An epic tribute to Eric Cantona and his incredible impact on Man Utd


Twenty years ago this week, Eric Cantona announced his retirement from football. His impact on Manchester United and on English football was immeasurable.

“‘Ooh ahh, Cantona’? They won’t sing it here.”

That was one of the more extreme responses from a supporter outside Old Trafford (see video below) the day after Cantona stunned football – not for the first time and certainly not for the last – by signing for Manchester United.

Not all United fans shared that conviction, but many were suspicious of this extraordinary twist.

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As a 12-year-old red growing up in a Leeds United heartland, I certainly wasn’t sure how to process the breaking story late in the Calendar News bulletin at 6.25pm on Thursday, November 26, 1992.

Cantona had played a significant part in my misery up to that point, and his chant had provided the backing music for some merciless stick at school six months earlier when he helped Leeds chase down United and deny my team their first Championship in 25 years. Yet here he was, switching sides.

Still in shock, fans of both Uniteds initially played it cool: Leeds supporters didn’t need Cantona and their Manchester rivals were hardly overjoyed to welcome him.

Alex Ferguson did little to reassure his club’s supporters that there was method to the madness when he admitted Cantona only came into his mind “more or less” when Leeds called to enquire about Denis Irwin.

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We know now, and it became quickly evident then, that it was masterstroke. But you cannot blame those who had initial doubts given all that had gone before.

Ferguson recognised that his team were close, but their lack of potency in attack had led to the previous season’s heartbreak.

The United boss had tried and failed to sign Alan Shearer and David Hirst, while the failure to follow his instinct and recruit 33-year-old Luton targetman Mick Harford earlier in the year became a huge regret: “If I had acted as purposefully as I should have done, we would have won the league.”

Ferguson was not the only manager to dither that winter. Trevor Francis wanted a longer look at Cantona in January, but the Frenchman declined – not very politely, you might imagine – the invitation of another week’s trial at Sheffield Wednesday.

Howard Wilkinson was more decisive, signing Cantona from Nimes for £900,000.

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Cantona signed for Leeds in the first week of February, with 15 league games remaining at a time when first place in the First Division was being tossed between Wilkinson’s side and Manchester United.

Like Ferguson, Wilkinson could see there was something missing in his team.

With a solid back four and perhaps the league’s strongest midfield in David Batty, Gary Speed, Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister, their attack lacked the necessary subtlety required on the few occasions that season when Lee Chapman’s battering ram wasn’t breaking down doors.

The then-24-year-old made only six starts and another nine appearances off the bench, but his exquisite cameos and the novelty of his Gallic presence lifted Wilkinson’s squad while Man Utd were getting bogged down on their cabbage patch pitch at Old Trafford.

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READ: ‘Do You Want To Win?’: How Howard Wilkinson turned Leeds into champions

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Cantona’s three goals came at home against teams in the lower half of the table, but he got the ball rolling against Luton and Wimbledon and broke Chelsea’s resistance with one of the goals of the season.

With Cantona, Leeds took 13 points from their final five games of the run-in, while Man Utd drew one and lost three on the spin against Nottingham Forest, West Ham and Liverpool to almost gift-wrap the final pre-Premier League title for their Yorkshire rivals.

Though Ferguson acknowledged in both autobiographies that Leeds were worthy champions, his side unquestionably blew it as his fear over the goals drying up became a reality.

Coincidence though it may be, when Leeds signed Cantona, Man Utd were averaging 2.9 goals per game over 26 matches. In the final 16-game run-in, that plummeted to one goal per game, while they were shut out six times.

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The dawn of the Premier League the following season initially brought little respite for Ferguson. After missing out on Shearer, he signed Dion Dublin, but the signing from Cambridge had his season ended by a knee injury after just six games and one goal in a United shirt.

Sixteen games into the campaign, United were eighth, having been as low as 10th, and again averaging only a goal per game – a strike rate that brought with it six draws and four defeats. Then came THE call.

Managing director Bill Fotherby was on the Leeds United end of the line.

“I remember that phone call clearly, as though it was yesterday.

“We agreed to pay Eric something like £500,000 if we kept him after the initial period of six months. It was an immense amount of money for Leeds, but we agreed to it because we had this recommendation from Michel Platini and we judged the most important thing was to get the player.

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“We wanted to do whatever it took and deal with the rest afterwards. But there were difficulties almost immediately.

“Apart from Lee Chapman, no-one in the squad spoke fluent French, and for Howard, it was a bit of a nightmare. Although we had won the title, there was just no connection between the two and, in the end, he told me to try and find Eric another club.

“Howard Wilkinson was an absolute perfectionist. He wanted his players to be disciplined and adhere to a certain team pattern. Eric just didn’t fit it.

“Ferguson gave him a free role and probably wasn’t quite as strict with Eric as Howard would have been. Eric liked to play to the crowd. That wasn’t Howard’s way at all.

