Illustration by Dave Flanagan. Check out more of his work here.
It is the summer of 1978 in the baking heat of a Marseille suburb, and AS Caillolais are 1-0 down to title rivals Vivaux-Marronniers. Only a win will secure the Provence Championship title, but the final whistle is creeping ever nearer. Suddenly, time slows to a hazy crawl as one player dances out of defence, his focus unswerving.
Opposition markers are glided past as if they no longer matter or even exist, until the balletic trance leaves only the keeper to beat. The stage is set for the most majestic, artistic and dramatic denouement until at the last moment, the villain enters the piece. Just yards from glory, the youngster is cut short by the referee’s whistle: his boot laces are untied, the match is over, and the masterpiece is left incomplete.
A transgression of authority, however minuscule, is not something that is unknown to Eric Cantona. Today’s 49-year-old adult would probably not change that defining moment from his childhood despite the tears and rage of his 12-year-old self, as it encapsulated the beauty and emotional connection with the game that inspired him. Agonising imperfection, cathartic re-genesis, romantic passion; it is hard to define where Cantona ends and his adoring fans begin, but it is a heady concoction that he has brewed and propagated throughout his life, however intentionally.
Few players have sparked such wildly contrasting opinions or fiercely loyal support as Cantona, and have left such an indelible mark on the game. When he walked out of Old Trafford in 1997 at the relatively modest age of 31, the effect his departure had on those who adored him was monumental. As Philippe Auclair suggests in the foreword to his biography Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King (2009), it was the death of the player, perhaps even suicide, and he was mourned deeply.
Three years after that referee cut short his glorious dash towards goal, the birth of the boy’s career could be said to have taken place in a regional trial match. A stunning performance amongst 35 other young hopefuls was spotted by the scout of Association de la Jeunesse Auxerroise, who had only become a professional outfit two years before. His hometown club, Olympique de Marseille, had passed up the chance to sign him up – citing his lack of pace – while the more glamorous and geographically convenient OGC Nice failed to woo Eric by demanding he pay for the club shirt he wanted as a souvenir. So up north to the quiet, unremarkable town in the wine-making region of Burgundy he went, all by himself, enticed by the warmth and affection his first football ‘family’ and the godfather of French youth football, Guy Roux.
With the best part of half a century of guiding, nurturing and protecting talent, Auxerre’s legendary manager was the first to understand how to get the best out of Cantona. In a youth team including Roger and Basile Boli, the latter who would go on to score the Champions League final winner with Marseille before the trophy was stripped away for match fixing, high jinks were either tolerated or went unnoticed as they tore shreds through opposition sides. Being away from home should have been a tough challenge for a 14-year-old boy, but Cantona fed off the camaraderie of his new brothers by indulging in unapproved visits to nightclubs and ‘rallies’ using cheap second-hand cars.
A year after Cantona arrived the youth side won the Coupe Gambardella – the French Youth Cup – and the tempestuous Marseilles, two years younger than most at this age level, scored the winner for the national under-17 side in a curtain raiser for the seniors’ 1982 World Cup warm-up against Bulgaria. Such rapid progress was due to his phenomenal athletic growth spurt, and to the faith paid in him and his peers by Roux, who pitted them against the rough world of the French Third Division. Proving himself outside his comfort zone was something Cantona revelled in, and which endeared him to millions throughout his career. His battles with the English press later in his career, who demonised his alien attitude and raison d’être, would encapsulate his personal insularity inside his very public displays of affection.
This bizarre relationship between his outer and inner persona has baffled most people throughout his life with few, if any, having mastered the art of comprehending the incomprehensible. Although he instigated the hell-raising behaviour of his early contemporaries, he also loved nothing more than to take a trip to the cinema or a stroll through the countryside alone. The same man who arrived at a Manchester United civic reception in a white flannel jacket and casual trousers would sit quietly in the corner of the pub in the midst of a team bonding session, or better still make his excuses and not go at all.
Read | Eric Cantona: the early French years
Perhaps it shouldn’t be viewed as bizarre; after all, this is a man whose family never lived in a regimented set of rules and expectations. His grandfather was a Catalan partisan whose injuries in the Civil War forced him to seek medical aid across the Pyrenees, and his father Albert was a painter, who fostered a burning desire to express his passions. With two brothers as part of a large family, competition was always a natural facet of his upbringing, but the real competitive streak was not so much with others, but with himself. When faced with a logical choice, Cantona loved to choose the opposite, if only to set himself challenge. “I loved to surprise the crowds. Every time, in every game I tried to offer them a gift. Sometimes it didn’t work, but when it did … But I had to surprise myself first, take a risk. You know, sometimes it depends on the limits you set yourself.”
