Considered by many to be the most important signing in the history of Manchester United, Eric Cantona is the definition of a man who came, saw and conquered all before him. His legacy at United is littered with an array of talking points that extend beyond his footballing ability. Graced with an elegance that the footballing world has seldom seen, the Frenchman captivated many with his grace and charismatic persona.
Ironically, despite his obvious creativity, Cantona began his footballing career as a goalkeeper. He did so in an attempt to follow in his father’s footsteps. Inevitably, despite his desire to replicate his parent, his talents were soon recognised and he would transition into his favoured attacking role.
His footballing career began with local side SO Caillolais. From there, Cantona would make the move to French giants Auxerre. He’d make his debut in 1983, scoring his first senior goal in 1985 and sign his first professional contract in 1986. His performances in the first division would earn him his first French cap. Cantona’s time in France was anything but hushed: from receiving a three-month ban for kicking an opposition player, to breaking the French transfer fee record in moving to Marseille, he was never far from the headlines.
His time at Marseille was a difficult period, with an astonishing verbal assault of the French Manager, Henri Michel, compounding what was already a miserable period for the player. Cantona would move to Bordeaux on loan and then to Montpellier for a further years sabbatical. At Montpellier, Cantona would go from a training ground bust-up with a teammate, to acting as an instrumental cog in a side that would win the French Cup.
He’d return to Marseille, play well under both Gerard Gili and Franz Beckenbauer, only to fall out with Raymond Goethals, the third manager he’d encounter during his return to his beloved club. Cantona would prove instrumental in guiding Marseille to the league title, but his continuous off field antics would see him sold to Nîmes.
He never truly settled at his new club and was again disciplined for throwing a ball at a referee during a game. He was subsequently banned by the French Football Federation for the incident and his verbal assault in the hearing, leading to his retirement from football in December 1991. Michel Platini would convince him to make a comeback, and on the advice of his psychoanalyst, Cantona would look to make the move to England.
Cantona would sign for Leeds United, win the First Division in the 1991-92 season and the Charity Shield afterwards. His time with Leeds was scattered, with tremendous performances often overshadowed by arguments with players and coaching staff. Following a series of disputes with manager Howard Wilkinson, and having been dropped for a meeting with Arsenal, Cantona would refuse to report to training and submit a transfer request.
Cantona’s move to United was instigated by a phone call from Leeds’ managing director Bill Fotherby. Fotherby had contacted United about the possibility of luring Denis Irwin back to Leeds. United chairman Martin Edwards advised it would not be possible, but he would speak with Alex Ferguson and return the call. Naturally, Ferguson would not be parting ways with the Irishman and Fotherby was advised of this.
In parting, Edwards asked about the possibility of Cantona moving to Manchester. To the surprise of everybody involved, Wilkinson wanted Cantona gone and was not bothered by the inevitable backlash of the player moving to their arch-rivals. The deal would be completed in a matter of minutes, Cantona would make the move for only £1M and Ferguson had acquired the final piece of his jigsaw.
Listen to our podcast on Eric Cantona with Pete Boyle!
Cantona would arrive in Manchester in November 1992. United had not won the league since 1967 and were beginning to fade in the season’s title race. Performances had stalled, and the big-spending sides were beginning to pull away. Goals had become a problem for Ferguson’s side and fans were becoming restless.
Cantona would slot into the starting XI alongside Mark Hughes, with Brian McClair dropping further back the field. Cantona would excel in supplying assists, as well as providing his own touch of class in front of goal. United would only lose on two occasions following the Frenchman’s arrival and would end the season ten points clear at the top of the table, finishing as champions for the first time in 26 years.
“Collar turned up, back straight, chest stuck out, Eric glided into the arena as if he owned the place.” – Roy Keane (via National Football Museum)
The 1993-94 season saw the introduction of squad numbers in the Premier League. Cantona would inherit the now-iconic number 7, a number that he would retain for the remainder of his United career.
United would go on to retain the Premier League title that season, as well as securing the FA Cup to seal Ferguson’s first domestic double. Cantona would again prove the catalyst for the team’s great success and he always led in a cavalier style.