“It is wonderful to have someone like that in your team, who can produce that little bit of magic, but not if it came at the expense of the team.”

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When Cantona arrived at Old Trafford, he strolled into a dressing room likely still suffering from shell-shock. This was a squad chock-full of big characters, fighters like Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce, Peter Schmeichel, Paul Ince and Mark Hughes, as well as the speed and flair of Lee Sharpe, Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis.

Though its pitch had been re-laid, Old Trafford was still covered in the fog of last season’s failure. That was only lifted by Cantona’s arrival.

“If ever there was one player, anywhere in the word, that was made for Manchester United, it was Cantona,” said Ferguson later.

“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?’”

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Though many, perhaps including the players themselves, doubted their capability to, United rose to Cantona’s arrival.

Ince, the self-styled Guvnor, said Cantona “took the responsibility away from us lot”, which was evident from the manner in which United attacked the second half of the season.

They doubled their goals per game over the remaining 26 matches, netting 50 times in 18 wins, losing only twice on their way to breaking a 26-year title drought. Famine was about to become feast.

Though Ferguson had been searching for a goalscorer, in Cantona, he found something rarer. The Frenchman notched nine goals over the remainder of the season, perhaps not a Shearer-esque strike-rate, but he offered 11 assists.

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More than anything tangible, Cantona brought a swagger and a confidence which often strutted over the border to arrogance that so inspired his team-mates and wowed fans at the now Stretford End-less Old Trafford.

With Robson’s powers waning, Cantona arrived at the perfect time. For the squad, the former England captain had set the standards in training and on the pitch for the best part of a decade, despite his preparation sometimes being less-than-exemplary. If it moved, Robbo would tackle it, kick it, head it or fight it.

Cantona’s leadership style differed, but the expectations had been raised. Countless team-mates have referenced how his became the example to follow at The Cliff, though how it had escaped seasoned pros until Cantona’s arrival that extra work on the training pitch would reap its rewards remains something of a mystery.

Even Ferguson admits Cantona “opened my eyes to the indispensability of practice”.

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Despite cup triumphs and memorable one-off league victories, it was only when Cantona arrived and the title followed that doubts over United’s mentality would dissipate.

With that weight off their shoulders and Cantona leading the line, United felt and often looked invincible. The burden of responsibility Ince referred to was gone, and the next season saw Ferguson lead what many Reds regard as the most exciting United team of the Premier League era to their first ever Double.

Cantona, with his collar up, was at the heart of all that the purists identified as good and bad about that 93-94 team. He scored 25 goals in all competitions and contributed 13 assists, earning himself the PFA Player of the Year award.

By now, Cantona’s temper was getting the stuffed shirts at the FA hot under the collar. To United fans and team-mates, though, his short fuse and refusal to take shit from anyone, anywhere, only strengthened his magnetism.

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READ: 17 times Eric Cantona was the coolest footballer on the planet

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There was no sign of the temper United were warned about until the Champions League trip to Galatasaray in November 1993. The Red Devils were promised ‘hell’ in Turkey, and the hosts made good on that pledge at the Ali Sami Yen stadium, where United needed to win after a 3-3 draw in the first leg at Old Trafford.

United struggled to break down the Turks in much the same way that most of the travelling supporters had failed to gain entry into the stadium, with many instead being locked up in Istanbul on account of being a Red.

The provocation from the hosts, and as Cantona saw it, from referee Kurt Rothlisberger, was too much.

In the game’s dying moments, Cantona received his first red card in a United shirt for insulting the Swiss official, who the striker later accused of being “bought”.

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As he and his team-mates descended down the steps towards the underground changing rooms, Cantona was slyly attacked by a baton and shield-weilding policeman, as was Robson when the skipper rushed to defend his team-mate.

“In the dressing room, Eric went crazy,” Roy Keane recalled in his autobiography. “While the rest of us just wanted to get out of there, Eric was determined to sort out the rogue cop who had been wielding his truncheon.

“Eric was a big, strong lad. He was serious. He insisted he was going to kill that f***er. It took the combined efforts of the manager, Brian Kidd and a few of the players to restrain him.”

Much like supporters, Cantona’s blood boiled at the thought of any perceived injustice, and that connection made it easy for United fans to not only forgive Eric’s misdemeanours but to revel in them.

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Cantona simmered over later that same season when he was banned for five games after red cards in successive draws at Swindon and Arsenal. But those incidents were merely child’s play compared to what was to come at Crystal Palace the following season.

The kung-fu kick on Matthew Simmons was the release of 48 minutes of frustration after Cantona had felt he had been kicked around Selhurst Park without any protection from Alan Wilkie.

Cantona questioned the referee at half-time while, according to Wilkie, Ferguson was more direct: “Why don’t you do your f*cking job!”

