The final piece to United’s jigsaw

Was Cantona Sir Alex's most important signing?So he found himself at Elland Road, Leeds playing for Howard Wilkinson. Leeds won the last of the old First Division championships during the season he was there, and he became a cult hero on the terraces. Cantona made 35 appearances and scored 14 goals. However his stay was never harmonious and Wilkinson maintained that Cantona’s tantrums, disappearances, sulks, and intolerance of being dropped, made it hard for the club to keep him. Wilkinson’s main worry however was that Cantona would disappear over the horizon never to return, and Leeds would not be able to recoup the money which they had invested in him. Cantona of course, saw things differently;

“I had a bad relationship with the manager, Wilkinson. We didn’t have the same views on football. I was more like a Manchester footballer. At Leeds football was played the old way. I think you say kick, and then rush. But it was very important to play for Leeds at first because I learned a lot with this kind of football. And we had success.”

As Ferguson said, he’d got a steal – but at that time most United fans really did wonder what they were about to get and wondered just how long he would stay.

His debut for Manchester United was on Sunday, December 6th 1992 at Old Trafford in a Manchester “derby”. He came on as a second half substitute and there he was for all to see, stood on the touchline in front of the dugout, chest puffed out, shirt collar turned up, standing ramrod straight, surveying the scene before him. It was a sight that would thrill United followers regularly for the next five years.

The turned up collar thing was not a gimmick. Cantona explained;

“I put my shirt on. It was a cold day. The collar stayed up so I kept it like that. We won, so it became a habit to play with my collar up.”

Cantona’s start was almost immediate. He scored his first goal for United in his third game at Stamford Bridge in a 1-1 draw against Chelsea. But then on Boxing Day, in a remarkable comeback at Hillsborough against Sheffield Wednesday, he dragged United back from a 3-0 deficit with 30 minutes to go, by scoring one of the goals ina 3-3 draw. This game seemed to ignite the team. There next five league games produced 15 goals with 4 wins and a defeat at Portman Road against Ipswich Town. The remarkable things was that suddenly, players from all different positions were scoring goals. Cantona, Giggs, Hughes, Irwin, Sharpe, McClair, Parker, Kanchelskis, and Ince, all contributed. Suddenly, there he was conducting the team just like a symphony orchestra, and were the United fans loving it! After the defeat at Portman Road, United were in second place in the league, just one point behind Aston Villa.

United were to suffer just two more defeats that season, one in the FA Cup Third Round away at Sheffield United, and surprisingly, a 1-0 defeat away in the league to Oldham Athletic. They finished the season with seven consecutive victories which finally gave United the Championship for the first time in 26 years. The inaugural premiership Championship was won on Sunday 2nd May 1993, and United were not even playing. A surprising upset at Villa Park saw Oldham Athletic win 1-0 against Villa and it was impossible for them to catch United. United were Champions and Cantona had won his third Championship[ with three different clubs in three consecutive years. The party began and United’s players and fans partied long into the morning hours, and some into the following day. But on the Monday evening they had a Premiership fixture to fulfil at Old Trafford. Cantona recalls;

“We had been crowned Champions of England by default the day before. Now we wanted to play like Champions. The lid was ready to jump off, mouths were ready to open. It was a feeling of the greatest delight and madness. The songs that came from the depths of the crowd were so beautiful, that for an instant, I didn’t want to have to play, but would have liked to have stand still somewhere and just listen. At a quarter to seven, Steve Bruce led us onto the pitch and the voice of the people became clearly heard. Kenny Dalglish had claimed that Blackburn would beat us. The loudspeaker system had started with Queen’s ‘We Are the Champions’ and now it was ‘Simply the Best’ by Tina Turner. After a few bars it looked as though Paul Ince was going to start a dance on the field. Blackburn made a fast start, but then three goals for Manchester United!

We brandished the Cup before Sir Matt Busby, the man whose beautiful children had perished in that air catastrophe. We did a lap of honour to cheers from all around the ground. When I compare this spectacle to all the shows in the world, this isn’t far from being the most perfect because, just as in certain theatres, the audience is almost part of the play.

I went back into the dressing room. The champagne could flow all night. My shower was long and enjoyable. I didn’t go to the celebrations which were given in our hon our by a supporter who owned a hotel in town. I wanted to get home to Leeds to be with my young son.”

