The making of Cantona the legend in England actually started with an ill-fated and short-lived spell at Sheffield Wednesday. Cantona didn’t feel right at Hillsborough and severed his association with the club, but still retained a dream of making it in English football. Clubs were alerted to the availability of Eric and Leeds United were the quickest to react.
Under the stewardship of Howard Wilkinson, Leeds had exceeded expectations by rising to the top of the league in the 1991-92 season. Despite this, Wilkinson felt he needed added firepower to see a title-winning charge through and met with Cantona in a hotel in January 1992. A few days later, the Frenchman was confirmed as a Leeds United player, charged with the task of maintaining their lofty position at the top of the table.
Cantona’s time with Leeds gave birth to the cult of Cantona – the media fascination with the eccentric striker – but most importantly, it introduced English football fans to his delightful touch and match-winning powers. After initially impressing primarily as an impact substitute, Cantona shone on his first start for Leeds as they thrashed Wimbledon 5-1. He gelled seamlessly in a three-pronged attack alongside Rod Wallace and Lee Chapman. Cantona managed to snatch a goal in that match but his wonderful solo effort against Chelsea is the one that still triggers the fondest of memories from the Leeds United faithful.
Receiving the ball on the right via a Gordon Strachan throw-in, Cantona flicked the ball over Paul Elliott’s head before crashing a volley into the top corner. It was a devastating finish from the Frenchman and a goal that had Elland Road jumping with joy. After an inauspicious start to life this side of the English Channel, Cantona had provided the strongest suggestion yet that he was no ordinary foreign import; here was a player entering the zenith of his powers. Unfortunately for Leeds, they wouldn’t remain the benefactors of the Frenchman’s supremacy in the newly-found Premiership.
The title-race with Manchester United that season was fought tooth and nail, and Eric’s nine goals for Leeds helped the Elland Road outfit pip his future employers to the league championship. Alex Ferguson’s United had lost 1-0 at Anfield to an Ian Rush strike and thus the title went to their rivals.
Cantona had his first title in England and it was instantly more fulfilling than either of the two he had won during his time at Marseille. Cantona had never felt entirely accepted back in his hometown, or at Nîmes, where he became embroiled in an ugly dispute following an incident where he threw a ball at a referee. Cantona was banned by the FFF for one month but refused to co-operate in a disciplinary meeting, which resulted in an increase to two months. Following the debacle, Cantona announced his retirement from football. However, he was painstakingly persuaded by Michel Platini to return and, acting on the advice of his psychoanalyst, he escaped to England to revive his career.
A league title in his first year at Leeds United mixed with the adoration pouring out of Elland Road made Cantona feel like a cherished footballer again, like his eccentricities were embraced and not vilified.
Exhausted, slightly hungover and more than slightly over-weight from the parties and celebrations that followed Leeds’ first league win in eighteen years, Eric was soon packing his bags and heading to Sweden as part of Les Blues’ Euro 92 campaign. Taking part in their first major competition since the Mexico World Cup in 1986, Platini’s team were still viewed by many as potential winners. A squad that boasted the likes of Laurent Blanc, Jean-Pierre Papin, Didier Deschamps and captain Manuel Amoros seemed destined to top a group also containing the hosts, Denmark and England. For Eric, it provided a golden opportunity to revitalise his international career like he had his club at Elland Road. Sadly, it ended in catastrophe.
France were eliminated in the group along with England as Denmark went onto shock everyone and win the tournament, with Les Blues’ aspirations unravelling in utterly unspectacular fashion. Cantona’s tournament had been particularly disappointing, failing to register a single goal or assist as he looked wasted in a strange 5-3-2 formation deployed by Platini, which had France playing the type of negative football that starved the attackers of service and produced such listless performances like their 0-0 draw with England.