Three minutes after emerging from the tunnel for the second half, Cantona was being directed back towards it after dishing out his own form of justice to his shadow for the night, Richard Shaw.

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Instead of taking the direct route to the dressing room in the corner of the ground, Cantona went back via the bench, where he collected an escort, kit man Norman Davies.

As the pair trudged down the touchline, Palace fan Simmons moved rather more quickly from his seat 11 rows back to the front of the stand, leaving only an advertising hoarding between himself and Cantona.

“Off you go Cantona, it’s an early shower for you!” is what the 20-year-old claimed he had said, though others within earshot claim there was a rather more sinister tone: “F*ck off back to France, you French b*stard.”

Over the hoarding went Cantona, landing his right boot on Simmons’ chest. After recovering his ground, the Frenchman swung a punch before he was dragged away by Davies and Schmeichel, who was showered in a Palace fan’s half-time cuppa on his way to the tunnel.

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Why did he do it? Ferguson says he has “never been able to elicit an explanation from Eric”, and few United fans have ever seen fit to question the King – many would love to have done the same. Unsurprisingly, it seems he did it because he felt like it.

“Millions of times people say these things, and then one day you don’t accept it,” explained Cantona.

“Why? It’s not about words. It’s about how you feel at that moment. One day you react, but the words are exactly the same as those you have heard a million times, so it is impossible to say why you react.”

The sentiment was understandable, but as a legal defence it was hardly watertight. United tried to get ahead of the FA’s sanctions by suspending their best player for the remainder of the season, but the governing body had to be seen to be putting their foot down on this “stain on the game”, so they extended his ban until the end of September – a nine-month suspension.

The criminal court went even further, initially sentencing Cantona to two weeks in prison, though that was reduced upon appeal to 120 hours community service.

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Though the knives were out for Cantona at a time when hating United was as fashionable as Oasis and Blur, Ferguson’s support and that of the United fans never wavered.

Even when United lost the league by a single point on the final day to Blackburn, and the FA Cup final to Everton a week later, no one with United at heart questioned what Cantona’s actions had cost the club.

It was to be a seismic summer for United. Out went Hughes, Ince and Kanchelskis, and in came the Class of 92.

But amid all that upheaval, Ferguson and the fans’ greatest concern was for Cantona, when the FA threatened to extend his suspension because he had been photographed taking part in a friendly against Rochdale that was nothing more than a behind-closed-doors kickabout of three thirds.

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Cantona reacted by retreating to France and giving the FA their way by submitting a transfer request in early August.

Inter Milan, who were at Selhurst Park on that night in January to scout Cantona, would have been delighted to offer him a haven in Italy but Ferguson wasn’t ready to wave off his talisman just yet and nor were the supporters.

Some vociferous backing for Eric and a huge ‘1966 was a great year for English football…’ flag that was on display at an otherwise forgettable pre-season friendly at Bradford City featured on the ITN 10 O’Clock News, while Ferguson was bound for Paris to reassure Cantona, a journey the manager described as “one of the more worthwhile acts I have performed in this stupid job of mine”.

Given the success that followed, that must rate as one of Ferguson’s greatest understatements. Another Double, this time with kids, and an additional Premier League title after that illustrates why everyone at United was so keen to smooth the path back for Cantona.

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To United fans, of course, Cantona was far more than a top-class centre-forward. His critics question his record, especially in European compeition – though a goal every other game over six seasons and an assist for every three of his 185 appearances certainly stands up to scrutiny. But Cantona’s contribution cannot be assessed by numbers.

United fans remember the moments. The good ones were incredible, and even the bad ones were great.

Important goals, like the volley at Newcastle to break Kevin Keegan’s heart or the retreating shot from the edge of the box to win the 1996 FA Cup final against Liverpool’s Spice Boys.

And great goals too, against Sunderland or an even better lob in a gale at Sheffield United – Wayne Rooney has been trying for the best part of a decade to score a similar chip.

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In terms of technique, Cantona was the best Old Trafford had seen for some time, but with regard to charisma, he was perhaps the greatest ever.

Robson will always be revered – despite not being a United product, he was the Stretford End’s representative on the pitch. Work hard, play hard, tackle harder, Captain Marvel was easy to relate to, but Eric was an enigma as well as an icon.

Never misunderstood at Old Trafford, but being barely understood by his public certainly added to the mercurial Frenchman’s charm.

Like many of us were told about Best, Law and Charlton, there is now a generation of supporters who were never lucky enough to experience Cantona first-hand, and no amount of YouTube highlights videos can make those poor souls feel what Eric made United fans feel in the 1990s.

His exit, announced 20 years ago, was typically Cantona: shocking, swift, on his terms, and against others’ supposed better judgement. Aged 30, Eric was ready to go, but we certainly weren’t ready to lose him.

By Ian Watson

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