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Old 15th January 2011, 08:59   #1
tomclare
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Post United Captains - Eric Cantona

United Captains – Eric Cantona

“Of all the many qualities a good team must possess, the supreme essential for me is penetration. And Eric brought the can-opener.”
Sir Alex Ferguson

If ever the term “flawed genius” was used to describe a brilliant football player, then I think that it is true to say, that when it was used to describe Eric Cantona, the term could not have been more apt. Much has been written, and much has been said about the five and a half years period which the temperamental Frenchman spent at Old Trafford. Even today, almost 14 years after he surprisingly decided to retire from football at the early age of just 30 years, his name still resonates around the Old Trafford stadium every match day, and he is held in such high reverence by the Old Trafford hordes. Few players, if any, ever see this kind adulation long after their playing careers have ceased.

Two years ago, a national newspaper ran a reader’s poll to find out who would be voted Manchester United’s greatest ever player, and to this writer at least, when Cantona was nominated number one, it came as a huge surprise. This was because you have to take into consideration the vast numbers of truly great players who have been privileged to wear the Manchester United shirt throughout the club’s 133 years of history. Was Cantona a better player than any of them, and was his contribution to the club’s successes greater than any of theirs? Just look at some of the names from that immediately come to mind; Stafford, Duckworth, Roberts, Bell, Turnbull, Wall, Meredith, Barson, Spence, Carey, Rowley, Pearson, Byrne, Foulkes, Gregg, Colman, Jones, Blanchflower, Berry, Edwards, Taylor, Viollet, Charlton, Law, Best, Foulkes, Crerand, Stiles, Buchan, Coppell, Macari, Robson, Whiteside, Beckham, Scholes, Gary Neville, Solksjaer, Ronaldo. It is quite a daunting list of ability, class, greatness, and no doubt there are more than a few names that I have missed out.

Sadly, in this day and age, anything pre-1992 tends to get overlooked and consigned to yesterday’s dim and distant past. So why would Cantona receive the accolades that he does, even today? One thing that you have to take into consideration is that between 1968 and 1991, Manchester United was starved of any real tangible success. Yes, there were FA Cup wins, four of them, but the prize which eluded them most was the Division One Championship trophy. They came close on a few occasions during that period, but never seemed to have the quality which would push them over the finishing line and make them champions.

In 1990, United won the FA Cup by beating Crystal Palace after a replay, at Wembley Stadium. Alex Ferguson had been manager for just under four years but his tenure had been a little turbulent to say the least. The job of completely rebuilding the playing side of the club was the mammoth task which he had faced when he was appointed manager in 1986, and the fans were of the opinion that four years was more than enough time to accomplish this., They had begun to show a restlessness and frustration with what they perceived to be a lack of significant progress. Certain sections of the Old Trafford crowd had actually begun calling for him to be fired in that 1989/90 season. However, the Manchester United Board gave him the thing that he needed most – time, and winning that FA Cup was the event which proved the igniter for the years of success that were to follow.

Ferguson built his team upon a mixture of experience and young players, and he was very astute in his dealings in the transfer market. In 1991 the European Cup Winners Cup was won in Rotterdam after an epic Final battle against the Catalan giants Barcelona who had been hot favourites to win the trophy. The following season United triumphed in the League Cup Final against Nottingham Forest. However, after seemingly having the First Division title sown up, they faltered in the run-in and allowed Leeds United to pip them over the last few games. It was a bitter pill to swallow having been seemingly so near, yet so far.

The first team squad was a very good one; Schmeichel, Irwin, Donaghy, Bruce, Phelan, Robson, Pallister, Ince, Webb, Giggs, Kanchelskis, Hughes, McClair, Sharpe, Blackmore, Ferguson. During the close season, Ferguson had strengthened the striking department of that squad even more by acquiring Dion Dublin from Cambridge United. But this had happened only after he missed out on signing Southampton’s young rising striking star, Alan Shearer. It was a transfer saga which left a bitter taste in Ferguson’s mouth, On the opening day of the inaugural season of the Premier League on August 15th 1992, United faced Sheffield United at Bramhall Lane, and lost 2-1. They also lost their next fixture at home to Everton the following Wednesday evening by 3-0. The third game at home to Ipswich Town, was drawn 1-1, and there then followed five consecutive league victories against Southampton, Nottingham Forest, Crystal Palace, Leeds united, and Everton.
Sadly, in the game against Crystal Palace at Old Trafford, Dublin broke a leg and it would be a further six months before he played competitive football again. The striking department of the team was left wanting again and this could be seen from the results that followed their last win against Everton. In the EUEFA Cup they drew both games against a mediocre Torpedo Moscow by the same score 0-0, but went out of the competition by losing on penalty kicks. In the League Cup they were drawn against Brighton and drew 1-1 at the Goldstone Ground, but won 1-0 at Old Trafford. There was also five consecutive league draws against ‘spurs (1-1), QPR (0-0), Middlesborough (1-1), Liverpool (2-2), Blackburn Rovers (0-0). Following this there was a 1-0 loss to Aston Villa in the League Cup, followed by two more consecutive defeats in the league; 1-0 to Wimbledon and another 1-0 loss to Aston Villa. By this time it was mid-November and after the Villa game United were down in tenth position in the league and some eight points behind the leaders Arsenal.

The problem was that United were just not scoring enough goals, and the reality was, that in the second half of the previous season the same problem had cost them the First Division title. The last two games in November 1992 were home against Oldham Athletic and away to Arsenal. Both were won by 3-0, and 1-0 respectively. The win against Arsenal was significant because they had been the league leaders and it propelled United into fifth place, however they were now nine points behind the leaders who were the unfashionable East Anglian club, Norwich City. At that particular point in the season, United had played 17 games but had scored only 18 goals and had conceded 12. League titles were not going to be won with a goal ratio as they had. Ferguson was pondering his next move.

