It was almost 26 years since Utd had been champions of England and the 1992-93 season hadn’t started very well. Despite coming close to winning the league a season before, Man Utd were languishing mid-table (as Norwich City were leading above Arsenal and big-spenders Aston Villa and Blackburn) and struggling for goals. As Fergie was pondering a solution with Chairman Martin Edwards, the latter got a call from his Leeds United counterpart who was enquiring about the availability of Denis Irwin. After it was made clear that he was not for sale, Fergie cheekily asked Edwards to ask if a certain Frenchman, Eric Cantona, who had helped them to the title the season before, was available. Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson who couldn’t get handle his complex character agreed to the deal and Man Utd signed Eric Cantona for £1.5million. The rest, as they say, is history.
Fergie said about Cantona at the time of his signing, “he has flair, he has class, and we have now provided him with the biggest of stages upon which to perform. I believe this deal to be value for money.” And he was absolutely spot on. United were English champions in ‘93 (winning with a 10-point margin) thanks largely to the inspiring Cantona who then helped the team to its first Double ever one season later winning the Premier League again as well as the FA Cup.
During the 1994-95 season that we got to see the dark side of the Frenchman. Cantona was sent off at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park for a kick at an opposition player and then, on his way out, proceeded to kung-fu kick and punch a Palace fan who had abused him. This incident is perhaps most remembered by Cantona’s supposedly cryptic quote he made in a press conference saying, “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much,” after which he promptly left the room.
On his return from an 8-month suspension (during which he got so frustrated that he asked for the termination of his contract, only to be persuaded by Fergie to stay on), Cantona guided Man Utd to the Double once again in 1996, making the club the first to win it twice. The team had lost a few star players but United romped to the title with Cantona captaining a young team comprising Giggs, Scholes, Butt, Beckham and Gary Neville, who were going to usher the Red Devils into Phase 2 of English football domination. By the time he shocked the football world by retiring at the age of 30, Cantona had won, in 5 years with the club, 4 English league titles and 2 FA Cups, scored 82 goals in 185 appearances and garnered the utter admiration of millions of Man Utd fans as well as other football fans.
Cantona considered himself an artist on the pitch. Only Fergie managed to use (and soothe) his volatile personality on the pitch and Cantona repaid the faith in spectacular fashion. He was the catalyst United needed to get back to winning trophies. Although he was technically a forward, his unparalleled vision on the pitch was vital not only for himself scoring goals but also setting up his team-mates to score. Cantona was an unpredictable genius who would cajole the ball on the pitch as delicately and elegantly as anyone had done at Utd since George Best graced Old Trafford. As a kid, I was inevitably pushed by my Dad to support his team led by his hero, Bryan ‘Captain Marvel’ Robson. But as many United fans, Cantona was the first player to dazzle me and although it is a shame I was still too young at the time to comprehend the sheer extent of his talent, he remains, for me at least, one of Utd’s most influential players of all time, whose name will be sung at Old Trafford for decades and beyond.
All Hail King Eric!