Eric Cantona: Legacy of a King
On the 26th November 1992, Manchester United had not won the league title for almost 26 years; a run dating back to the 1966-67 season when United were managed by Sir Matt Busby.
However, an event took place that day that led to that unwelcome statistic ending six months later. The long wait was over. The reason – the 26th November 1992 was the date in which Sir Alex Ferguson completed the final piece of his United jigsaw. That was the day when United signed Eric Cantona.
It’s difficult to recall today, but the move was a risk. The previous year, Cantona had been shipped around to varying English clubs such as Liverpool and Sheffield Wednesday after alienating most of the clubs in his homeland France, with his poor disciplinary record. Cantona was damaged goods, undeniably talented but deemed not worth the risk. He was effectively the 90s version of ex-Manchester City maverick, Mario Balotelli.
It was Leeds United who eventually took the risk on the Frenchman and he greatly assisted them in their Championship winning season of 1991-92.
It was this form, which convinced United to take a punt on Cantona, when the opportunity arose, ironically when then-Leeds Chairman, Bill Fortherby had contacted then-Manchester United Chairman, Martin Edwards, to enquire about the availability of United left-back, Denis Irwin.
Irwin wasn’t available but Edwards who was in a meeting with Ferguson at the time of the phone call rather cheekily responded by asking about Cantona. The rest, as they say, is history.
Cantona’s competitive debut came on the 6th December 1992 against neighbours, City in a 2-1 win. Cantona slotted into the team seamlessly and formed a formidable partnership up front with Mark Hughes. United lost just two league matches following his arrival and finally brought the League title back to Old Trafford after the aforementioned 26-year wait.
Such was the Midas touch of Cantona, United were even better the following season, as the team secured their first ever league and FA Cup Double. The man dubbed “The King” by fans, Cantona top scored with 26 goals in all competitions including a brace in the FA Cup final victory over Chelsea.
It is notable that the only year in which United did not win the Premier League title during Cantona’s tenure, was 1994-95, the season in which he spent the final three months suspended, following a “Kung-Fu” kick on a Crystal Palace supporter.
Undoubtedly, the lowest point of Cantona’s career which had seen its fair share of controversy, his actions were more far-reaching than football. Cantona was criminally charged with assault and sentenced to two weeks in prison. This was quickly overturned on appeal and Cantona instead served 120 hours of community service.
When Cantona’s new punishment was made known to him, in the ensuing press conference he uttered his now infamous speech:
"When seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea."
It is a speech which baffles over two decades on but demonstrated Cantona’s dissatisfaction with how he had been treated by the FA, English media, and legal system over the affair.
He had to be convinced by Ferguson to remain at United.
It was a decision which would prove to pay off greatly for both men.
The 1995-96 season is one that will forever remain engrained in the memories of all fans, old enough to remember it. The year of the “Double Double” and United becoming the first English club to do the Double twice – even more remarkably, it was the second time they achieved it in three seasons.
Following Cantona’s “Kung-Fu” kick, United had suspended him for the remainder of the 1994-95 season. To theirs and Cantona’s chagrin, the FA extended this ban for another five months.
Cantona was not eligible to play football worldwide until 30th September 1995. On 1st October, he finally made his comeback versus fierce rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford, in a 2-2 draw. Cantona was involved in both United goals. “The King” was back.
Cantona really stepped up his comeback as the season entered 1996, scoring a vital winner from an acute angle versus West Ham United and then bagging a brace on his first return to Selhurst Park following the “Kung-Fu” incident.
Cantona’s goals took all the headlines that day as the ghosts from Selhurst Park were finally laid to rest. Cantona scored in six consecutive league games between March and April as United overhauled long-time league leaders, Newcastle United.
When the Red Devils were crowned Champions on 5th May 1996, United had one player above all others to thank.
Cantona wasn’t finished yet. United met Liverpool once again in the FA Cup Final on the 11th May 1996. As a drab game neared full time, Cantona exploited a David James goalkeeping error to hit an expertly taken half volley to earn the FA Cup for United with a 1-0 win. Cantona captained the team that day due to fitness concerns with the regular captain, Steve Bruce. As Cantona held the famous trophy aloft at Wembley, the comeback was complete.
Cantona began the 1996-97 season with a bang, with goals in the Charity Shield victory over Newcastle and in the Premier League opener versus Wimbledon.
Cantona’s influence throughout the season was not as great as previously. Cantona only managed 15 goals in all competitions despite playing 50 times. United’s top scorer in 1996-97 was summer signing, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, who clocked up 19 goals, as he began his legendary career at the club.
Nevertheless, the announcement in May 1997 shocked the football world. Cantona retired from football, days before his 31st birthday.
Despite only spending five years at Old Trafford, few players hold the cult status that “King Eric” enjoys at the Theatre of Dreams. That is testament to the talent and character of the man.
Deeply ingrained in United pop culture, Cantona related merchandise still adorns the match-day stalls on Sir Matt Busby Way, leading to Old Trafford, and he remains a revered cult figure amongst United’s worldwide fanbase.
12 years following his retirement, Cantona appeared in the 2009 Ken Loach film Looking for Eric, telling the story of a Manchester United fanatic who whilst experiencing a series of crises in his life, hallucinates his hero, Cantona, who gives him the benefit of his philosophical advice, positively affecting his problems.
When fans of a certain age think of Manchester United, they think of Eric Cantona. The collar turned up, chest puffed out and the skills and goals that are impossible to forget. Thanks to the modern world of social media, these memories are there to be seen to a whole new generation of fans.
The Legacy of “The King” will never be forgotten. Long live Eric Cantona!