In The first week of December 1992, Ferguson was in Chairman Martin Edwards’ office discussing the need for the club to buy a new striker. They discussed various players the manager thought that United should target. One name that did crop up was that of Frenchman, Eric Cantona who was at that time playing with Leeds United. Gerard Houllier was a very good friend of Fergusons. When he was manager of Paris St Germain, he mentioned Cantona in conversation, and had sung his praises to Ferguson. In early September, United had beaten Leeds at Old Trafford by 2-0, but both United’s central defenders, Bruce, and Pallister, had entered the home dressing room after the game finished, and had raved about the qualities of the Frenchman, Cantona. He’d apparently pulled them all over the place and in Bruce’s own words; “we couldn’t get close to him.”
As Edwards and Ferguson continued to talk over future striking prospects that afternoon, the telephone in the office rang. Uncannily, it was Bill Fotherby, the Leeds United Chairman, who was enquiring as to whether United would be willing to sell full back Dennis Irwin to them. Irwin had initially started out as a pro at Leeds before being moved on to Oldham Athletic. After playing against United in the FA Cup semi-final in 1990 Ferguson signed him and the young Irishman blossomed. Of course Fotherby’s enquiry was rebuffed, but in the course of the conversation, Edwards probed him about some of the Leeds players that they would be willing to allow to leave. One name that came up was that of striker Lee Chapman (who is the only player to score against Manchester United for six different clubs) but Fotherby wasn’t interested. Ferguson took a piece of paper off Edwards’ desk and scribbled something upon it before passing it over to his chairman. When Edwards looked at it the name Eric Cantona was written upon it. Looking at Ferguson, he saw the manager mouth the words “ask him about him”.
Edwards enquired about the Frenchman mentioning that he had heard that he may be unsettled at Leeds. There had been stories in the national press and rumours among the various fan groups about Cantona’s behaviour at Leeds and what a disruptive influence he had become. Cantona’s career was a litany of indiscretions and flashpoints with authority. From the outside, it seemed as though Cantona was a loose canon, and was not a player any manager worth his salt would entertain. The Frenchman was undoubtedly naturally gifted, but the baggage that came with him, for most managers, was not worth the trouble and could mean disrupting any harmony that a club experienced.

In his early career, Cantona’s indiscretions were well chronicled in the television media and national press. During their conversation, Edwards pushed Fotherby telling him that if Leeds were interested in parting with the Cantona, then it would have to be a deal that was done very, very, quickly. Edwards and Ferguson were flabbergasted when minutes later, Fotherby called back to say that Leeds were willing to do business. Shortly afterwards Ferguson was on his way home when his car phone rang. It was Martin Edwards and he told him “we’ve got him!” Edwards then teased him about the price United would have to pay. Ferguson tells the story in his own words;

“Trying to be realistic, I suggested 1.6 million. ‘Wrong.’ So then I rattled off three or four more attempts. They were all so far off the mark, it was like one of those TV quizzes. Higher, lower, not even close. Eventually the chairman declared the true figure: 1 million. I just could not believe it. ‘That’s an absolute steal’ I blurted out.”

The media and press, and many of the fans, thought the signing was madness. This was a player who served so much time in suspensions, was cocky, even arrogant. He was always at odds with his club, management, team mates, even at national level. He had a reptutation of not staying at any one club for very long. On public television, he had even referred to the French national coach, Henri Michel, as a ‘sac a merdi’- in translation, ‘a shitbag.’ Even in England his career was chequered. He had initially arrived in England thinking that he was going to sign for Sheffield Wednesday. Trevor Francis was the then, Wednesday manager. In Cantona’s own words;

“I was there for one week, and I thought that I was there to sign. My lawyer was there and he spoke to try and find a way with the contract. I trained and played in a friendly game – we won 4-3 and I scored three goals. After one week, Francis asked me to spend one more week on trial. There were not a lot of foreigners in England then, maybe some from the north of Europe, but not many from the South. Maybe they were suspicious, but I was a French international. And Sheffield Wednesday wanted more time to decide about me! That was not a very good way to go about things.”

So he found himself at Elland Road, Leeds playing for Howard Wilkinson. Leeds won the last of the old First Division championships during the season he was there, and he became a cult hero on the terraces. Cantona made 35 appearances and scored 14 goals. However his stay was never harmonious and Wilkinson maintained that Cantona’s tantrums, disappearances, sulks, and intolerance of being dropped, made it hard for the club to keep him. Wilkinson’s main worry however was that Cantona would disappear over the horizon never to return, and Leeds would not be able to recoup the money which they had invested in him. Cantona of course, saw things differently;

“I had a bad relationship with the manager, Wilkinson. We didn’t have the same views on football. I was more like a Manchester footballer. At Leeds football was played the old way. I think you say kick, and then rush. But it was very important to play for Leeds at first because I learned a lot with this kind of football. And we had success.”

As Ferguson said, he’d got a steal – but at that time most United fans really did wonder what they were about to get and wondered just how long he would stay.
His debut for Manchester United was on Sunday, December 6th 1992 at Old Trafford in a Manchester “derby”. He came on as a second half substitute and there he was for all to see, stood on the touchline in front of the dugout, chest puffed out, shirt collar turned up, standing ramrod straight, surveying the scene before him. It was a sight that would thrill United followers regularly for the next five years.

The turned up collar thing was not a gimmick. Cantona explained;

“I put my shirt on. It was a cold day. The collar stayed up so I kept it like that. We won, so it became a habit to play with my collar up.”

Cantona’s start was almost immediate. He scored his first goal for United in his third game at Stamford Bridge in a 1-1 draw against Chelsea. But then on Boxing Day, in a remarkable comeback at Hillsborough against Sheffield Wednesday, he dragged United back from a 3-0 deficit with 30 minutes to go, by scoring one of the goals ina 3-3 draw. This game seemed to ignite the team. There next five league games produced 15 goals with 4 wins and a defeat at Portman Road against Ipswich Town. The remarkable things was that suddenly, players from all different positions were scoring goals. Cantona, Giggs, Hughes, Irwin, Sharpe, McClair, Parker, Kanchelskis, and Ince, all contributed. Suddenly, there he was conducting the team just like a symphony orchestra, and were the United fans loving it! After the defeat at Portman Road, United were in second place in the league, just one point behind Aston Villa.

United were to suffer just two more defeats that season, one in the FA Cup Third Round away at Sheffield United, and surprisingly, a 1-0 defeat away in the league to Oldham Athletic. They finished the season with seven consecutive victories which finally gave United the Championship for the first time in 26 years. The inaugural premiership Championship was won on Sunday 2nd May 1993, and United were not even playing. A surprising upset at Villa Park saw Oldham Athletic win 1-0 against Villa and it was impossible for them to catch United. United were Champions and Cantona had won his third Championship[ with three different clubs in three consecutive years. The party began and United’s players and fans partied long into the morning hours, and some into the following day. But on the Monday evening they had a Premiership fixture to fulfill at Old Trafford. Cantona recalls;

“We had been crowned Champions of England by default the day before. Now we wanted to play like Champions. The lid was ready to jump off, mouths were ready to open. It was a feeling of the greatest delight and madness. The songs that came from the depths of the crowd were so beautiful, that for an instant, I didn’t want to have to play, but would have liked to have stand still somewhere and just listen. At a quarter to seven, Steve Bruce led us onto the pitch and the voice of the people became clearly heard. Keeny Dalglish had claimed that Blackburn would beat us. The loudspeaker system had started with Queen’s ‘We Are the Champions’ and now it was ‘Simply the Best’ by Tina Turner. After a few bars it looked as though Paul Ince was going to start a dance on the field. Blackburn made a fast start, but then three goals for Manchester United!
We brandished the Cup before Sir Matt Busby, the man whose beautiful children had perished in that air catastrophe. We did a lap of honour to cheers from all around the ground. When I compare this spectacle to all the shows in the world, this isn’t far from being the most perfect because, just as in certain theatres, the audience is almost part of the play.

I went back into the dressing room. The champagne could flow all night. My shower was long and enjoyable. I didn’t go to the celebrations which were given in our hon our by a supporter who owned a hotel in town. I wanted to get home to Leeds to be with my young son.”

When Garry Pallister had taken a free kick and had blasted the ball through Blackburn’s defensive wall to score United’s third goal in that game, it meant that every outfield player in United’s team had scored a league goal that season. The can-opener, as Ferguson called Cantona had arrived! He had become the United fans biggest hero since the days of Charlton, Law, and Best. It kicked off four more remarkable years.

Cantona’s presence certainly lit up Old Trafford and down at The Cliff training ground, his presence was huge. From being the ‘l’enfant terrible’ at Leeds United, Cantona became to most people’s eyes, the model professional. The majority of players loved him. Roy Keane recalls;

“I liked him immediately. Sure, he was different. He tended to do his own thing in training, an indulgence Ferguson and Brian Kidd permitted. He had his own warm up routine, and stayed out practicing his finishing after 5-a-side. Eric also had a fierce temper which sometimes flared up on the training ground. He and Schmeichel in particular found themselves at odds. Fists were raised on one or two occasions.

Behind the enigma, Eric was a great pro, very serious about his football,knowledgeable about the game. Collar turned up, back straight, chest stuck out, he glided into the arena as though he owned the ****ing place. Any arena, but nowhere more effectively than Old Trafford. This was his stage. He loved it, and the crowd loved him. The players loved him too, for many reasons. Most importantly, he got the job done.”

Bryan Robson former Manchester United Captain:

“He was nothing like the guy we feared he would be. He became one of the lads, going out with us and enjoying a drink and the banter. He didn’t speak all that much English to start with, but he understood more than he let on to people outside the club. Most importantly, he could play. He was the final piece in the jigsaw.

I don’t think that Eric was as good as a lot of United fans make out. I wouldn’t bracket him with Pele or Maradonna, players in the very top league – but he had fantastic ability and the move was perfect for him and for us. The team that was put around him suited him down to the ground. We had pace on the wings, the strength of Sparky up front, the running power of Choccy, the tackling of Paul Ince, myself, and later Roy Keane, in midfield, and a solid, settled defence in front of a magnificent ‘keeper. The balance of the team was just right and he finished it off. Eric had great vision to pick and judge the pace of a pass. When we were banging our heads against a brick wall, trying to break down a team, he would do something out of the ordinary to create a goal or score one himself. He scored all sorts of goals, many of them unbelievable, a lot of them match winners. He was a big time player.

Eric was a great professional and not just a natural talent. He worked at his game. He’d go out and start warming up for training long before the other players went out. Afterwards he’d practice free kicks. He always trained seriously and never in a half hearted way. He expected preparation to be spot on and expected his team mates to be just as professional, but then they were all good trainers. That’s probably another reason why he settled so well with us.

He was terrific with the fans and they took to him. On the pitch he gave them what they wanted and off it, he always had time to sign autographs and pose for pictures. He loved the adulation that they gave him. He played up to the fans like the showman he was, but unlike some showmen who don’t contribute to their team, Eric gave us an awful lot. He has been criticized by some for not producing his stuff in Europe, but you can’t blame Eric alone for that. We underperformed as a team in Europe, especially after winning the Cup Winners Cup. We should have gone on from that and done far better than we did.”

There is no doubt that Cantona needed careful handling, and Gordon Strachan who was the then Leeds captain, had already talked to Ferguson about this. He warned the United manager that when things were not going well he tended to hide and sulk. Ferguson decided that the Frenchman needed more than careful handling and decided to treat him with kid-gloves. Ferguson never lost his temper with him, nor did he enforce some of the more stricter rules that applied to his senior players. He was also very careful after Cantona’s first game for the club never to demote him to the substitute’s bench. In his own words Ferguson was to explain;

“I had to perform a bit of a U-turn on my usual policy and accept that we had a different type of player around the house.”

