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How Cantona transformed Manchester United, the Premier League and a Christmas carol

December 6 marks the 25th anniversary of Eric Cantona's Manchester United debut. English football has never been the same since.

eric cantona - cropped
Former Manchester United captain Eric Cantona

Manchester United fans love Christmas. No, it has nothing to do with the crazy fixture scheduling, the coming transfer window or the promise of the latest Red Devil stocking fillers.

It's because, from November until the new year, Old Trafford regales you with 'The 12 Days of Eric Cantona': a rendition of the popular Christmas carol, in which the inimitable ex-captain is the only gift.

"I'm so proud the fans still sing my name, but I fear tomorrow they will stop. I fear it because I love it," Cantona once said, but it's a needless concern. George Best, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Nemanja Vidic and other United greats enjoy special treatment from the Stretford End but none of them inspire the same annual crooning. That is because none of them were Cantona. 

When United payed £1.2million to sign him in 1992, Cantona's career was approaching breaking point. In France, controversy had followed him from the youth academy to the national team, culminating in him retiring angrily (and prematurely) after he was banned for throwing the ball at a referee while playing for Nimes. He was given a chance in England with Leeds United and won the final old First Division title in 1991-92, but he was not the driving force behind that triumph. A local Yorkshire newspaper described his contribution as that of "a handy impactful substitute".

Alex Ferguson saw differently. He proposed, as the story goes, a deal for Cantona when Leeds managing director Bill Fotherby called United chairman Martin Edwards to enquire about Dennis Iwrin. United had no interest in parting with Irwin and were merely testing the turbulent waters around Cantona. They fully expected to be met with the same sort of rebuttal they gave to Leeds. It came as a shock when manager Howard Wilkinson agreed to let them talk. 

Cantona completed his move on November 26, 1992 and made his debut as a half-time substitute against Manchester City at Old Trafford 10 days later. History tells us it was a Fergie masterstroke but, at the time, it reeked of desperation.

United were eighth in the table when Cantona arrived and desperate for goals. Main striker Dion Dublin was sidelined and pursuits of the likes of David Hirst had failed. Ferguson had yet to deliver a league title since arriving from Aberdeen in 1986 and United fans were losing patience. With the pressure mounting and best-laid plans going awry, Ferguson gambled on an ill-disciplined, unathletic tearaway. It changed English football forever. 

The Frenchman waltzed into The Cliff, United's old training ground, and had team-mates in his thrall with barely a word. In his first season, which happened to be the first of the Premier League era, he cultivated what would become the hallmarks of United for two decades: attacking football, ingenuity, aggression and an utter insistence on winning. As Paul Ince later recalled: "He just had that aura and presence. He took responsibility away from us. It was like he said: 'I'm Eric, and I'm here to win the title for you'." No wonder they called him The King. 

Ferguson's brilliance was in unleashing Cantona's inner tempest, which others had sought to harness. It gave him the freedom to dictate a football match, to have it played as he saw fit. He dragged United from the doldrums to a title triumph in his first season and another three league wins and two FA Cups followed in four years, before he stunned the game again when he retired in 1997. The only Premier League that deserted them was in 1994-95, while Cantona was banned for that inexcusable night at Crystal Palace. 

A dynasty was established, done so in a style that is still demanded from fans on a weekly basis. A respected UK journalist once said of Jaap Stam, one of United's best modern defenders and pivotal to the treble of 1998-99: "Without Jaap, Sir Alex would still be Alex." Well, without Cantona, he might not even have kept his job.

Cantona scored winning goals in two FA Cup final, famously netting the winner against Liverpool in 1996. He got United four 1-0 wins in the double run-in in 1996. He scored eight goals in seven Manchester derbies, never finishing on the losing side. Then there are the less decisive but still unforgettable moments of genius, chief among them 'that' chip against Sunderland followed by 'that' celebration – collar up, chest out, daring the crowd not to stand and applaud. He wasn't just the man for the big occasion; he was the occasion. 

Yet Cantona is often overlooked when it comes to Premier League 'best-evers'. In a BBC user poll to mark the competition's 25th anniversary in August, Thierry Henry and Alan Shearer were named in the attack and there was a place for Cristiano Ronaldo, future tenant of Cantona's number seven shirt. But no Eric.

Perhaps many look at the obvious stats and nothing more. Cantona scored 70 goals in the Premier League, one fewer than Brian Deane, his replacement at Leeds. His 56 assists is a tally matched by Peter Crouch and lower than those of Stewart Downing and Gareth Barry.

He only played in the competition for four years and has the best assist rate (one per 2.78 matches) in its history but, regardless, focusing on the data is to look at only part of the Cantona picture. His impact was as much in how he did things as the accomplishments themselves. Ferguson described his bearing on day one as a surveying of his kingdom, a man who demanded, in the Scot's words: "'How big are you? Are you big enough for me?'"

He was never fully satisfied with the answer. He was a beguiling force of nature, who blew through England's football landscape and left it forever changed. Ken Loach's film 'Looking for Eric' contains the line that best sums him up. Naturally, it's one he says himself: "I am not a man. I am Cantona."  

That's why The King will live long at Old Trafford. And it's why United fans will always look forward to Christmas.

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