Actor, philosopher, polemicist and sometime footballer: Apart from the manager who brought him to Manchester United, there is no more transformative figure in the modern era of the club than Eric Cantona.
The once and future king was born in Marseille, 1966. The son of a nurse and a painter, Cantona signed his first professional contract with Auxerre, under the legendary coach Guy Roux in 1986.
Prior to Sir Alex Ferguson, Roux was arguably the only man who was able to coax the best out of the mercurial French Raconteur. Despite what some ill-informed detractors may say, Cantona established himself as a star in France, forcing his way into the national team at just twenty years old in 1987.
However, such was the volatility of the man, Cantona’s disciplinary problems began soon after. Firstly, punching a teammate in the face and then – in ominous foreshadowing — receiving a three-month ban (later reduced to two) for attempting to kung-fu kick an opposition player in half in a match against Nantes.
He also had run in’s with France manager Henri Michel, referring to him as “a bag of sh*t” after being dropped from the national team. Evidently Cantona was already laying the groundwork for his move to Manchester, as such a phrase is a term of endearment in the part of Manchester I was raised.
After further eruptions at his hometown club Marseille – stemming from a fractious relationship with the club owner Bernard Tapie – Cantona’s time in France ended at Nimes. It was there he fractured from French football for good. After being suspended for launching a ball at a referee, Cantona took the time to insult the disciplinary panel individually before announcing his retirement in December 1991.
It was at the persuasion of Gerard Houllier and Michel Platini that Cantona returned to the game and moved to England. In was on this side of the Channel he finally realised his potential and found his spiritual home. First, in a glowing cameo, driving an otherwise average Leeds United team to the old Division One title in 1991-92, then, crossing the Pennines to arrive at Old Trafford in November of the 1992/93 season. A move that would provoke fury from Leeds fans.
At the point, Ferguson’s United were a good side, but had chucked away the title the season prior in spectacular fashion and had started this season poorly, struggling to score goals.
However, from the moment Cantona sauntered onto the pitch in the red shirt, collar up, like a newly – minted businessman strutting into a power lunch, United rediscovered their big club mentality. Losing just twice from his debut in December 1992, until the end of the season to lead United to their first league title in twenty-six years.
A year later, things were even better. He led the club to its first league and FA Cup double, as United cantered to the title and Cantona had his best individual season, scoring 25 goals, including a brace of penalties in United’s 4-0 demolition of Chelsea in the 1994 FA Cup final.
Cantona had found his kingdom. Laying the foundations for a period of dominance for United that spanned across three decades.
Nevertheless, it was that season storm clouds gathered around the Frenchman once again, beginning with a journey into Hell…
Part two of our Icons of Old Trafford feature on Eric Cantona will be released next Wednesday.
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