During the 1993-94 season Cantona’s explosive temper began to surface during games, and fans were treated to seeing the other, nasty, side of him. Having their first crack at the European Cup since 1969, United disposed of Hungarian champions Honved in the first round. The second round paired them against Turkish champions Galatasary from Istanbul. To most, it seemed like an easy tie for United and one which they should negotiate easily. It turned out anything but. In the first leg at Old Trafford United sailed into a 2-0 lead, but then conceded three before Cantona equalized to preserve United’s home unbeaten European record.. The Turks had three away goals going into the second leg which was a massive advantage. The game in the Ali Yami Sen stadium in Istanbul was played in a very unhealthy atmosphere. The Turks pulled every trick in the book – diving, time wasting, haranguing the referee. Sadly for united, the game ended scoreless, and Ferguson’s first European Cup campaign ended very abruptly. At the end of the match though all hell broke lose and Cantona got involved. Bryan Robson recalled;

“Eric had been getting more and more annoyed. As the referee blew the final whistle I could see in Eric’s eyes that he had gone. He gestured to the referee and was shown the red card. I ran straight across to Eric because it was obvious that he was ready to fight anybody. I linked my arm in his and said, ‘Come on the game’s gone. There’s nothing you can do about it now.’

I’d got a firm grip on him because I just wanted to get him to the dressing room before there was any more trouble. He walked with me towards the tunnel, which was at the corner of the pitch. We’d walked a few yards when a policeman appeared at the other side of Eric and I thought that he’d come across to help us. At the entrance to the tunnel there was lots of police with riot shields. We came to the top of the steps which led down to the dressing room area, and I was just about to thank the policeman when he punched Eric on the back of the head. Eric stumbled down a couple of steps, so I turned to throw a punch at the copper. As I did, a shield smashed into the back of me. I fell down a few steps, bashing my elbow against a wall. Eric wanted to go back up and fight, but by then the other lads were coming down the steps and calmed us down.”

Roy Keane recalled;

"In the dressing room Eric went crazy. While the rest of us just wanted to get out of there, he was determined to go back outside and sort out the rogue cop who’d been wielding his truncheon. Eric was a big strong lad. He was serious. He insisted that he was going out to ‘kill that ****er’. It took the combined efforts of the manager, Brian Kidd and a few of the players to restrain him. Normally, I wouldn’t have backed off a fight, but even I wasn’t up for this one. There were a lot of Turks out there! Anyway, the result we couldn’t change. We were out.”

In an FA Cup game at Carrow Road against Norwich City, Cantona was very lucky not to be sent off for an outrageous stamp on Jeremy Goss. However, just seven weeks later he didn’t get away with it and was sent off at the County Ground, Swindon, for stamping on Swindon Town player John Gorman. The incident at Carrow Road was seen not only by the players and fans present inside the tiny ground, but also by millions watching on television. It prompted the then BBC television pundit Jimmy Hill to comment that the stamp on Gorman was ‘despicable and villainous.’ It prompted an immediate response from Ferguson who retaliated by calling Hill ‘a prat.’ It was a difficult period publicly for United as the tide of support for them was turning because of what was considered a nasty streak in the team. Already that season, Schmeichel, Hughes, Robson, and Kanchelskis had received red cards. There was also a situation which developed where United players were seen to be continually questioning, and haranguing referees. Years later, Ferguson was forced to admit;

“The foul on Jeremy Goss was not only horrendous, but also despicable. Cantona was not at all the innocent party. It was an even more serious offence when he stamped on Swindon’s skilful midfielder, John Moncur, and that was the first time I lost my temper with him. There was no way I could condone what he had done.”

“We just couldn’t get out of the disciplinary mire, so I called them all in. With Robson as club captain, and Bruce. And I went round the lot of them. ‘One more ****ing time and I’ll …..’ And they were sitting there, and you could tell. “Oh Aye,” they were thinking, so I said, “from now on, I’m going to fine you for everything, two weeks for a sending off, one week for a booking. Now off you go.” And I could hear them walking down the stairs laughing….”

“They knew that I needed them. They knew that I needed winners. There’s got to be a dividing line. We hardly had a problem after that talking to I gave them. In fact our disciplinary record has been really good over the years considering that everyone’s trying so hard against us in every game we play.”

Despite all the rumblings about United’s surly demeanour on the field, they still romped away with the Premiership for the second successive season, and also completed their first “double” by lifting the FA Cup at Wembley, defeating Chelsea by 4-0. In that Wembley final Cantona was ice cool as he took two second half penalties within minutes of each other to give United a 2-0 lead. It could well have been a domestic ‘treble” had United not surprisingly been beaten in the League Cup Final in March, surprisingly losing 3-1 to former manager Ron Atkinson’s Aston Villa team.

At the end of the ‘93/94 season, Bryan Robson left United to become player-manager of Middlesborough. The club captaincy passed on to Steve Bruce. When the ‘94/95 season began, nobody could have envisaged just what lay in store for Eric Cantona in the second half of that season. Ferguson’s earlier statement that there was hardly a disciplinary problem after his talking to, was to come back and bite him. When the European campaign kicked off, Cantona was serving a four match EUFA ban for the sending off in Istanbul. It was the first year of the competition’s new format, the mini-league, and United had Barcelona, IFK Gothenburg, and Galatasaray in their group. It was also the first season in which the ‘5 foreigner rule’ was implemented. The home ties caused United little problem, even without Eric Cantona. They started with a win against Gothenburg by 4-2, drew 0-0 in a trouble free game in Istanbul, then drew 2-2 with Barcelona at Old Trafford. The next two away games though were lost – 4-0 in the Camp Nou, and 3-1 in Gothenburg. Although United did beat Galatasary 4-0 in the final group game, with Cantona back in the line-up, they were eliminated.