Back in England, though, determined to banish the harrowing memories of a disastrous experience with the national team, it was simply business as usual for Eric, netting a wonderful hat-trick in Leeds’ memorable 4-2 Charity Shield win over Liverpool at Wembley. Adorning the number 7 shirt for the first time in a competitive match, Cantona was the epitome of excellence, exhibiting an intoxicating blend of power, athleticism and touch in comprehensively dismantling the Liverpool back-line.
Three weeks later, he was at it again. This time the opponents were Spurs, but the result remained very much the same. Cantona starred in Leeds’ 5-0 thumping of Tottenham, adding another treble to his Wembley heroics and providing an assist for Chapman which rounded off the rout. Cantona had sprung himself into the collective consciousness of English football thanks to a string of undeniably peerless displays and had signalled the beginning of King Eric.
Sadly, he found himself steering an unavoidably faltering ship perilously close to catastrophe. Leeds had failed to maintain the greatness that had driven them to their sweet success in the last of the old Division One seasons, culminating in hoisting the trophy in May 1992. There would be no trophies the following season, however, as Wilkinson’s squad failed to cope with serious involvement in Europe as well as the intense competition of the new Premier League, with many observers highlighting serious fatigue as the principal reason for their decline.
The cult of Cantona at Elland Road was also fading rapidly. Angrily reacting to being subbed off during a European Cup match against Rangers at Ibrox, Cantona sensed a deeply mistrusting manager in Wilkinson, and the relationship that had simultaneously revived Cantona’s career while thrusting Leeds to the status of champions had imploded irreconcilably. Cantona was granted leave to France but when he returned, things had soured immeasurably. Cantona moped and sulked in the dressing room until one day he filed an official transfer request to the Leeds head office, specifically signalling a desire to move to one of the Yorkshire club’s three main rivals; Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal.
So it was that in November 1992, Cantona’s adventure in West Yorkshire came to an abrupt halt. An acrimonious departure from one the biggest clubs in England may usually spell an end to a footballer’s career in the country, but not Eric. For him, it was merely an uneasy juncture during his time in England that, more than anything, poisoned his opinion of Leeds United Football Club. He had felt deeply let down by Wilkinson, after the Frenchman had initially repaid his manager’s trust in emphatic fashion by changing the forecast at Elland Road to raining goals.
His new manager was another hardened disciplinarian, but one who would show his pedigree for man-management skills by forming a special bond with the occasionally wayward striker; that man was, of course, Alex Ferguson. The story of how Cantona ended up sitting next to Ferguson in a press conference, nodding his head while his new manager praised his latest acquisition and how the £1 million man would shape the identity, philosophy and success of Manchester United in the Premier League era, is one of the greatest tales in the club’s folklore.
With United desperate for goals – having drawn blanks in four out of their previous five games – Ferguson went to his chairman Martin Edwards and made his thoughts clear: he needed a new talisman up front. Suddenly, the phone rang. It was the Leeds chairman Bill Fotherby enquiring about the availability of Manchester’s Irish left-back Dennis Irwin.
Edwards swiftly batted off the request, but proceeded to ask about the potential accessibility of Cantona, following the remonstrations of Ferguson. Fotherby reluctantly admitted that Cantona’s relationship with Wilkinson had suffered fatal turbulence and that the Frenchman may be available. Ferguson left Edwards’ office and received the news, via his car phone, that Cantona would be a United player for £1.2 million. It transpired to be the greatest single bit of transfer business Ferguson ever engaged in.
At Old Trafford, Cantona finally found his home and, in Alex Ferguson, he had finally found a mentor who sufficiently appreciated his talents as well as accepting his idiosyncrasies; in Manchester United, he had finally found a club at which he could forge his legacy. Just as he had proved the catalytic element in Leeds’ title-winning charge the previous season, the explosive striker completed the jigsaw for Ferguson’s dynasty at United. The Scot’s tenure at United had not been entirely smooth following his appointment in 1986, but an FA Cup success in 1990 plus a European Cup Winners’ Cup triumph a year later suggested United were on the brink of greatness once again following nearly three decades in the wilderness. Cantona was the decisive factor in completing the process.
Cantona slotted in well at his new club, proving a vital point of attack as United accelerated their challenge for the first Premier League title against Aston Villa and Blackburn. With Mark Hughes and Brian McClair misfiring and summer signing Dion Dublin breaking his leg, Cantona duly took advantage, scoring nine goals in 22 league appearances. United won their first title since 1967 at a canter, seeing off Villa by ten points in the end.
The following season saw the Frenchman in devastating form as United retained the league title, while Cantona’s two penalties helped them crush Chelsea 4-0 in the FA Cup final to complete a historic double. Cantona was once again United’s most potent weapon, notching an impressive 25 goals in all competitions as he scooped the PFA Player of the Year award. Cantona was an endless assortment of flair, energy and leadership on the pitch for United. His mesmeric performances drew a wave of plaudits from the press, opposing managers and even fans from other clubs, most notably when the Spurs fans afforded him a standing ovation when he left the field during United’s 1-0 win against the North Londoners in January 1994.
The 1994-95 season and the shame of Selhurst Park will never be fondly remembered, but it should be treated as a dispensable footnote in an otherwise glorious career at United. It was a testing time for the player, exiled from the first-team due to his ban and feeling the weight of several hefty fines, descending to the point whereby he requested that his contract be terminated by the club. Ferguson, however, summoning his infamous powers of persuasion, managed to change Cantona’s mind. Saying that United would have been a blunted force without Cantona is obvious; everyone knows how important Ferguson’s intervention was during the Frenchman’s most troubled period in English football. The gamble paid off as he came back all guns blazing.
Cantona was crucial in United’s healing process after losing their title to Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn on the final day of the 1994-95 season. Initially struggling to shake off a lack of competitive football for eight months, Cantona spurred United’s astonishing turnaround in the 1995-96 campaign, scoring 14 goals as they hauled back Newcastle United’s 12-point advantage.
Cantona scored several crucial goals in the run-in, including the solitary strike at St James’ Park that confirmed the tide was turning in the Red Devils’ favour. The campaign turned out to be a triumphant one, with United claiming their second double in three years. Cantona, central to that success, captained United to FA Cup glory at Wembley over Liverpool, pulling a stunning strike out of the top drawer in the 86th-minute and becoming the first foreign player to captain an English side to cup success.
For Cantona’s final season as a professional footballer, he was promoted to United’s captain in the wake of Steve Bruce’s departure. It wasn’t his greatest season and nor was it the most thrilling of seasons in the history of English football – United romped to their fourth triumph in five years. However, he still showed flashes of genius, twinkles of the mastery that he had performed so regularly during his spell in Manchester, one of which stands out in the memory of millions.
The date was 21 December 1996 and Eric bestowed upon the 70,000 adoring Old Trafford crowd the most aesthetically pleasing Christmas present their eyes would gaze upon that year. On a dreary and dark winter evening, United were playing Sunderland. The match was largely devoid of drama, incident or spectacle, despite the 4-0 scoreline to United. It had been a leisurely stroll against a toothless Sunderland that were merely making up the numbers. Cantona decided to impose one last parting blow on the hapless visitors.
Turning sharply on the half-way line, Cantona strode elegantly forward with the ball, brushing off the attentions of Steve Agnew and Paul Stewart, who both had only been on the pitch for 15 minutes. Laying the ball off to Brian McClair, Cantona continued his run to the edge of the area and, receiving the return ball from his teammate, United’s number 7 executed the deftest of chips, the ball sailing over the helpless Lionel Pérez and skimming the inside of the post before nestling in the top corner.
A goal of supreme quality yes, but it was eclipsed by what followed. Turning around to the fans, chest puffed out and head held high with the captains armband fastened round his right arm, Cantona gave a look of power that expressed his stature at Old Trafford. He announced his retirement five months later at the age of 30 and never returned but his legend lives on in the Theatre of Dreams. The celebration that day against Sunderland said it all; he was The King, and that was his kingdom. That was the real Eric Cantona.
By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11