When Garry Pallister had taken a free kick and had blasted the ball through Blackburn’s defensive wall to score United’s third goal in that game, it meant that every outfield player in United’s team had scored a league goal that season. The can-opener, as Ferguson called Cantona had arrived! He had become the United fans biggest hero since the days of Charlton, Law, and Best. It kicked off four more remarkable years.

Cantona’s presence certainly lit up Old Trafford and down at The Cliff training ground, his presence was huge. From being the ‘l’enfant terrible’ at Leeds United, Cantona became to most people’s eyes, the model professional. The majority of players loved him. Roy Keane recalls;

“I liked him immediately. Sure, he was different. He tended to do his own thing in training, an indulgence Ferguson and Brian Kidd permitted. He had his own warm up routine, and stayed out practising his finishing after 5-a-side. Eric also had a fierce temper which sometimes flared up on the training ground. He and Schmeichel in particular found themselves at odds. Fists were raised on one or two occasions.

Behind the enigma, Eric was a great pro, very serious about his football,knowledgeable about the game. Collar turned up, back straight, chest stuck out, he glided into the arena as though he owned the fucking place. Any arena, but nowhere more effectively than Old Trafford. This was his stage. He loved it, and the crowd loved him. The players loved him too, for many reasons. Most importantly, he got the job done.”

Bryan Robson former Manchester United Captain:

“He was nothing like the guy we feared he would be. He became one of the lads, going out with us and enjoying a drink and the banter. He didn’t speak all that much English to start with, but he understood more than he let on to people outside the club. Most importantly, he could play. He was the final piece in the jigsaw.

I don’t think that Eric was as good as a lot of United fans make out. I wouldn’t bracket him with Pele or Maradonna, players in the very top league – but he had fantastic ability and the move was perfect for him and for us. The team that was put around him suited him down to the ground. We had pace on the wings, the strength of Sparky up front, the running power of Choccy, the tackling of Paul Ince, myself, and later Roy Keane, in midfield, and a solid, settled defence in front of a magnificent ‘keeper. The balance of the team was just right and he finished it off. Eric had great vision to pick and judge the pace of a pass. When we were banging our heads against a brick wall, trying to break down a team, he would do something out of the ordinary to create a goal or score one himself. He scored all sorts of goals, many of them unbelievable, a lot of them match winners. He was a big time player.

Eric was a great professional and not just a natural talent. He worked at his game. He’d go out and start warming up for training long before the other players went out. Afterwards he’d practice free kicks. He always trained seriously and never in a half hearted way. He expected preparation to be spot on and expected his team mates to be just as professional, but then they were all good trainers. That’s probably another reason why he settled so well with us.

He was terrific with the fans and they took to him. On the pitch he gave them what they wanted and off it, he always had time to sign autographs and pose for pictures. He loved the adulation that they gave him. He played up to the fans like the showman he was, but unlike some showmen who don’t contribute to their team, Eric gave us an awful lot. He has been criticized by some for not producing his stuff in Europe, but you can’t blame Eric alone for that. We underperformed as a team in Europe, especially after winning the Cup Winners Cup. We should have gone on from that and done far better than we did.”

There is no doubt that Cantona needed careful handling, and Gordon Strachan who was the then Leeds captain, had already talked to Ferguson about this. He warned the United manager that when things were not going well he tended to hide and sulk. Ferguson decided that the Frenchman needed more than careful handling and decided to treat him with kid-gloves. Ferguson never lost his temper with him, nor did he enforce some of the more stricter rules that applied to his senior players. He was also very careful after Cantona’s first game for the club never to demote him to the substitute’s bench. In his own words Ferguson was to explain;

“I had to perform a bit of a U-turn on my usual policy and accept that we had a different type of player around the house.”

During the 1993-94 season Cantona’s explosive temper began to surface during games, and fans were treated to seeing the other, nasty, side of him. Having their first crack at the European Cup since 1969, United disposed of Hungarian champions Honved in the first round. The second round paired them against Turkish champions Galatasary from Istanbul. To most, it seemed like an easy tie for United and one which they should negotiate easily. It turned out anything but. In the first leg at Old Trafford United sailed into a 2-0 lead, but then conceded three before Cantona equalized to preserve United’s home unbeaten European record.. The Turks had three away goals going into the second leg which was a massive advantage. The game in the Ali Yami Sen stadium in Istanbul was played in a very unhealthy atmosphere. The Turks pulled every trick in the book – diving, time wasting, haranguing the referee. Sadly for united, the game ended scoreless, and Ferguson’s first European Cup campaign ended very abruptly. At the end of the match though all hell broke lose and Cantona got involved.

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