Going into 1995, the Premiership looked to be between two clubs, Blackburn Rovers and United. Managed by ex-Liverpool idol Kenny Dalglish and supported by steel magnate Jack Walker’s millions, Blackburn had bought profusely and had put together a formidable team. Even so, United had beaten them in both league matches, 4-2 away at Ewood Park in October 1994, and 1-0 in a hard fought game at Old Trafford on January 22nd 1995. Cantona scored in both games, the one at Old Trafford being very significant. Blackburn had held a five points lead over United going into that game, and even though the East Lancashire club still held the advantage with having a game in hand, their lead was now down to two points. The game at Old Trafford also marked Andrew Cole’s debut for United after he had been signed from Newcastle the previous week. United’s next league game was the following Wednesday, January 25th 1995 at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace. For most people around the world, January 25th is mostly recognized as the birthday of the Scottish bard, Robert Burns. For United followers, it is now a date recognized for something that will be remembered forever and which cast a dark shadow on the club’s illuminous history.

Roy Keane recalled the game;

“Crystal Palace away, a game we were looking to win. We had beaten them easily 3-0 at home, and the contest was over after Eric scored our first. It was a nothing match, had no real flow to the game. Their effort canceled out our ability. We were not going to lose, it was just a question of waiting for the break. At 1-1 there wass always hope that Eric in particular would steal a chance from nowhere.

But Eric got involved with his marker, Richard Shaw. It was niggly stuff, not nasty. Shirt pulling, obstruction, a bit of chat. Stuff you shouldn’t bother about, but the purpose is to break your concentration – and with Eric, it could work. This time Palace got a result. Eric lost it and he kicked Shaw. He was off. The crowd went mad. Selhurst Park was full for a change. Some of the things you hear from the terraces are really sickening. Racist taunts, chants about player’s personal lives, which Eric suffered a lot. Filth that makes you wonder about the people who come to football matches to sing obscene songs about the Munich air crash. What is this? Answer: English Football.

As Eric walked off towards the dressing room, the game resumed. Ten men, and then it was a battle. No Eric. Suddenly there was a commotion on the far touchline from where I was. Something happened, I didn’t know what. Some looper had a go at Eric near the tunnel. Eric didn’t react immediately. But he turned back and launched himself at his tormentor. Bruce Lee would have been proud of Eric’s kung-fu kick. It was a good job that he wasn’t wearing studs. Never did. Eric could have hurt himself quite badly, broken his ****ing back. As it was, he ended up on his feet trading punches with the bloke who wound him up.

The game over – a 1-1 draw, the dressing room was so quiet. The directors including Maurice Watkins, the club solicitor, were in a huddle with the gaffer. Eric just sat there with his head bowed. Police were outside in the corridor. My immediate reaction was: so what? Fair ****ing play to Eric. I might have done the same myself. When I got home and saw the television pictures I could see that it was a nasty incident. Out of order, of course. But my attitude did not change. My heart went out to him. All the lads felt basically the same. We did not pat him on the back and say well done, but Eric was a good lad and we weren’t going to turn our backs on him.

Obviously it was serious for the club. The gaffer was pissed off. This was a big test for him, especially when the media got on the case. Ban him for life. Make him leave the country. The media had a field day. For weeks the training ground was under siege. The gates were locked but they threw rope ladders over the wall to take photographs. Outside the dressing room Eric’s story was a sensation. Inside, it was a problem.

Eric held his hands up, got a good lawyer and paid his dues – community service, which he did immaculately with the local kids. The club had no choice but to ban him for the rest of the season. End of story.”

David May the former United defender recalled the game for other reasons;

“I scored United’s goal to put us in front in that game, and my first thought when Eric got sent off was, ‘You ****, I’ve just scored my first goal for United.’ I legged it over to see what was going on, but Eric was on his way. Southgate equalized and at full time the gaffer had a go at me about their equalizer. I thought; ‘Eric’s just jumped into the crowd and leathered someone and you’re having a go at me for a goal that was nothing to do with me.

I could understand why Eric hit the lad. There was many times when I wanted to chin a fan for giving personal abuse about my family. When Cantoana did it I thought; ‘fair play Eric’. The lad became famous for that but then his life was apparently ruined. Good. It’s a great pub quiz question though isn’t it? Who scored the United goal on the night of Cantona’s kung-fu kick?”

Over ten years later, Eric Cantona was asked the question “What was your best moment at United?” His response was:

“My best moment? I have a lot of good moments but the one I prefer is when I kicked the hooligan. I did not punch him strong enough, I should have punched him harder. I didn’t watch it afterwards on television. Because I knew. All I had were journalists at my house. That’s all I could see. My house was small. They blocked the light.

I played that moment at Selhurst Park. It was a drama and I was an actor. I do things seriously without taking myself seriously. Even when I kicked the fan it is because I don’t take myself seriously. I didn’t think because of who I was I had a responsibility not to do it. No, I was just a footballer, and a man.”

About the press conference where he uttered his famous line;

“When the seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think that sardines will be thrown into the sea”

Cantona explained that after the miles of newsprint that had been expanded trying to explain what he meant;

“My lawyer wanted me to talk. I could just have said; ‘The curtains are pink, but I love them!’

For his conduct in the incident the club did suspend Cantona for the rest of the season, and they also fined him 10,800 pounds. The FA sought a worldwide ban from FIFA, while the French FA stripped Cantona of the national captaincy. Just a month later the FA also fined him 10,000 pounds and added further punishment by banning him from football until October 1995 which meant that he would miss six months of football instead of the four months imposed by United. Naturally, United were livid by the extra punishment meted out by the powers at Lancaster Gate.

To lose Cantona for the last four months of the season was a big blow to United who were pursuing their third successive Premiership title. But irrespective of his loss, they pushed on and lost only three more games all season. One of the notable victories was a 9-0 drubbing of Ipswich Town at Old Trafford, a game in which Andrew Cole scored 5 goals. A terrific run in the FA Cup saw them reach the final again after overcoming Crystal Palace in two hard fought semi-final games. In the Final, United would meat Everton.
In the league, it all came down to the final game of the season. Going into that final Sunday of the league season, United were trailing Blackburn by just 2 points. Blackburn had to travel to Anfield and going into that game, they had lost two of their previous three fixtures. Their form was by no means good and to get anything from the Anfield game was going to take a huge effort. United meanwhile had to go to Upton Park to face West Ham United, a ground which was not a happy hunting geound for them and hadn’t been since their emphatic win of 6-1 back in 1967 which clinched the old First Division title for them. Surprisingly, Ferguson left striker Mark Hughes on the bench for this game. It proved to be a poor decision. At half time United were trailing by 1-0. The news from Anfield wasn’t good – Blackburn were leading 1-0. McClair equalized for United in the second half and United threw the kitchen sink at the West Ham goal. Liverpool equalized at Anfield, and then scored a second goal to go infront. If United could do the same, the championship was theirs. Miklosko in the West Ham goal had a charmed life and stopped goal bound efforts with parts of his anatomy that he hadn’t realized he had. Cole could just not force the ball in and time ran out on United’s herculean effort. Despite losing in Liverpool, Blackburn were champions pipping United by just one point. It was a bitter pill to swallow. Surely had Eric Cantona not been missing for the final third of the season, he would have made something happen at West Ham to secure the win needed? Or even before that, would have prevented United drawing home games late in the season with ‘Spurs, Leeds and Chelsea?

Going into the FA Cup Final the following week, United looked drained; tired and lethargic. For Everton, there could not have been a better time to meet Manchester United. The final was a dull mediocre affair, which Everton won by 1-0. A season which had promised so much had disintegrated on a dark, wet, floodlight night in January, at Selhurst Park.

Cantona was still missing for the first two months of the 1995/96 season, and by the time that he returned for the home game against Liverpool on October 1st, United were already out of the EUFA Cup having drawn both away in Russia and at Old Trafford, to Rotor Volograd. The game at Old Trafford was drawn 2-2 with goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel surprisingly heading in a late equalizer to again, preserve United’s unbeaten home European record. Going into the game against Liverpool, United were heading the table by one point from Newcastle United who had a game in hand.

The return of Cantona to the United team was an occasion that had to be seen to be believed. The build up to the game against Liverpool was hyped and heightened by the press and television. Early on the Sunday morning crowds were already congregating around the areas of the Old Trafford stadium. Black market tickets were changing hands for ridiculous prices. Tricolours by the thousands were being waved and to the tune of “La Marseillaise” - “Ooh Ah Cantona” reverberated around the adjoining streets. As kick off time inside the stadium approached, the tension heightened. Being the showman that he was, Cantona had not appeared on the field during the warm up. The stadium was buzzing, and hordes of photographers and television cameras crowded around the tunnel area awaiting the arrival of the teams. The noise grew, and grew. Old Trafford was awash with the colours of the red, white, and blue, and suddenly there was movement down in front of the tunnel. The media people suddenly opened up, and the two teams began to appear. Suddenly, there he was, last United man out of the tunnel …. Collar turned up, chest puffed out, striding, then running out onto the pitch. Focused, embracing the atmosphere, and finally standing there surveying all around him. His stare seemed to say it all; “I am Cantona … And this is my stage!” For the United fans who were present inside the stadium that day, it was a moment that they will never forget.

If Cantona’s entrance was pure theatre, then six minutes into the game he eclipsed even that performance. Finding acres of space down the United left, and out wide, he collected a ball and immediately had it under control. Before the big Liverpool defenders could even blink, the Frenchman had spotted Nicky Butt’s strong run from deep midfield. His perfectly weighted cross was delivered into the path of Butt who had all the time in the world to bundle the ball ito the back of the net. Old Trafford erupted and Cantona was engulfed by his proud team mates. United fell 2-1 behind, but deep into the second half United were awarded a penalty at the Scoreboard End when Ryan Giggs was brought down. Only one man looked for the ball – Cantona. There wasn’t a United fan in the stadium who didn’t believe he would score – and he duly obliged, then ran and climbed a stanchion behind the goal. He was back – strutting the stage he adored.

On January 1st 1996, United were thrashed 4-1 at White Hart Lane by ‘Spurs. It left them in fourth place in the league four points behind a resurgent Newcastle managed by Kevin Keegan, and the Geordies also had a game in hand. Going into a crucial game with Newcastle United at St. James’s Park on March 4th, United were still those 4 points behind and Newcastle still had that game in hand. Keegan’s team battered United throughout and it was only a sterling performance by United’s ‘keeper Peter Schmeichel which kept a rampant Newcastle at bay. It was as fine a goalkeeping performance as you would ever see. Six minutes into the second half, the deadlock was broken, and by whom? ……. Eric Cantona. Drifting behind the Newcastle defence from wide on the right, he met Phil Neville’s cross and rifled it right footed into the net. It knocked the stuffing out of Newcastle and United clawed back another precious three points.

Although Newcastle gallantly tried to protect their lead at the top of the table United were in rampant form and won seven of their last eight matches, and it was a happy Steve Bruce who collected the Premiership trophy at the Riverside Stadium in Middlesborough on the last day of the season after United had beaten the home side by 3-0. Alongside him stood Eric Cantona who was team captain. Bruce had succumbed to injuries regularly throughout the season and cantona deputized for him. Remarkably, the team was going for another “double” as they had reached another FA Cup Final at Wembley, where they faced arch rivals Liverpool.

The 1996 FA Cup Final was probably one of the most boring FA Cup Finals in the old trophy’s history. Liverpool and United had cancelled each other out and extra time was looming. It wasn’t something the fans were looking forward to! United won a corner and David Beckham strode over to take it. Ferguson had become exasperated with Beckham as most of the corners he had taken in the game had ended up in the hands of Liverpool’s tall goalkeeper David James. If it happened with this next one, Ferguson was going to take Beckham off and substitute him. The corner was taken and once again it was too close to the ‘keeper, but this time, David May managed to get in an aerial challenge which made James flap at the ball on the six yards line. It dropped to an unmarked Eric Cantona standing just around the penalty spot, but he seemed to be in an awkward position to play the ball. Somehow he adjusted his body and leaning back, volleyed the ball past the astonished Liverpool defenders and it ripped into the back of the net. Oh! How the United players celebrated. The final whistle went and United had won their second “double’ in three seasons – a remarkable achievement.

