On May 17, 1997, Eric Cantona announced his retirement from football. He was only 30 years old, but his impact on Manchester United and on English football had been 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.
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 deny my team their first Championship in 25 years. Yet here he was, switching sides.
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.
Cantona had only joined Leeds in January, signed for £900,000 by Howard Wilkinson from Nimes, and though the then-24-year-old made only six starts and another nine appearances off the bench in the second half of that 1991-92 season, his cameos helped Leeds beat Ferguson’s men to the title.
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.
Sixteen games into the following campaign, United were eighth and again averaging only a goal per game when a call took place which changed the face of English football.
“I remember that phone call clearly, as though it was yesterday,” Leeds’ former Managing director Bill Fotherbysaid in 2012.
“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.
“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.
The perfect match
While Cantona might not have been suited to Leeds, he found his perfect match in Man Utd.
“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?’”
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.
Ferguson had been searching for a goalscorer, but 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.
More than anything tangible, Cantona brought a swagger and a confidence which often strutted over the border to an arrogance that so inspired his team-mates and wowed fans at the now Stretford End-less Old Trafford.
With Bryan Robson’s powers waning, Cantona arrived at the perfect time. Countless team-mates have referenced how the Frenchman became the example to follow at The Cliff. They had a new leader.
Even Ferguson admits Cantona “opened my eyes to the indispensability of practice”.
With Cantona leading the line, United felt and often looked invincible. The burden of responsibility Ince referred to was gone, and they followed up the title in 1993 with their first-ever Double in 1994.
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.
There was no sign of the temper United had been warned about until the Champions League trip to Galatasaray in November 1993 when Cantona received his first red card in a United shirt for insulting the referee, who he later accused of being “bought”.
As he and his team-mates descended down the steps towards the underground changing rooms, Cantona was slyly attacked by a baton and shield-wielding 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.
Cantona simmered over later that 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.
We all know what happened next.
Ferguson says he has “never been able to elicit an explanation from Eric” as to why he felt the need to react to Matthew Simmons that way. 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,” Cantona said.
“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.”
Seagulls and trawlers
Cantona was subsequently suspended for nine months by the FA, and United went on to miss out on the title by a single point to Blackburn before losing the FA Cup final to Everton a week later.
To make matters worse, the FA threatened to extend Cantona’s 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.
Cantona reacted 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 travelled to Paris to convince his star player to stay put.
He later described that journey 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 certainly justified his decision to smooth the path back for Cantona.
Cantona’s critics question his record, especially in European competition – 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.
Eric Cantona vs Sheffield United, 1995. pic.twitter.com/CukcNEykQm
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) June 27, 2020
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.
By Ian Watson