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Icons of Old Trafford: Eric Cantona – One-way ticket to Hell and back

In the second part of our Eric Cantona ‘Icons of Old Trafford series’ we look at the controversial parts of Cantona’s time at United and the legacy he left United and English Football.

By the autumn of 1993 Eric Cantona had settled in nicely at Old Trafford, leading the club’s relentless charge to a second-successive league title. However, as was so often the case in his on-field career, confrontation was never far away.

During United’s ill-fated first season back in the Champions League, Cantona’s short fuse overwhelmed him during a disastrous trip to Istanbul in November 1993.

A naïve United crashed out of the Champions League to Galatasaray on away goals. Yet the score line was secondary to the events surrounding Cantona in the immediate aftermath.

Already fortunate to avoid a red card for launching an assault on a substitute goalkeeper, Cantona was duly shown his marching orders at the final whistle. The Frenchman felt that referee Kurt Rothlisberger was on the take – indeed a few years later the Swiss referee was banned for life by UEFA for bribery – and decided to air his thoughts directly.

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Rothlisberger flourished the red card in response and all hell broke loose. As the beaten United players headed for the dressing room, Turkish police behaved in a manner that a backwater, redneck Mississippi deputy would be proud of, by launching an unprovoked assault on Cantona and Bryan Robson. It took several United players and staff to restrain Cantona from retaliating in a violent frenzy.

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Cantona was not responsible for that strife, but it tainted him with the notion of being more trouble than he was worth. Seemingly proven by being sent off in the next two games, receiving a five-match domestic ban in the process. Cantona’s somewhat aloof persona and strong sense of justice, decided if officials weren’t going to protect him, he would exact his own Old Testament retribution.

That week, however, was a mere aperitif for the mayhem in South London which unfolded in on 25th January 1995.

United were hunting a third successive title when they travelled to Crystal Palace and it was here, Cantona exploded in stunning fashion.

Often on the receiving end of disgraceful challenges from opposition defenders – who back in this era were barely able to play football – Cantona decided he would dish out his own punishment.

Retaliating to yet another foul by Palace defender Richard Shaw, Cantona was red carded by referee Alan Wilkie. It was a footnote to subsequent events though. Already in a rage, Cantona responded to the disgusting abuse spat at him by Palace fan Richard Simmons, with the now immortal, kung-fu kick and an underrated right hook.

Later revelations of Simmons’ lengthy criminal record and ties to fascist organisations pointed towards Cantona’s only mistake was to not continue hitting him. Nevertheless, a rightful example of such player conduct had to be made and the club suspended him for four months. The FA though, decided to slap Cantona with their own nine-month ban, a punishment which had club and player feeling betrayed. Cantona considered leaving England and even an early retirement, for the second time in his career.

While the remarks made in the press conference relating to his criminal appeal hearing about sardines and fishing boats made the headlines, his remarks to the FA Disciplinary Panel were more worthy of mention. Making several apologies for his behaviour but most pointedly to “the prostitute who shared my bed last night” was classic Cantona. A trickster poking the eye of the football establishment.

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Indeed, his public conduct in the aftermath of the kick seemed to endear to his fans and sponsors more. By the time Cantona returned to action in October 1995 against Liverpool – thanks to the persuasion of Sir Alex Ferguson – it was akin to Arthur rising from Avalon and returning to a restored Camelot.

Rapturous fanfare and wild crowds precipitated a glorious conclusion to his career. Now the club captain, Cantona lead United to two more league titles, including an unprecedented “double – Double” and a Champions League semi-final.

When he did finally follow through on his consistent threats to retire in 1997, aged just 30, it still floored us all like a sack of spuds. The King chose to abdicate rather than decline and tarnish a gilded legacy.

Cantona’s post-footballing career eschewed established pathways, just as he did on the pitch. Pursuing a successful acting career as well as becoming a political iconoclast, Cantona continues to challenge intrigue and mystify in equal measure. Committed to maintaining his enigmatic brand.

The Frenchman challenged mainstream thought in English football in the 1990’s and acted as the catalyst for introduction of high-class imports as well as mentoring United’s “Class of ‘92” which would form the spine of Ferguson’s second great United team.

Cantona was only in English football for just over five years, but it his impact will be felt for generations to come.

Long live the King.

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