The final piece to United’s jigsaw

About the press conference where he uttered his famous line;

“When the seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think that sardines will be thrown into the sea”

Cantona explained that after the miles of newsprint that had been expanded trying to explain what he meant;

“My lawyer wanted me to talk. I could just have said; ‘The curtains are pink, but I love them!”

For his conduct in the incident the club did suspend Cantona for the rest of the season, and they also fined him 10,800 pounds. The FA sought a worldwide ban from FIFA, while the French FA stripped Cantona of the national captaincy. Just a month later the FA also fined him 10,000 pounds and added further punishment by banning him from football until October 1995 which meant that he would miss six months of football instead of the four months imposed by United. Naturally, United were livid by the extra punishment meted out by the powers at Lancaster Gate.

To lose Cantona for the last four months of the season was a big blow to United who were pursuing their third successive Premiership title. But irrespective of his loss, they pushed on and lost only three more games all season. One of the notable victories was a 9-0 drubbing of Ipswich Town at Old Trafford, a game in which Andrew Cole scored 5 goals. A terrific run in the FA Cup saw them reach the final again after overcoming Crystal Palace in two hard fought semi-final games. In the Final, United would meat Everton.
In the league, it all came down to the final game of the season. Going into that final Sunday of the league season, United were trailing Blackburn by just 2 points. Blackburn had to travel to Anfield and going into that game, they had lost two of their previous three fixtures. Their form was by no means good and to get anything from the Anfield game was going to take a huge effort. United meanwhile had to go to Upton Park to face West Ham United, a ground which was not a happy hunting geound for them and hadn’t been since their emphatic win of 6-1 back in 1967 which clinched the old First Division title for them. Surprisingly, Ferguson left striker Mark Hughes on the bench for this game. It proved to be a poor decision. At half time United were trailing by 1-0. The news from Anfield wasn’t good – Blackburn were leading 1-0. McClair equalized for United in the second half and United threw the kitchen sink at the West Ham goal. Liverpool equalized at Anfield, and then scored a second goal to go infront. If United could do the same, the championship was theirs. Miklosko in the West Ham goal had a charmed life and stopped goal bound efforts with parts of his anatomy that he hadn’t realized he had. Cole could just not force the ball in and time ran out on United’s herculean effort. Despite losing in Liverpool, Blackburn were champions pipping United by just one point. It was a bitter pill to swallow. Surely had Eric Cantona not been missing for the final third of the season, he would have made something happen at West Ham to secure the win needed? Or even before that, would have prevented United drawing home games late in the season with ‘Spurs, Leeds and Chelsea?

Going into the FA Cup Final the following week, United looked drained; tired and lethargic. For Everton, there could not have been a better time to meet Manchester United. The final was a dull mediocre affair, which Everton won by 1-0. A season which had promised so much had disintegrated on a dark, wet, floodlight night in January, at Selhurst Park.

Cantona was still missing for the first two months of the 1995/96 season, and by the time that he returned for the home game against Liverpool on October 1st, United were already out of the EUFA Cup having drawn both away in Russia and at Old Trafford, to Rotor Volograd. The game at Old Trafford was drawn 2-2 with goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel surprisingly heading in a late equalizer to again, preserve United’s unbeaten home European record. Going into the game against Liverpool, United were heading the table by one point from Newcastle United who had a game in hand.

The return of Cantona to the United team was an occasion that had to be seen to be believed. The build up to the game against Liverpool was hyped and heightened by the press and television. Early on the Sunday morning crowds were already congregating around the areas of the Old Trafford stadium. Black market tickets were changing hands for ridiculous prices. Tricolours by the thousands were being waved and to the tune of “La Marseillaise” – “Ooh Ah Cantona” reverberated around the adjoining streets. As kick off time inside the stadium approached, the tension heightened. Being the showman that he was, Cantona had not appeared on the field during the warm up. The stadium was buzzing, and hordes of photographers and television cameras crowded around the tunnel area awaiting the arrival of the teams. The noise grew, and grew. Old Trafford was awash with the colours of the red, white, and blue, and suddenly there was movement down in front of the tunnel. The media people suddenly opened up, and the two teams began to appear. Suddenly, there he was, last United man out of the tunnel …. Collar turned up, chest puffed out, striding, then running out onto the pitch. Focused, embracing the atmosphere, and finally standing there surveying all around him. His stare seemed to say it all; “I am Cantona … And this is my stage!” For the United fans who were present inside the stadium that day, it was a moment that they will never forget.

