Back in 1992, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was searching for someone who could finally fire his side to a first league title in 26 years. He wanted a maverick, a leader, someone who could inspire his younger players to go on to achieve great things. Enter Eric Cantona – the most iconic foreign player to ever grace the Premier League.
It’s a massive statement, I know. But Manchester United were way off their manager’s self-imposed target of ‘knocking Liverpool off their perch’. They needed somebody who could carry the weight of expectations and change games. He certainly did those things, and a little bit more, not without controversy I might add.
The fact that the inaugural Premier League crown ended up at Old Trafford in Cantona’s first season wasn’t a coincidence. Before he signed, United were struggling to keep up with the early season pace setters as Mark Hughes and Brian McClair struggled for form and Dion Dublin broke his leg. But in the second half of the season, the Red Devils were unplayable at times and finished the league 10 points clear.
His influence didn’t stop there as he led United to the league and FA Cup double in the following season. A third successive title escaped United, and again, I wouldn’t put it down to coincidence that Cantona was forced to spend a large part of this season on the sidelines following a suspension for his infamous ‘kung-fu’ kick at Selhurst Park.
I cover this major blip on such a fine career briefly because it occurs to me that many remember the exuberant striker as the guy who jumped into the crowd to fight a fan. What we should remember is in five years at United, he won four Premier League trophies, two FA Cups, the PFA Player of the Year and the overseas player of the decade awards, to name but a few. Admittedly, it is hard to forget the incident against Crystal Palace, especially when Cantona himself reflected on his football career by saying, “I have a lot of good moments, but the one I prefer was when I kicked the hooligan.”
Even so, perhaps his biggest achievement is how some of the greatest players in the Premier League emerged under his guidance. Ferguson sold off a lot of good players, champions in fact, knowing that he had quality coming through in the shape of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, the Neville brothers and Nicky Butt, but they needed a leader to show them just how to be a success in the Premier League. Younger players at United now talk about the medals Ryan Giggs has, or the unbelievable competitiveness Scholes shows, even in training. But ask them where they got that hunger from. Ask them who the best player they played with was.
King Eric’s time in the Premier League was short-lived, too short in fact as he retired at the age of 30. But in hindsight, you can’t imagine such a performer to not go out under a cloud of controversy. His legacy remains at Old Trafford, and his name can still be heard regularly chorusing around the Stretford End.
He wasn’t just a great player. He paved the way for football to become an entertainment. Remember the goal against Sunderland? What about the FA Cup final goal against Liverpool? You could go on all day listing his personal achievements. At times, he was a one-man band, dragging United through games and inevitably to more silverware.
On the pitch, he changed the way Manchester United played – he turned them into champions. In 1992, United signed a winner. Now, 20 years on, his mentality of winning with class can be seen all around the Premier League.
This piece is courtesy of James Ireson from Football FanCast