Eric Cantona – King, kung-fu specialist and philosopher of Manchester United 20 years after first gracing Old Trafford

By Andrew Bardsley & Paddy van Behr

As the tale goes, the Manchester United chairman at the time, Martin Edwards, received a phone call from his Leeds United counterpart enquiring about the availability of Denis Irwin.

Having given them short shrift, Sir Alex Ferguson told Edwards to ‘ask him about Cantona’.
And the rest, as they say, is history.

Twenty years ago the mercurial Frenchman crossed the Pennines for £1.2million, and went on to cement his place in United folklore.

More philosopher than footballer, Cantona was unlike anything anyone had ever seen in the English game.

He combined wit with wizardry, temper with technique and fight with finesse. He was the missing cog in the wheel of United’s ability to win the title.

Twenty-six years was far too long a period for a club like Manchester United to not have won a league title, and Cantona, alongside the likes of Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes and Peter Schmeichel, combined to be an unstoppable force in the newly formed Premier League.

Going on to make 185 appearances for the club and score 82 goals, he won four Premier League winners medals and two FA Cups.

THE KING: United fans owe their Premier League dominance to French wizard

But he means so much more than that to United fans.

‘King Eric’, as he soon became known as, was truly a maverick. He scored goals that other footballers could only dream of scoring.

Cantona’s breathtaking chip against Sunderland in 1996 instantly comes to mind. Arguably his celebration was even better than the goal.

Taking the atmosphere in and cherishing the moment, perhaps he then realised his reign at the club may not be as long as fans hoped.

To use a musical analogy, Cantona was the Kurt Cobain and Ian Curtis of football.

Although his exit from the limelight was obviously not as tragic as that of the Nirvana and Joy Division frontmen, he left the club at its peak and could have achieved so much more.

Cantona informed Ferguson of his decision to retire at the age of 30 just 24 hours before a crucial Champions League semi-final tie against Borussia Dortmund, which United went on to lose.

Just two years later, United went on to win an unrivalled treble, which Cantona could have helped to mastermind.

Had Cantona’s relationship with the French national team not been so sour, he could have lifted the World Cup with Les Bleus in 1998.

(Things didn’t get off to a good start, in 1988 he called the France manager who gave him his debut a ‘bag of shit’ after being dropped.)

And of course, to non-United fans he remains a divisive figure. He was charged with assault and roundly attacked by the FA and the media for the infamous kung-fu kick.

But even his response to this incident was a work of poetry.

To the bamboozlement of the assorted press and watching public, Cantona said: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.”

KUNG-FU KICK: Cantona unleashes after fan ridicules him for getting sent off

It appeared he was getting fed up with the attention of the media, and it looked likely that he would move abroad.

But Ferguson knew that Cantona was too good to lose. In the coming years, the Scotsman would call time on the United careers of David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and Jaap Stam to name a few after spats, but Ferguson realised Cantona was different.

In his autobiography, Gary Neville highlighted this special relationship between the two.
Neville recounts that the club were at a civic event in Manchester to celebrate winning the double, and with the rest of the squad suited and booted, Cantona rocked up in a denim jacket.

Instead of getting the hairdryer treatment that every other player would receive, Ferguson shook his head, smiled and said: “Eh lads, some man that Cantona.”

Hanging up his boots in the prime of his football career has cemented his legacy with United fans. To this day they still sing his name at Old Trafford.

Like Joy Division and Nirvana’s brief stints, Cantona’s relatively short career at the club still has a mystical feel to it.

Many Reds still salivate at the thought of what might have been if Cantona was there on that fateful night in the Nou Camp in 1999.

The real lure of the Frenchman, however, was not his effortless skill or clinical finishing – he was one of the great characters of the game.

He wore the No. 7 shirt, once belonging to George Best, and embodied its spirit better than anyone since the Irishman.

He was talismanic, enigmatic and more than a little manic, but his approach to the beautiful game allowed Cantona to get away with it.

Nobody could condone launching a karate-style kick at a spectator, but it wasn’t exactly Joey Barton assaulting a stranger outside a nightclub – Eric redeemed himself.

The aura still surrounds the Frenchman 20 years on, and when he returned to OT with the New York Cosmos for Paul Scholes’ (somewhat premature, looking back) testimonial, the stadium was packed with Reds trying to get a glimpse of the King.

HERO STATUS: Despite his off-field antics, his on-field performances stole the applause and praise from millions across the globe

Will he return in the home dugout when Sir Alex’s historic reign comes to an end? Who knows.

But Reds have to thank their bitter rivals over the Pennines for allowing Cantona to create his United kingdom.

Picture courtesy of KallangRoar

For more on this story and many others, follow Mancunian Matters on Twitter and Facebook.

Related Articles