London- We can’t be putting Tina Turner on for just any old hero, nor merely for the most skilful. And the toughest, longest-lasting or most prolific can go whistle because only one player can be serenaded as simply the best and it must be the one who has done more than any other to shape the Premier League years. Show us another player who has radiated as much influence as Eric Cantona and we will show you a figment of your imagination.
The rebranding of English football’s First Division as the Premier League coincided with the dawn of Manchester United’s imperial age. Before that they had been champions seven times in 89 years; since then they have won 13 of 25 available titles. There is a fair chance that followers of Manchester’s red team would be (much less numerous and) still harking back to the black-and-white era if it were not for Cantona, the enigma who exploded doubt.
When Cantona moved from Leeds United to Old Trafford in November 1992 the sole certainty was that it was shocking. Even Alex Ferguson could not believe his luck when United’s chance inquiry about buying the Frenchman did not result in the Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson slamming down the phone. Cantona had joined Leeds only the previous February but was already an idol to the Elland Road faithful. His panache and strength of will had helped the Yorkshire club to hold off Manchester United to win the last title before the introduction of the Premier League and he then scored the first hat‑trick of the newfangled top flight when Leeds thrashed Tottenham Hotspur 5-0 just a couple of weeks after his three goals in the Charity Shield victory against Liverpool.
But Wilkinson, who had acted decisively to sign Cantona when Sheffield Wednesday dithered, was not convinced that a game could be built around a player whom he saw as a wild card. Wilkinson is the last English manager to win the title but must also be remembered for his unwitting contribution to Ferguson’s survival and the transformation of Leeds’ arch-rivals into the Premier League’s dominant force. Leeds got £1.2m from the Cantona deal, and a queasy feeling that may never fully heal.
But the transfer was mostly about Ferguson’s gut. There were, in fairness to Wilkinson, good grounds for believing Cantona’s arrival at Old Trafford might have worked out another way and destabilised Ferguson’s team. The player had more baggage than a travelling circus and his stays at clubs tended to be short and spectacular before ending with someone getting a face full of custard pie. Even United players had concerns, Lee Sharpe summing them up by blurting: “Yeah, right, the bloke’s a total nutter.”
But Ferguson, under pressure to deliver the title in his seventh year in charge, erred on the side of adventure. “I’m not interested in all the tittle‑tattle … we all have to remember that he is a truly gifted player.”
United were eighth when Cantona strode in and were finding goals hard to come by. Dion Dublin, the striker signed the previous summer, was out with a broken leg and United could not persuade Sheffield Wednesday to sell David Hirst. It was unclear how Cantona would fit into the team; in the end Ferguson sort of sacrificed his son to make way for the Frenchman, Darren’s run of starts for United coming to an end after Cantona’s arrival, as, with Bryan Robson injured, Brian McClair dropped into midfield so the newcomer could be deployed up front with Mark Hughes.
In Cantona’s first start United beat the league leaders Norwich City 1-0. He scored in each of his next four matches, including a 4-1 victory against Tottenham. But it was a pass against Spurs that demonstrated his most precious contribution to United: his flipped chip with the outside of his right foot to Denis Irwin for United’s second goal in that game encapsulated how he freed his team-mates from the anxiety that had hobbled them, inspiring them with his conviction that together they could be great.
“He just had that aura and presence,” said Paul Ince. “He took responsibility away from us. It was like he said: ‘I’m Eric, and I’m here to win the title for you.’”
United went on to win their first title since 1967 by 10 points. Then they signed Roy Keane to give Cantona an even more solid platform on which to perform. They won the league again, with Cantona their top scorer despite missing five matches through suspension. He also scored twice in the FA Cup final win against Chelsea and was named PFA player of the year. And he underperformed in Europe, establishing another recurring trend for Premier League teams.
Cantona’s impact on the next season’s title race was sensational in a different way. United were chasing down the upstarts at the top of the table, Blackburn Rovers, when a red mist descended on Cantona and he jumped into the crowd at Selhurst Park to dispense street justice. Later, in a more formal procedure, the FA hit him with an eight-month ban. Nerves infected a United team shorn of their strutting leader and they allowed Blackburn to creep over the line for the title.
When Cantona returned from his ban, against Liverpool the following October, he brought back the certainty. He created one goal and scored another in a 2-2 draw. And when he returned to Selhurst Park for the first time since his kung-fu lesson, he scored twice in a United victory. His temper may have been brittle but his mentality was to conquer. In the second half of the 1995‑96 season, United won five matches 1-0, Cantona scoring the decisive goal each time. He demanded a big stage to hog. After the title was clinched he completed the Double by scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup final against Liverpool.
It was no surprise when Cantona, after being given the armband to go with his guru role, led United to the 1996‑97 title, the fourth in his five years at the club. But his next step was a shock. A week after lifting his latest crown, Cantona, aged 30, announced that he was retiring from football forthwith. No one had seen it coming. But his work was done. He had proved that he and United could be masters of their own destiny.
The Guardian Sport