It was an ecstatic Cantona who led his young team up the famous old 39 steps to the Royal Box to receive the trophy from HRH the Duchess of Kent. This despite being spat upon by Liverpool supporters as he walked up those steps. The achievement of the second “double” was all the more remarkable because during the previous close season, Ferguson had moved three big stars out of Old Trafford; Hughes, Ince, and Kanchelskis. He had placed his faith in youth, and despite a defeat in the first game of the season at Aston Villa, the youngsters he had put his faith in had responded not only to his faith, but also to the promptings of Eric Cantona. Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, plus new signing David May had all met the challenge magnificently and had left Alan Hansen the former Liverpool star who was now a pundit for the BBC with a large amount of egg on his face. After the defeat at Aston Villa he had smugly remarked;

“The trick is always buy when you are strong, so he needs to buy players. You can’t win anything with kids … He’s got to buy two players, as simple as that.”

Never was a person ever proved to be so wrong, and many times again over the following seasons.

The European Cup has always been Ferguson’s challenge and once again, they would be in the competition in season 1996/97. The season started brightly with a 4-0 drubbing of Newcastle at Wembley in the FA Charity Shield, and on the opening day of the league season at Selhurst Park against Wimbledon, David Beckham audaciously chipped Neil Sullivan the ‘Don’s ‘keeper from fully 50 yards. In the Champions League opening phase, United’s form was mixed and they suffered defeats both home and against Juventus, but surpsisingly, before the Juventus home defeat, lost their unbeaten home European record to Turkish team Fenerbahce. Two wins against Austrian side rapid Vienna, and an away win in Turkey got United through to the quarter-finals by the skin of their teeth. By the time the first quarter final first leg was played in early March at Old Trafford against Portugese team Porto, United were leading the Premiership by four points and were on track to lift another title.

The first leg against Porto was negotiated easily with a 4-0 victory with Cantona on the scoresheet, and United moved into the semi-finals drawing the away leg in Porto 0-0. Their semi-final opponents were to be made of sterner stuff – Germany’s Borrussia Dortmund. The Westfalen Stadion in Dortmund’s Rhur Valley was never an easy place to go to at the best of times. United had met the German’s before but way back in their very first European campaign in 1956 when they had scraped through by an aggregate of 3-2. The cause wasn’t helped in 1997 when Peter Schmeichel pulled out injured during the warm up and had to be replaced by Dutchman Raimond van der Gouw. It was a very tight game in which the German’s pipped United by scoring the game’s only goal.

Going into the second leg at Old Trafford United were very confident that they could overcome the deficit and win through to the final. The Germans are always very organized and obdurate at the best of times and the return match proved to be no exception. They scored a vital early away goal, and despite making plenty of goal chances, United could not put the ball in the net. Cantona was especially profligate. It was a bitter blow. The Premiership was won by a clear seven points and on the last day of the season, after a 2-0 home win against West Ham, Eric Cantona once more lifted the trophy above his head. However, it was noticeable that he wasn’t as buoyant as he had been in seasons before, and in fact he looked a little subdued.

For weeks before, both the United manager and players had noticed this change in Eric. The manager had actually written into his diary;

“I think that he has reached a crossroads in his career. It looks as though the chances he missed (against Dortmund) – not to mention his quiet performance have prompted him to question his future.”

The main point leveled against Cantona during his career at United, was that he never “did it” in Europe. The Frenchman, not surprisingly sees it somewhat differently;

“I scored goals in the European Cup. Like I scored goals for France. I played 45 times for France and scored 20 goals. I scored one goal in every two games in Europe, That’s not bad.”

That statement is simply not true. Cantona played in 14 European ties for Manchester United scoring only 5 goals.

Roy Keane’s opinion of Eric playing in Europe was as follows;

“Eric struggled in Europe. To be honest, at that time we all did. As I have acknowledged, he was superb in the domestic game, perfect for English football, where his poise and technical brilliance meant that he was always one step ahead of of the chaos around him. With bodies and tackles flying everywhere, Eric’s sang froid was a major asset. And because we were so strong around the park, we could indulge him, spare him the chasing back, the graft, the tackling we did on his behalf. Sometimes I’d think ‘**** it, Eric, you lazy bastard,’ and the before, or even after, the words were out of my mouth, he’d weave a magic spell to score or set up a goal.

That was the pattern that served us so well in England. Europe was another game, far more demanding. Even the more modest of the teams we met in Europe were champiuons in their own territory. That’s a head thing. They were used to winning, getting results away from home. Against the Rapid Viennas and the Brondbys you could get away with Eric. But not facing Juventus, Bayern, Dortmund, or an unexceptional professional side like Gothenburg, who’d beaten us 3-1 to put us out of the competition a few seasons before.
A magical asset at home, a match-winner countless times in the Premier League, and the FA Cup. Eric didn’t shine so brightly in Europe. I can’t recall one important European tie that he turned for us. In Europe you moved up a level or two. It was not just the real quality attacking players like Zidane or Del Piero that captured everyone’s imagination, but tough, wily defenders, guys nobody had heard of, who closed space down, timed their tackles to perfection, were instinctively in the right cover positions, had pace and read the game superbly. Eric never conquered this. And conquering Europe was now what Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United was all about.”

Two weeks before the end of the season, Cantona let Ferguson know that he was going to retire at the end of the season. United kept it under wraps. Cantona said;

“I have played professional football for thirteen years, which is a long time. I now wish to do other things. I always planned to retire when I was at the top and at Manchester United I have reached the pinnacle of my career. In the last four and a half years I have enjoyed my best football and had a wonderful time. I have had a marvelous relationship with the manager, coach, staff, and players, and not least, the fans. I wish Manchester United more success in the future.”