If Cantona’s entrance was pure theatre, then six minutes into the game he eclipsed even that performance. Finding acres of space down the United left, and out wide, he collected a ball and immediately had it under control. Before the big Liverpool defenders could even blink, the Frenchman had spotted Nicky Butt’s strong run from deep midfield. His perfectly weighted cross was delivered into the path of Butt who had all the time in the world to bundle the ball ito the back of the net. Old Trafford erupted and Cantona was engulfed by his proud team mates. United fell 2-1 behind, but deep into the second half United were awarded a penalty at the Scoreboard End when Ryan Giggs was brought down. Only one man looked for the ball – Cantona. There wasn’t a United fan in the stadium who didn’t believe he would score – and he duly obliged, then ran and climbed a stanchion behind the goal. He was back – strutting the stage he adored.

On January 1st 1996, United were thrashed 4-1 at White Hart Lane by ‘Spurs. It left them in fourth place in the league four points behind a resurgent Newcastle managed by Kevin Keegan, and the Geordies also had a game in hand. Going into a crucial game with Newcastle United at St. James’s Park on March 4th, United were still those 4 points behind and Newcastle still had that game in hand. Keegan’s team battered United throughout and it was only a sterling performance by United’s ‘keeper Peter Schmeichel which kept a rampant Newcastle at bay. It was as fine a goalkeeping performance as you would ever see. Six minutes into the second half, the deadlock was broken, and by whom? ……. Eric Cantona. Drifting behind the Newcastle defence from wide on the right, he met Phil Neville’s cross and rifled it right footed into the net. It knocked the stuffing out of Newcastle and United clawed back another precious three points.

Although Newcastle gallantly tried to protect their lead at the top of the table United were in rampant form and won seven of their last eight matches, and it was a happy Steve Bruce who collected the Premiership trophy at the Riverside Stadium in Middlesborough on the last day of the season after United had beaten the home side by 3-0. Alongside him stood Eric Cantona who was team captain. Bruce had succumbed to injuries regularly throughout the season and cantona deputized for him. Remarkably, the team was going for another “double” as they had reached another FA Cup Final at Wembley, where they faced arch rivals Liverpool.

The 1996 FA Cup Final was probably one of the most boring FA Cup Finals in the old trophy’s history. Liverpool and United had cancelled each other out and extra time was looming. It wasn’t something the fans were looking forward to! United won a corner and David Beckham strode over to take it. Ferguson had become exasperated with Beckham as most of the corners he had taken in the game had ended up in the hands of Liverpool’s tall goalkeeper David James. If it happened with this next one, Ferguson was going to take Beckham off and substitute him. The corner was taken and once again it was too close to the ‘keeper, but this time, David May managed to get in an aerial challenge which made James flap at the ball on the six yards line. It dropped to an unmarked Eric Cantona standing just around the penalty spot, but he seemed to be in an awkward position to play the ball. Somehow he adjusted his body and leaning back, volleyed the ball past the astonished Liverpool defenders and it ripped into the back of the net. Oh! How the United players celebrated. The final whistle went and United had won their second “double’ in three seasons – a remarkable achievement.

It was an ecstatic Cantona who led his young team up the famous old 39 steps to the Royal Box to receive the trophy from HRH the Duchess of Kent. This despite being spat upon by Liverpool supporters as he walked up those steps. The achievement of the second “double” was all the more remarkable because during the previous close season, Ferguson had moved three big stars out of Old Trafford; Hughes, Ince, and Kanchelskis. He had placed his faith in youth, and despite a defeat in the first game of the season at Aston Villa, the youngsters he had put his faith in had responded not only to his faith, but also to the promptings of Eric Cantona. Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, plus new signing David May had all met the challenge magnificently and had left Alan Hansen the former Liverpool star who was now a pundit for the BBC with a large amount of egg on his face. After the defeat at Aston Villa he had smugly remarked;

“The trick is always buy when you are strong, so he needs to buy players. You can’t win anything with kids … He’s got to buy two players, as simple as that.”

