This feature is part of Virtuoso
“Genius is digging yourself out of the hole in which you sometimes find yourself. It’s learning from your failures that makes you succeed.” Eric Cantona’s words in 1994 could hardly have proved more prophetic. Looking back, it is hard not to suspect there was a slither of the Frenchman’s hubris that concocted the whole operatic drama the following year and beyond. Ever the artist, Cantona had always been driven by a far simpler moral system that provided the basis of his flourishes and sharp barbs of vivid, shocking brushstrokes.
The record books say that, on 25 February 1995, a stamp on the defenceless Richard Shaw precipitated a red card, after which an unprecedented flying kick into the crowd earned an eight-month ban. Emlyn Hughes’ “flashy foreigner” had seen red and typically lost his cool in the most outrageous and unforgivable manner. He deserved to be banished for good.
What they don’t highlight are the myriad of heinous fouls targeted at Cantona before the fateful 49th minute. Gareth Southgate later admitted to Manchester United’s manager Sir Alex Ferguson that his Crystal Palace teammates were proud of their physical approach. The plan worked. After one ignored infringement too many, Cantona flicked a careless boot at Shaw’s legs as the pair chased a high clearance, sending his marker tumbling.
As he made his way down the touchline, the bile spat in his direction was too much. This was not within his code of ethics; not without retribution, anyway. In his earlier days in France, he had fought an entire team outside his dressing room. Here his opponent was one man. United suspended their own player until the end of the season and fined him a fortnight’s wages, but this wasn’t enough for the FA who saw fit to extend both ban and fines.
The public lynching verged on schizophrenic. Cantona was vilified for bringing the game into disrepute to the extent he handed in a transfer request in the summer. But for Ferguson’s frenzied dash to Paris to personally persuade his prodigal son to stay, that might have been the end of the brooding romance. “It is at this time that you realise who are the people [sic], surely,” Cantona himself said of Ferguson, after his decision to accept his manager’s plea to return. “He has been very, very nice. If I am here today, it’s because of him.”
At the season’s end, Luděk Mikloško performed heroics at Upton Park to hold United to a fateful title-denying draw as they stumbled without their iconic leader. The new season saw the departures of key senior players like Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes, and Alan Hansen’s famous comment about winning nothing with kids. Those kids were simply desperate for their mesmeric father figure to return to the dressing room.
“I’ve only played with a few players that have that enormous presence that makes you feel that you’re in the presence of something more than a football player,” admitted Gary Neville, years later. “You would never say one player wins the league, but that’s probably as close as it gets.”
Before the redemptive end-of-season coronation came the comeback game at Old Trafford on 1 October 1995, and the opponents were most appropriate: Liverpool. Bristling with their own entertaining band of youngsters, the sense of occasion was entirely in keeping with Cantona’s stage. He was no longer the explosive unknown quantity who needed coaxing, cajoling or protection: now it was his turn to guide the flock of hungry foals as the graceful champion thoroughbred.
Tricolores waved, La Marseillaise thronged, with only one name on the lips of everyone. Cantona, in typically understated fashion, strode out as if he had never been away. Within moments of kick-off, he had drifted out wide to the left into space that had been created by Ryan Giggs and Andy Cole. With the crackling intensity that filled the air, he could have been forgiven for being swept up in the moment and slightly over-hitting a cross into the six-yard box.
He had spotted Nicky Butt charging in from deep unmarked. A glance up was all he needed to craft a delicately drifting pass, timed to perfection with Butt’s run. With his momentum and the beautiful weight gifted to the ball, all Butt needed to do was coax the ball on the half-volley to slice through the static defence. His second touch slid the ball past David James to slake the ravenous crowd’s bloodlust.
Robbie Fowler was in no mood to comply, however. After 30 minutes, he sped down the left channel and let rip a spectacular rocket inside Peter Schmeichel’s near post. So clinical was the finish that the Danish goalkeeper could do little but rock backwards in shock. After the break, Fowler got the run inside Gary Neville, shouldering the young full-back off the ball, before impudently chipping Schmeichel. Inspiration was needed.
Dropping deep to collect a loose ball in the centre circle, it was Cantona who stood tall. Phil Neville’s crunching tackle on Michael Thomas had helped win back possession, but the following few seconds were so perfectly balanced. Cole darted in front of Cantona, curving his run to the right and dragging John Scales across with him. Cantona advanced, caressing the ball, always upright, ready to release at the opportune moment. Giggs was tearing forward on his left into space. In the end it was the simplest of touches that Cantona slipped into the Welshman’s path.
Jamie Redknapp could only bring him down in the box and a penalty was given. In the space of five seconds, Liverpool had gone from comfortable possession in United’s half to being carved wide open. Cantona, as he had all game, had conducted the flowing movement with the confidence of a man settled in his natural home.
Of course, it was he who took the spot-kick. David James might as well have not been there in Cantona’s mind as he slotted it firmly into the bottom right corner. Finally, after the agony and injustice of months, the vilification of his character and the painful fragility of his knife-edge departure, his re-ascension to his throne was complete. The image of pure joy smothering his face as he vaulted around the stanchion post behind the goal told his painful, emotional tale.
That season saw the club’s second double with Cantona at the forefront. The sheer cathartic energy that had coursed through his veins had taken its toll, though. Although another league title followed in 1997, it was as if the mission that had started that day against Liverpool to lift his beloved adopted home up once again had spent every last ounce of inspiration and energy. This time, he could not be persuaded to return, although few needed persuading of his genius.
By Andrew Flint @AndrewMijFlint
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp