Eric Cantona was truly cut from a different cloth, and the way he commanded the respect of Sir Alex Ferguson throughout and after his career is a testament to that.
‘Special’ is a term used rather lightly these days when discussing talented footballers. And perhaps too lightly, because when you think of seriously special, you think of the King. Cantona was different gravy.
“He had never had the hairdryer,” recalled Gary Pallister in 2015: “Virtually everyone else had, but not Eric. We wondered if finally, this was it.
The former United defender was discussing the infamous kung-fu kick at Selhurst Park with the Manchester Evening News. An act of violence that not only saw the Frenchman red-carded and suspended from football for eight months, but also resulted in a criminal charge of assault.
“We expected Fergie to go berserk. But he didn’t. Hardly anything was said immediately after in the dressing room. We couldn’t believe it.”
A master of psychology and man-management, it’s hardly a surprise that it took special measures to manage that enigma that was Cantona.
Not only was it likely hellish at times for his teammates who took the brunt of it, but also for Ferguson himself, desperate not to tip his supremely talented wildcard over the edge and betray the trust.
But the upside to that extra care was glorious. Worth every bead of sweat and sleepless nights it prompted. In full stride, Cantona was unplayable. A footballer like no other. A main event star.
That was reflected in a letter Ferguson penned to the eccentric, collar-popping Frenchman following his bombshell decision to retire in 1997, aged just 30 and still very much at his peak.
Alex Ferguson writes a letter to Eric Cantona a few months after he left United. The admiration and love he had for Eric is quite something. pic.twitter.com/uADo0b1QO6
— Manchester United Snapshot (@ManUtdSnapshot) July 8, 2020
“When we re-started training, I kept waiting for you to turn up as normal but I think that was in hope not realism and I knew in your eyes when we met at Mottram your time at Manchester United was over.”
Sounds like the suspenseful opening to a new BBC crime drama, doesn’t it? Sir Alex had a way with words. Perhaps that was Cantona rubbing off on him.
The letter is fascinatingly revealing. Insights into how he planned to replace Cantona, a look into the thought process of perhaps the greatest manager ever, and the constraints he had to work within during all that.
“As I close this letter, I would like to hope that we will have a chat, a drink, or a meal together soon.
“I know the club has written to you about the forthcoming dinner and I hope you will manage it, but that is not the most important thing, for me it is to remind you how good a player you were for Manchester United and how grateful I am for the service you gave me. I will never forget that and I hope you won’t either.”
Bloody loves him, doesn’t he?
It’s not hard to understand why, in fairness. If you were able to get a tune out of Cantona, you got the very best tune.
Versatile and technically astute, Cantona’s style was somewhat ahead of its time, but so perfect for it in the same breath. With the possible exception of Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s hard to imagine that there will ever be someone who can bring such swagger to the Red Devils’ number seven shirt again.
Sorry, Michael Owen.
Ferguson later finished the letter with: “Eric you know where I am if you need me and now that you are no longer one of my players, I hope you know you have a friend.”
Not only is that incredibly sincere, it’s also rather telling of Ferguson’s management style, and the authority he held over the squad. Not Eric, though. He could come and go as he pleased.
But when you’ve contributed to four Premier League titles, two league and FA Cup doubles and inspired a generation of middle-aged men to wear their shirt collar popped up, it’s fair game.
There will never be another King Eric.
By Mitchell Wilks