Never was a person ever proved to be so wrong, and many times again over the following seasons.

The European Cup has always been Ferguson’s challenge and once again, they would be in the competition in season 1996/97. The season started brightly with a 4-0 drubbing of Newcastle at Wembley in the FA Charity Shield, and on the opening day of the league season at Selhurst Park against Wimbledon, David Beckham audaciously chipped Neil Sullivan the ‘Don’s ‘keeper from fully 50 yards. In the Champions League opening phase, United’s form was mixed and they suffered defeats both home and against Juventus, but surprisingly, before the Juventus home defeat, lost their unbeaten home European record to Turkish team Fenerbahce. Two wins against Austrian side rapid Vienna, and an away win in Turkey got United through to the quarter-finals by the skin of their teeth. By the time the first quarter final first leg was played in early March at Old Trafford against Portugese team Porto, United were leading the Premiership by four points and were on track to lift another title.

The first leg against Porto was negotiated easily with a 4-0 victory with Cantona on the scoresheet, and United moved into the semi-finals drawing the away leg in Porto 0-0. Their semi-final opponents were to be made of sterner stuff – Germany’s Borrussia Dortmund. The Westfalen Stadion in Dortmund’s Rhur Valley was never an easy place to go to at the best of times. United had met the German’s before but way back in their very first European campaign in 1956 when they had scraped through by an aggregate of 3-2. The cause wasn’t helped in 1997 when Peter Schmeichel pulled out injured during the warm up and had to be replaced by Dutchman Raimond van der Gouw. It was a very tight game in which the German’s pipped United by scoring the game’s only goal.

Going into the second leg at Old Trafford United were very confident that they could overcome the deficit and win through to the final. The Germans are always very organized and obdurate at the best of times and the return match proved to be no exception. They scored a vital early away goal, and despite making plenty of goal chances, United could not put the ball in the net. Cantona was especially profligate. It was a bitter blow. The Premiership was won by a clear seven points and on the last day of the season, after a 2-0 home win against West Ham, Eric Cantona once more lifted the trophy above his head. However, it was noticeable that he wasn’t as buoyant as he had been in seasons before, and in fact he looked a little subdued.

For weeks before, both the United manager and players had noticed this change in Eric. The manager had actually written into his diary;

“I think that he has reached a crossroads in his career. It looks as though the chances he missed (against Dortmund) – not to mention his quiet performance have prompted him to question his future.”

The main point levelled against Cantona during his career at United, was that he never “did it” in Europe. The Frenchman, not surprisingly sees it somewhat differently;

“I scored goals in the European Cup. Like I scored goals for France. I played 45 times for France and scored 20 goals. I scored one goal in every two games in Europe, That’s not bad.”

That statement is simply not true. Cantona played in 14 European ties for Manchester United scoring only 5 goals.

Roy Keane’s opinion of Eric playing in Europe was as follows;

“Eric struggled in Europe. To be honest, at that time we all did. As I have acknowledged, he was superb in the domestic game, perfect for English football, where his poise and technical brilliance meant that he was always one step ahead of of the chaos around him. With bodies and tackles flying everywhere, Eric’s sang froid was a major asset. And because we were so strong around the park, we could indulge him, spare him the chasing back, the graft, the tackling we did on his behalf. Sometimes I’d think ‘fuck it, Eric, you lazy bastard,’ and the before, or even after, the words were out of my mouth, he’d weave a magic spell to score or set up a goal.

For the final part of Cantona’s United story click here

5 responses to “The final piece to United’s jigsaw”

  1. Sir Ryan Giggs says:


  2. Humble Servant says:

    Hail Cantona!! He has more disciples then Ceasar himself

  3. Red Mick says:

    It was an ecstatic Cantona who led his young team up the famous old 39 steps to the Royal Box to receive the trophy from HRH the Duchess of Kent. This despite being spat upon by Liverpool supporters as he walked up those steps……

    They’re a class act aren’t they!!!!

  4. Red man 23 years supporting says:

    You cannot find such a character for a footballer nowadays. In my 20+years of supporting man utd.. He’s number one!!!!

  5. Freddy says:

    Nice a article. General downside is usually G. modify ones own mind far too often.