some consequence for their abuse. Few of us would not approve of some tall, wide athletic specimen of maleness wading into the crowd to dispense rough justice to an abuser. Indeed, many of us would rather watch that than the football.

It is also important to note that, despite his problems with suspension and the like, he helped his team win six titles in seven seasons – the outlier being the campaign he was almost entirely banned. This is not a coincidence. For all the cult of personality around Eric, he was a brilliant team player when the spirit moved him and an elegant physical presence. At 6′ 2”, broad of chest and powerful of shoulder, he was a very imposing figure, even from the terraces.

The fact that his utterances were treated with a mixture of laughter and puzzlement put him well outside of the mainstream and so many of us loved him for that. He was his own man, not keen to bend the knee to those he did not respect. In Sir Alex Ferguson he found, I think, a kindred spirit with the same inclinations and instincts.

Some players are loved for their football; some for their character and personality. Eric is adored for both. It is 24 years since he retired. Twenty-four! And yet he is still a bright star in the football firmament and, y’know, god loves him for that. What a joybringer he is.


What the people love

“Perhaps especially for people who lived through the Cantona glory years from 93 – 96 in their teens or early twenties, he left a long-lasting mark. The sort of mark that causes those people, now in their 40s to sigh and feel ‘football was better in the old days.’ Eric is so obviously not a player in the more soulless 2020 era where teams which produce machine music are lauded, the noisy rock and roll football of the past now decried as crude and unsophisticated, that players are fitter now and pitches better, sold to us as an improvement that is worth all the increased costs. But then we watch Eric doing his mighty mid-90s thing and that argument melts like a peach melba in the midday sun. It isn’t possible to watch his chip v Sunderland, and his silent celebration without a flare of the nostrils and even a moist eye. This was special. This was Other. So no surprise that my love sack was bulging to the point of overflowing today.”

“Luring mesmerist”

“A city held in his thrall”

“Led to the summit”

“A man so good that he was the main act in a commercial featuring Maldini, Wright, Kluivert, Figo. That collar flick too…the man is a god.”

“I’ve met Cantona – much taller than I expected.”

“Eric made me fall in love with football, the way he glided across the pitch and his attitude. Just immense. Like a (marginally) less combustible Robin Friday.”

“To premier league football what Elvis Presley was to rock n roll. (The King of Football)”

“Completely changed the culture around English football – the Premier League doesn’t become a global phenomenon without him. Brought foreign magic but had that bit of grit that allowed ‘proper men’ to like him. And his presence on the pitch was utterly captivating.”

“The most important signing of the Fergie era. At the time it seemed like a panic buy, but he single-handedly galvanised ManUtd and took them to their first elusive league title for 26 years. He seemed to grow in stature and presence the minute he put on a Man Utd shirt.”

“There was a rawness and simplicity to Cantona, a perfect blend of artist and artisan. You could never imagine him frog splashing off a £75m superyacht calling himself a shark.”

“If he doesn’t kick Matthew Simmons, United win 5 league titles in a row (6 for him) and 3 doubles in a row.”

“Unlike any other player we have seen in English football, he had the aura of a footballing Caesar conquering all before him.”

“‘I feel close to the rebelliousness and vigour of the youth here. Perhaps time will seperate us, but nobody can deny that here, behind the windows of Manchester, there is an insane love of football, of celebration and of music.’ No football ever better embodied his adopted city.”

“That his aura remains to this day, and that he can mock that himself, says everything about him. The broad shoulders and upturned collar on which the modern United was built. Elegant, ferocious, insouciant, fearless and inspirational. There’s no one like him at all.”

“When English club football was still a backwater in Continental European terms, Eric was one player from the Continent (can’t think of anyone else to be honest, save for a few Scandinavians) to join Leeds then United. Revered at United but always found wanting in the CL.”

“The line in Looking for Eric summed up his effect on English football perfectly.”

“‘I am not a man, I am Cantona’”

“I loved how when he arrived he was being all French and philosophical and said that his hero was Rimbaud. Which of course made it to the press as ‘Rambo'”

“Really excited when Cantona signed for Stockport. Joel, that is, brother of. Rumour has it he was funded by United to keep Eric company.”

“Quite simply The King. The catalyst for United’s dominance under Fergie. An international enigma at a time when overseas players were seldom seen and maybe even trusted in English football.”

“A player whose effect on the game out weighed his ability. A catalyst, things happened, teams ticked and he was the haughty pendulum.”

“Awesome player. As a Liverpool fan he terrified me whenever we were due to play them. Probably the nearest I’ve seen to Kenny Dalglish.”

“I caught some Sky Sports highlight reel of his goals at United the other day and was surprised at how many headers he scored. He really had everything – not just inspirational as a character and technically excellent, but strong and brave as well.”

“His advert for 1664 will always make me chuckle, he just has such charisma.”

“For me it was not – like most sports stars in the UK – becoming what the media wanted him to be. But being who HE was – and making the media cover that. And all the way not giving a toss. The King. The embodiment of the original Fergie team. And boy did they play, mid-1990s.”


Five great moments
That chip. Imperious. Majestic.

Sets himself up for a proper f**king volley

‘Ave some of that!

Eric gets all cosmic on us whilst looking like an Old Testament prophet.

This would move even the most frozen heart. Also, the camera just loves Eric.


What now?
The Cantona character is still a valuable currency for advertisers and in football. His propensity for left field behaviour and generally acting the giddy goat seems unlikely to be tamed any time soon. Interestingly, he’s rarely gone in for ‘normal’ football punditry. He must surely have had offers to sit on sofas or in studios to cast the runes over games but that seems to offer little interest to him. It is perhaps too straight a world for him, too normal, too lacking in any freakydeak to hold his attention.

In writing this I’ve trawled through so much footage of King Eric, often finding myself very moved by the sheer glory of his talent, the way we all are when exposed to any great art.  When mixed with his unique degree of charisma, he really takes the breath away. I also noticed for the first time, how much he grew to resemble a 1970s Keith Moon, with the same crowded eyebrow and dark wildness in his eyes.

I’m left with two conclusions, first that the mid-90s Manchester United side was one of the most exhilarating teams I’ve personally ever witnessed. The way they could break forward in formation like the Red Arrows was just stunning. They had absolutely everything from gnarly aggression to sublime skill. I’d love to take them out of history and place them in front of 2020’s Liverpool and see what the f**k happened.

Second, and perhaps more profoundly, is the feeling that this was a sport that wasn’t quite yet in the full grip of corporate greed and really grotesque ownership regimes. It wasn’t yet kowtowing to the intolerant blandocratic monoculture that inordinate wealth brings with it. Here was a sport that had room for the luxury of eccentricity, and was, as a result, bloody fantastic.

Eric is a guiding light for those who just don’t fit in, for those who have the flickering flame of madness in their souls. An angelheaded hipster burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. And in that, he changed the molecules of our existence quite profoundly. Damn it, he was special.

John Nicholson


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