This short monologue is taken from Ken Loach’s fabulously insightful Looking for Eric, where he played an apparition of himself. Words spoken by the man himself, in a film bearing his name, about the soul-searching, comedy and entertainment that characterised his life: how very dramatic, how very Cantona. Exactly how much of the spontaneity that drove him was from nature or nurture is uncertain; on the football pitch it probably stemmed from his first sight of Johan Cruyff’s magical Ajax side who he watched win 2-1 at the Stade Vélodrome in 1972. What is certain is that his family supported his drive to excel – whether it was his grandmother Lucienne, who attended all his junior matches, Albert teaching him about great artists and poets, or just his brothers providing opposition in daily kickabouts.
After his career was interrupted by military service and a viral infection, Cantona was sent out on loan at the age of 19 to Second Division Martigues to gain more playing time, and more importantly, to be closer to Isabelle, the sister of teammate Bernard Ferrer. In fact, Roux even arranged with the club to provide a flat for the young lovers – all this, for a mercurial talent who had only appeared 15 times for the first team – and the care of the person as well as the player resonated with Cantona. Upon his return to Auxerre, backed by his first full professional contract and mentally refreshed, he inspired his club to UEFA Cup qualification with 17 goals in all competitions.
By now his profile was burgeoning, helped in no small part by his participation in the under-21s, who stormed to championship victory playing an impressive brand of attacking football. Their success took advantage of the newly established Canal Plus cable channel, which secured broadcasting rights to live matches of Les Espoirs, and in doing so captured the imagination of the French public. The seniors, for whom he also appeared, were struggling to live up to the expectations they had brought upon themselves, so the contrast between the Bonheur that the youngsters inspired and the downcast nature of their older counterparts was marked.
This could only mean one thing for Eric the player. He needed pastures new to spread his wings, and in the summer of 1988 all the top clubs in the country were desperate to capture the hottest property in French football. The boy from the hills outside Marseille was eventually drawn back home to a stadium whose capacity was greater than the entire population of the town he had called home for six years. Bernard Tapie had taken over Les Phocéens two years earlier, and his ruthless ambition would bring glory and shame on Olympique Marseille in the coming years. Part of his masterplan that year was to partner the lethal Jean-Pierre Papin with the enigmatic creator. Something, however, wasn’t right.
The prodigal son returned to a vociferous home crowd and was backed by a wealthy owner in Tapie, but the crowd turned their backs on Cantona for what Auclair calls his “haughty demeanour”. A club for whom Eric had grown up adoring with entertainers like Josip Skoblar and Robert Magnusson, who stood in sporting terms as a symbol of defiance against the rest of France and were his first love, had rejected him before his career there had properly begun. This betrayal was unforgivable in Cantona’s eyes, and it came as no surprise when he was loaned out to Bordeaux, and then the following season to Montpellier, where he joined Carlos Valderrama, Kader Ferhaoui and Laurent Blanc.
His now infamous outburst at national team manager Henri Michel a few weeks after signing for Marseille didn’t help matters. Having been rested from a meaningless international friendly, but not informed personally, he proceeded to refer to Michel as “a bag of shit”. No matter that he had been in the wrong initially, the violation of his right to perform jarred with Cantona, but it added to the increasingly common public image of being an uncontrollable Tasmanian Devil who was more trouble than he was worth.
Read | Eric Cantona: the making of a legend
Taming the beast was not the answer. Protecting it, even tolerating it in moderation, proved to be the only way to benefit from the spectacular results. Gérard Houllier, then the technical director of the national team, had looked on deep in thought for a while as he witnessed the wild transgressions and magical performances. He was one of the few who could look past the incidents where he physically attacked teammates at Montpellier and Bordeaux, and understand that underneath the storm was a man of extreme professionalism and drive. It was this that he stressed to Alex Ferguson when the Scot enquired about his suitability in 1992. “Close your eyes and take him,” he said. “The only thing you have to be careful of is management. He’s a good guy who loves his work, and needs to be trusted, not messed about.”
