The final piece to United’s jigsaw

Eric Cantona: an iconThat was the pattern that served us so well in England. Europe was another game, far more demanding. Even the more modest of the teams we met in Europe were champions in their own territory. That’s a head thing. They were used to winning, getting results away from home. Against the Rapid Viennas and the Brondbys you could get away with Eric. But not facing Juventus, Bayern, Dortmund, or an unexceptional professional side like Gothenburg, who’d beaten us 3-1 to put us out of the competition a few seasons before

A magical asset at home, a match-winner countless times in the Premier League, and the FA Cup. Eric didn’t shine so brightly in Europe. I can’t recall one important European tie that he turned for us. In Europe you moved up a level or two. It was not just the real quality attacking players like Zidane or Del Piero that captured everyone’s imagination, but tough, wily defenders, guys nobody had heard of, who closed space down, timed their tackles to perfection, were instinctively in the right cover positions, had pace and read the game superbly. Eric never conquered this. And conquering Europe was now what Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United was all about.”

Two weeks before the end of the season, Cantona let Ferguson know that he was going to retire at the end of the season. United kept it under wraps. Cantona said;

“I have played professional football for thirteen years, which is a long time. I now wish to do other things. I always planned to retire when I was at the top and at Manchester United I have reached the pinnacle of my career. In the last four and a half years I have enjoyed my best football and had a wonderful time. I have had a marvellous relationship with the manager, coach, staff, and players, and not least, the fans. I wish Manchester United more success in the future.”

It had not come as a surprise to any of the players. When the news finally broke, the season had ended and Cantona was already in France. Roy Keane recalled;

“We knew that he had been talking to the manager, and wondered if it was about money and an extension to his contract which had a year left to run. If those talks had been unsatisfactory from both side’s point of view, an amicable parting of the waves made sense for Eric and the club.

The fans were shocked. They loved Eric for, as Martin Edwards said, he had been captain for a magical spell, having arrived when a Championship was desperately needed. The scenes around Old Trafford and The Cliff after the story broke were unbelievable. Hundreds of United fans clutching Eric’s number 7 shirt stood in mourning on the forecourt of Old Trafford. Many were tearful. Like the Busby funeral, or the more emotional European nights at Old Trafford, the occasion reminded me that Manchester United was more than a football club. It was impossible to imagine scenes like these at any other football club in Britain.

The depth of feeling at Eric’s leaving had to be managed. If the fans had any inkling of a possible dispute over money, it would have caused trouble. For a bad start to the following season could have led to accusations of penny pinching. As had happened after ‘Sparky’, Andrei, and Incey left, the manager would have felt the heat.

Yet something Eric said earlier in the year about United wishing to use him as a commodity, and the increasingly commercial nature of the club, provided a clue, perhaps, to the reason he chose to retire when he did. Eric was a very proud man. I think he decided that if he couldn’t play for United, he wouldn’t play at all. I admired that.”

Ferguson actually backed this up and said that he considerable sympathy for two of the reasons Eric gave for leaving – that he didn’t like being a pawn of the United merchandising operation, and that he also felt that the Board had been unadventurous in acquiring star players. The reality was, that United had done well to get over four years out of him. During his time at United, Cantona picked up 4 Premiership winners medals, and two FA Cup winners medals, and three FA Charity Shield winners plaques plus he was recognized by his peers as PFA Player of the Year 1996.. In his last seven seasons as a professional footballer, he’d finished a champion on no less than six occasions – some feat.

The loss as far as the United fans were concerned was absolutely devastating. But no matter how much he was adored and deified, closer scrutiny and questions have to be asked about his time at Manchester United. There is no doubt that Eric Cantona was a magnificent player and was the final link to Ferguson’s successful United team. There is also no doubt that Ferguson handled Cantona expertly and got far more out of him than any other manager in the Frenchman’s career. There is also no doubt that arriving at Manchester United provided him with the stage which he had always yearned for in his football career.

But for me, he arrived at Old Trafford at exactly the right time. He joined a team that was already championship winning material with exceptionally good players around him. He joined a team with an exceptional manager who had the knack of getting the most out of his players and was an expert in man-management. Eventually, he also had a lot of young players around him who looked up to him and were prepared to do his running for him. The other thing was that United were successful and without that success, it is my guess that he would not have stayed around for as long as he did. 26 years without a championship eat away at the United fans hearts. It was like a festering sore, and when that first Premiership title was won in 1993, it was just like a hand grenade exploding.

You look at the squad and see just how strong it was; Schmeichel was a world class ‘keeper – probably the best that the game of football has seen. The defensive unit was solid Parker, Pallister, Bruce, Irwin; all at the top of their game. The midfield was strong with Ince, Robson, Sharpe, Giggs, Kanchelskis, Sharpe, and had so much pace, and of course they had the battering ram that was Hughes up front with McClair in the squad as well – was there another team like that in England at that time? I think not. Ferguson had finally got a team gelling and had invested in some really good players in the transfer market. What more could Cantona want?

As far as I am concerned, Roy Keane was right in that Eric Cantoina never really stepped up to the plate in Europe. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t for the want of trying and it was something that festered within him and caused him so much frustration. It’s for this reason why I can’t put him alongside the Charlton’s, Law’s, Best’s, Robson’s, Ronaldo’s. His term as captain was relatively short, and he was very much the father figure in the team at that time. The younger players revered him and it was a master stroke of Ferguson’s to give him that responsibility – but in that last season, did that burden also weigh heavily upon him and affect his performances? I happen to think that it did.

Eric Cantona is written into Manchester United’s folklore – and rightly so – he did contribute so much. He was so different from the normal run of the mill footballer. He loved the arts and had interests outside of football. He got on well with his contemporaries, and he was generous to the extreme. He “milked” the fans adoration for him and he played the Old Trafford stage like an experienced master virtuoso.

I’ll let Roy Keane have the last word with a lovely story about Cantona’s generosity:

“One morning, Brucey arrived in the dressing room with a cheque for fifteen grand. The first team squad had contributed to some video and this payment was due to be split eighteen ways. Struggling to work out who was owed what, we decided on a majority vote to hold a draw, winner takes all. The option of taking your cut, about eight hundred quid, was available. For the younger lads, this was a couple of weeks wages. They wanted the money. Only Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt opted to play for the pot – about twelve grand after the needy had been paid out. Eric Cantona’s name came out of the hat. He got his cheque. And plenty of stick. Next morning, Eric arrived with two cheques made out to Paul and Nicky. This was their reward for taking the gamble, Eric explained. This was Eric to a tee. The unexpected touch of class, also an appreciation of the plight of two young lads more in need of the money than himself. Twelve grand was a lot of money to spend on a gesture, even in those relatively prosperous times.”

The King is dead, long live the King!

Tom Clare has been following United for over half a century and has had the pleasure of seeing some of our finest players in all their pomp.

Next week he will chronicle Cantona’s successor – The one and only Roy Keane

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.