Despite the enigmatic Frenchman’s undeniable benefit to his team that season, he was never far from controversy. He’d see red as United exited European competition, as well as receiving a five-match ban for successive red cards in the Premier League.
The 1994-95 campaign will likely be the season that most people will forever associate with Cantona. United were aiming for a third successive Premier League title and the opening months were going to plan. United were keeping pace with early leaders Blackburn Rovers and Cantona was continuing with his imperious form.
On 25 January 1995, he was involved in an incident that shook world football to its core. Having been sent off for kicking Crystal Palace defender Richard Shaw, Cantona was making his way to the tunnel in Selhurst Park. As he moved down the touchline, a Palace supporter ran down several rows of stairs to shout abuse at the Frenchman, only for Cantona to launch a flying kick at the supporter. To the complete shock of everybody in the stadium, Cantona would follow up with a series of punches to the shell shocked supporter.
A lengthy ban would inevitably follow, as well as a criminal charge of assault, which was admitted by the player. An initial two-week prison sentence was later overturned for a period of community service. At a press conference that was called shortly afterwards, Cantona added further bemusement to the audience by announcing the following:
“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.” (via GOAL)
Cantona would be banned for 8 months, stripped of the French captaincy and forced to watch on as his side would lose out on a third successive league title to rivals Blackburn Rovers.
Cantona would have to endure a frustrating period on the sidelines and was even denied participation in any friendly matches. The punishment brought Cantona toward requesting termination of his contract, which was later abolished following talks with Ferguson.
Cantona’s long-awaited return saw his comeback against old enemy Liverpool. Despite a clear lack of match fitness, he’d score and assist in a 2-2 home draw. Cantona would struggle to regain his form up to Christmas and the side would fall 10 points behind leaders Newcastle.
The new year brought about a reinvigorated player and Cantona would go on a run that would inspire his side to overtake Newcastle, claim a third League title in four years and also claim victory in the FA Cup. The Frenchman would captain the side in the cup final against Liverpool, scoring the games only goal with an iconic volley in the dying minutes. The victory would see him become the first cup winning captain outside of the British Isles. United would capture their second domestic double, becoming the first side to do so.
Cantona would captain United for his fifth and final season at the club. Under his watchful eye, United would retain the league, earning him a fourth title in five seasons. Of the many standout moments in his playing career, few could compare to the goal scored against Sunderland in December 1996.
Having created the opportunity himself, Cantona combined with McClair to set up half a chance at goal. He’d chip Sunderland keeper Lionel Pérez with a sublime finish from just inside the box, stand still without any emotion – soaking in the applause of the adoring fans, before turning slowly and embracing McClair. A fitting celebration for a genuine genius and a moment that was immediately etched into the United history books.
At the end of the domestic season, Cantona announced his retirement at the age of 30. During his time at the club, he supplied 143 goal contributions in 180 appearances, won four premier league titles and two FA Cup’s in five seasons, as well as achieving multiple personal accolades, including the PFA Player’s player of the year.
He has recently become the third player to be inducted into the Premier League Hall of Fame. In typical fashion, Cantona said of his achievement, as per ManUtd.com: “I am very happy and very proud, but at the same time I am not surprised.”
The predominant factor in the majority of his performances was the aura he had around him. In what often seemed as a lethargic approach, his grace and commitment to winning saw him elevate the performances of his teammates, as well as inspiring Old Trafford to regularly respond in a 12th man manner.
It was a combination of the goals, the assists, the celebrations, the controversy, the quotes and the overall brilliance of the man, which saw him graciously referred to as King Eric by the Old Trafford faithful.
His legacy is the stuff of legend and his importance to a side that dominated the early years of the Premier League is undeniable. For many, he was the defining cog in Sir Alex Fergusons winning machine. To the reds who were privileged to watch him live, he’s simply our Eric.
I leave you with a defining quote from one of the very best to ever wear the famous shirt: “I am not a man, I am Cantona”