Many would argue that he was rarely messed about, but that he created the problems he encountered himself through his volatility. To arrive at this conclusion is to fail to see life Cantona’s way. One major difference has been what he expects of other people, and what the perception of his expectations are; when he speaks so glowingly of the protection he received from figures such as Ferguson and Roux, he does so because he feels the joy of surprise, just like the joy he tried to give to fans. This is the man who is as comfortable in his own presence as in anyone else’s, and part of his philosophy is dictated by a control over his own actions and debts.
Houllier had been instrumental in facilitating his move to England a year before his phone call with Ferguson. A move to Nîmes had seen him become the undoubted star in an average squad, but was cut short by his reaction to the referee’s indifference to his protestations over constant fouling. As he picked up the ball and launched it at the official, he walked straight off the pitch, knowing that his career was over in his home country.
He had only arrived at Nîmes thanks to his outspoken opinions over the culture of cheating, as he called it, that had become ingrained under Tapie, but it was clear the goldfish bowl environment of his home country, and the fickle supporters who watched him, couldn’t offer him the piece of mind. Pascal Olmeta was a good friend of his former Marseille team-mate, and described the awkward relationship between him and the fans. “They worshipped him,” he told Auclair, “But that’s the nature of French supporters. In France, a player is a piece of meat. People chew them up and spit them out.”
Sergeant Wilko was not exactly the man to offer him this. As a future contemporary of Houllier’s in his role as the FA’s technical director, Howard Wilkinson could not have differed more greatly in his view of the sport. A dour, rigid tactician, he was symptomatic of an era that saw a renewed fervour for ‘Englishness’ after the Heysel ban had excluded English sides from European competition. There were only 37 foreigners in the English top flight by the end of the first Premier League season in 1993, and when Cantona was persuaded to join Leeds United, he had the backdrop of preconceptions to battle with. In January 1992 he joined the Yorkshire club as they stood at the top of the table, but in need of a shot in the arm to drag them over the line.
A modest return of three goals doesn’t tell the story of how his invention and charisma inspired Leeds to the title; the ferocity of the English crowd was something wonderful to Cantona, something he could channel into his displays on the pitch. Leeds still suffered from the overhang of the reputation forged by the great Don Revie and his all-conquering side of the 1970s.
The cynicism with which the white shirts of Billy Bremner, Peter Lorimer and John Giles aggressively bullied opposition off the park left little sympathy for them, and the thinly-veiled bias towards the more glamorous London clubs had a strangely enticing effect on the Elland Road faithful for their new signing, as Auclair explains. “This perceived injustice made them revel in their difference; they might as well give the others good reason to hate them. Cantona, the arch-maverick, the anti-hero par excellence, fitted perfectly with their vision of a world divided between ‘them’ and ‘us’; that he belonged in the second category soon became clear.”
Read | How Sir Alex Ferguson became the greatest winner in Britain
The issue of belonging had always been a central one to the way the French genius lived his life, and not just the positive side. Emlyn Hughes, writing his Daily Mirror column almost a year after Cantona had arrived in England, still referred to him as a “flashy foreigner”, and the truth was it was an opinion many shared with Hughes at the time. Before he had even signed with Leeds, he had been invited to Sheffield Wednesday, but because of the reservations about his character, Wednesday manager Trevor Francis dithered and only offered him, an established French international, a two-week trial.
While protecting his new talisman from the rigours of a totally different speed and style of play initially was totally understandable, the length of his cautious selection policy began to cause friction after the summer. Wilkinson was frugal in his release of the talismanic flair player onto the pitch, and it seemed the more the crowd loved him, the more the manager withdrew him from the limelight. Denying Cantona his stage was not something to be done lightly. Michel Platini discovered this to his cost as France manager in 1990 when he substituted his match-winning goalscorer to preserve a two-goal lead with less than ten minutes remaining in Reykjavik. After a loud discussion in the changing room after the game, Platini, who was immensely fond of Cantona, reportedly said to his assistant Houllier, “Gérard, I’ll never, ever take him off the pitch again!”
The inevitable refusal to bend to authority ensued, and it quickly became apparent that Cantona’s relationship with Wilkinson had deteriorated beyond repair. This was hardly a secret; contrary to some accounts, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson had been watching developments across the Pennines with interest, and realised a rare chance had arisen. An opportunistic brainwave during a phone call from Leeds managing director Bill Fotherby, who was asking about Denis Irwin’s availability, led Ferguson to prompt Martin Edwards to inquire as to the status of Cantona. £1.2 million later, and the Frenchman made the final move of his career to Old Trafford.