It had not come as a surprise to any of the players. When the news finally broke, the season had ended and Cantona was already in France. Roy Keane recalled;

“We knew that he had been talking to the manager, and wondered if it was about money and an extension to his contract which had a year left to run. If those talks had been unsatisfactory from both side’s point of view, an amicable parting of the waves made sense for Eric and the club.

The fans were shocked. They loved Eric for, as Martin Edwards said, he had been captain for a mgical spell, having arrived when a Championship was desperately needed. The scenes around Old Trafford and The Cliff after the story broke were unbelieveable. Hundreds of United fans clutching Eric’s number 7 shirt stood in mourning on the forecourt of Old Trafford. Many were tearful. Like the Busby funeral, or the more emotional European nights at Old Trafford, the occasion reminded me that Manchester United was more than a football club. It was impossible to imagine scenes like these at any other football club in Britain.

The depth of feeling at Eric’s leaving had to be managed. If the fans had any inkling of a possible dispute over money, it would have caused trouble. For a bad start to the following season could have led to accusations of penny pinching. As had happened after ‘Sparky’, Andrei, and Incey left, the manager would have felt the heat.
Yet something Eric said earlier in the year about United wishing to use him as a commodity, and the increasingly commercial nature of the club, provided a clue, perhaps, to the reason he chose to retire when he did. Eric was a very proud man. I think he decided that if he couldn’t play for United, he wouldn’t play at all. I admired that.”

Ferguson actually backed this up and said that he considerable sympathy for two of the reasons Eric gave for leaving – that he didn’t like being a pawn of the United merchandising operation, and that he also felt that the Board had been unadventurous in acquiring star players. The reality was, that United had done well to get over four years out of him. During his time at United, Cantona picked up 4 Premiership winners medals, and two FA Cup winners medals, and three FA Charity Shield winners plaques plus he was recognized by his peers as PFA Player of the Year 1996.. In his last seven seasons as a professional footballer, he’d finished a champion on no less than six occasions – some feat.

The loss as far as the United fans were concerned was absolutely devastating. But no matter how much he was adored and deified, closer scrutiny and questions have to be asked about his time at Manchester United. There is no doubt that Eric Cantona was a magnificent player and was the final link to Ferguson’s successful United team. There is also no doubt that Ferguson handled Cantona expertly and got far more out of him than any other manager in the Frenchman’s career. There is also no doubt that arriving at Manchester United provided him with the stage which he had always yearned for in his football career.

But for me, he arrived at Old Trafford at exactly the right time. He joined a team that was already championship winning material with exceptionally good players around him. He joined a team with an exceptional manager who had the knack of getting the most out of his players and was an expert in man-management. Eventually, he also had a lot of young players around him who looked up to him and were prepared to do his running for him. The other thing was that United were successful and without that success, it is my guess that he would not have stayed around for as long as he did. 26 years without a championship eat away at the United fans hearts. It was like a festering sore, and when that first Premiership title was won in 1993, it was just like a hand grenade exploding.

You look at the squad and see just how strong it was; Schmeichel was a world class ‘keeper – probably the best that the game of football has seen. The defensive unit was solid Parker, Pallister, Bruce, Irwin; all at the top of their game. The midfield was strong with Ince, Robson, Sharpe, Giggs, Kanchelskis, Sharpe, and had so much pace, and of course they had the battering ram that was Hughes up front with McClair in the squad as well – was there another team like that in England at that time? I think not. Ferguson had finally got a team gelling and had invested in some really good players in the transfer market. What more could Cantona want?

As far as I am concerned, Roy Keane was right in that Eric Cantoina never really stepped up to the plate in Europe. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t for the want of trying and it was something that festered within him and caused him so much frustration. It’s for this reason why I can’t put him alongside the Charlton’s, Law’s, Best’s, Robson’s, Ronaldo’s. His term as captain was relatively short, and he was very much the father figure in the team at that time. The younger players revered him and it was a master stroke of Ferguson’s to give him that responsibility – but in that last season, did that burden also weigh heavily upon him and affect his performances? I happen to think that it did.

Eric Cantona is written into Manchester United’s folklore – and rightly so – he did contribute so much. He was so different from the normal run of the mill footballer. He loved the arts and had interests outside of football. He got on well with his contemporaries, and he was generous to the extreme. He “milked” the fans adoration for him and he played the Old Trafford stage like an experienced master virtuoso. I’ll let Roy Keane have the last word with a lovely story about Cantona’s generosity:

“One morning, Brucey arrived in the dressing room with a cheque for fifteen grand. The first team squad had contributed to some video and this payment was due to be split eighteen ways. Struggling to work out who was owed what, we decided on a majority vote to hold a draw, winner takes all. The option of taking your cut, about eight hundred quid, was available. For the younger lads, this was a couple of weeks wages. They wanted the money. Only Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt opted to play for the pot – about twelve grand after the needy had been paid out. Eric Cantona’s name came out of the hat. He got his cheque. And plenty of stick. Next morning, Eric arrived with two cheques made out to Paul and Nicky. This was their reward for taking the gamble, Eric explained. This was Eric to a tee. The unexpected touch of class, also an appreciation of the plight of two young lads more in need of the money than himself. Twelve grand was a lot of money to spend on a gesture, even in those relatively prosperous times.”

The King is dead, long live the King!
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Old 15th January 2011, 14:42   #2
Andrea Barton
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Excellent account Tom. Eric's the man for me. I was not old enough to see Duncan Edwards but no man has been such a catalyst for the team. He made or scored spectacular goals, had a huge amount of charisma - & he always had time for the fans. In his time at OT it was a joy to go to matches in that wonderful pre-Glazer time.
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Old 15th January 2011, 16:08   #3
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This was the last in the series of articles about post war Manchester United Captains. It's been a pleasure to write them and they were done in helping a young man named Simon Wadsworth to write a book on the subject. I await with interst to see the finished product when it is published in May 2011.
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