The adoration that the Frenchman had received from the Leeds fans instantly turned to vitriolic bile, and it has never truly subsided. It was hard to tell where the anger was aimed at; the manager and the directors for letting the star player leave, or the man himself for daring to abandon them. When a university group mate of mine walked down Otley Road in Headingley clad in Manchester’s famous red shirt with ‘Cantona’ on the back 15 years later, a shaven-headed man screamed death threats unless he removed the shirt.
Manchester United, like their West Yorkshire rivals, were in desperate need of the final piece in the jigsaw, and had been waiting even longer for a league title. Behind the scenes, the production of the finest generation of youth players was developing swiftly, but in the short-term, it was not just Cantona’s nine league goals that made an impact on the collective conscience of Old Trafford, but the panache with which he had delivered them.
His mere presence on the pitch raised the game of his team-mates and evoked memories of previous number 7s in a way that went further than just entertainment; he understood the ethos of religious dedication to preparation married with style that United fans held dear. His training had always been phenomenal, but it resonated with the youngsters who would go on to share the field with him, and certainly appealed to his mentor Ferguson.
The euphoria at winning the first league title in 26 years was indescribable for the fans, but the following season – the first he would complete with the team he had finished the previous campaign with since his Auxerre days – saw only the sixth ever league and cup double. This time, there was no questioning of a “flashy foreigner”, but an acceptance of a kindred spirit. George Best, a man who understood more than most the pressures of attention, famously said of Eric: “I’d give up al the champagne I’ve ever drunk to be playing alongside him in a big European match at Old Trafford.” Best and Cantona together in their prime: now there’s an image to whet the whistle of football fans.
Read | The fleeting career but eternal brilliance of George Best
The defining moment in his relationship with his last club came the following January at Selhurst Park. Just when the wider public were coming round to his idiosyncrasies, his attack on Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons shattered the idyll, as the attitudes that had greeted him three years earlier rather frostily rose to the surface. The temperamental Frenchman, the unreliable foreigner; the court of common opinion was that he ought to be banned from playing in England again. The club could in one sense have been completely justified in sacking their man for such a blatant and public breach of the unspoken code of conduct, but their support of their star when he needed it the most was hugely significant to Cantona.
During the nine-month ban that the FA handed down to him, media attention and criticism created an all too familiar feeling if disconnection. Had it not been for Ferguson’s dash to Paris to personally persuade Cantona to stay, it could have been the end of the fairytale, with Inter Milan rumoured to be circling with a £7.5 million bid, but the personal touch had meant the world to him. The wait for his return was built up into a feverish cauldron of anxiety and anticipation, with the perfect opponents pencilled in for his re-coronation as the King of Old Trafford – Liverpool. Never in the last 20 years has the intensity of Old Trafford been as electric and powerful as it was that day, as the emotion and sense of injustice at the longest ban in FA history poured out.
And that was all Eric Cantona, the little boy who cried when his untied shoelaces denied him a goal, had ever wanted: unquestioning, unswerving mutual devotion and respect.
“I should have been born English. When I hear ‘God Save The Queen’, it can make me cry, much more than when I hear ‘La Marseillaise’. I feel close to the rebelliousness and vigour of youth here. Perhaps time will separate us, but nobody can deny that here, behind the windows of Manchester, there is an insane love of football, of celebration.”
Two more league titles and another FA Cup followed, but there was a strange alteration in his demeanour during the 1996-97 season. After failing to be chosen for France’s Euro 96 squad, he spent more and more time in his home country, seemingly seeking other ways to escape. His love of the arts became famous, but his love for playing was diminishing. The major omission from his club CV is his lack of European success; Roy Keane publicly criticised his wavering form in the Champions League, and on paper the Irishman had a point. On the grandest stage of all, his performances lacked the sparkle that characterised his desire to perform.
In hindsight, his retirement at the end of the season makes sense when one considers how changeable others have been in his eyes. The one who stayed true and loyal was Cantona, even if some would disagree with his methods of displaying it, and this included staying loyal to the art of performing, which when it ran out for him, he simply stopped. While some would call it an unfulfilled tragedy, Cantona would argue that he achieved the purest emotions of belonging, even if he had to go through hell to get there. And what could be more beautiful than that?
“I’m so proud they still sing my name, but I fear tomorrow they will stop. I fear it because I love it. And everything you love, you fear you will lose.”
By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint