Manchester United have had some great players over the years with children idolising players throughout the club’s history. From the likes of Sir Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, George Best to the likes of David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo, children and adults alike will have idolised a particular player. For me, it was the prolific Frenchman Eric Cantona that I idolised.
The guy just had something about him from the day he signed for United, to the day he retired from football. Even now just seeing him makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. The guy is a legend in his own right. The iconic Frenchman will have been the idol of many young boys and girls in the mid to late 1990s.
Cast your mind back to the 26 November 1992, the day which Eric Cantona’s move to Manchester United commenced. Leeds United ended up losing a magnificent player, something they will have learned to get over, perhaps. Leeds chairman Bill Fotherby telephoned United chairman Martin Edwards in order to find out the availability of left-back Denis Irwin, who was not for sale – for obvious reasons.
Sir Alex Ferguson was in a meeting with Edwards at the time and cheekily asked about Cantona, with United needing a striker at the time – unsuccessful in their attempts to sign David Hirst, Matt Le Tissier, and Brian Deane. Fotherby had to speak to then Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson, days later the deal was done – not protracted like today’s ‘soap opera’ transfers transpire.
United paid £1.6 million for Cantona – a bargain you say! The Frenchman made his debut for United in a friendly match against Benfica in Portugal, a match marking Eusebio’s 50th birthday with Cantona wearing the number ten shirt. His first competitive match came against Manchester City on the 6 December 1992 – he arrived at the Old Trafford club too late to play against Arsenal on the 28 November 1992 – Cantona wore the number twelve against City.
United’s season had been disappointing up until Cantona’s arrival with the club falling behind big spenders Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers, also the inaugural season of the Premier League. Norwich City and Queens Park Rangers were also challenger’s that season – if you can imagine that.
During his first season, Cantona, playing only 23 matches, scored nine goals, which helped United to lift the first ever Premier League trophy, something they would get used to doing lots of times throughout the 1990s and the 2000s – albeit that being without Cantona. With his appearances for Leeds too, Cantona played 43 matches that season, scoring 20 goals, which just showed what the Frenchman was capable of.
The following season, the first full one playing for United, Cantona would start to show himself, and show just why he became an idol. Cantona played 49 matches in the 1993/94 season, scoring 25 goals in all competitions – which was a great season for the Frenchman. He again lifted the Premier League title, the second time in two seasons.
The following season, Manchester United were looking to lift the Premier League title for the third year in a row, continuing their newfound domination but for Cantona, it would be a mixed season. In total, Cantona played 25 times that season, scoring 14 goals. On the 25 January 1995, the infamous Kung-Fu Kick happened with Crystal Palace supporter Matthew Simmons seemingly abusing the Frenchman, who launched his kick shocking the world, also showing the passion that made Cantona the man he became.
United knew a lengthy ban was unavoidable with calls to kick Cantona out of the country, which was a bit harsh, especially when you figure that Luis Suarez did not suffer that for racially abusing Patrice Evra, or even biting Giorgio Chiellini! After the event, in a press conference, Cantona responding to what he did, said;
“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.”
Eric Cantona was banned for eight months, fined £30,000 in total and did not play again for the rest of the season. Cantona returned to Manchester United the following season, playing in the North West derby against Liverpool on the 1 October 1996 – a match in which he set up a goal for Nicky Butt just two minutes into the match, also scoring a penalty, the final score ending in a 2-2 draw. Cantona was back, but the boo-boys would be there to try and provoke him again.
Cantona played 38 matches that season, scoring 19 goals with United lifting the Premier League title for the third time, after missing out to Blackburn Rovers the previous season. Cantona helped beat Liverpool in the FA Cup final at Wembley also, scoring the only goal in the 1-0 victory. Collar up and digging deep for his team, doing the stuff on the pitch, not in the stands.
The 1996/97 season would be Cantona’s last at United and playing football as a whole. 50 appearances and 15 goals saw the Frenchman’s final tally being set at 185 appearances, 82 goals – which may not have been the best ratio, but for a player like Cantona to grace the stage at Old Trafford, which was much more special.
Cantona was that special number seven the club needed post-Bryan Robson, leading to the free-kick specialist David Beckham, which in turn led to Cristiano Ronaldo, then the not so prolific Michael Owen, Antonio Valencia, who moved from the number 25 and back, before the number was handed to Angel Di Maria, who left after one season, then sat vacant before it was given to Memphis Depay and sitting vacant until January 2018 when Alexis Sanchez took the number, another relative failure in that shirt number. Only now has the number seven hoodoo been broken with Edinson Cavani bringing back the magic to that special shirt number.
The guy who wore the number seven throughout much of my childhood will be the best player to don that shirt, after Robson – in my lifetime at least, before it was handed to another idol of mine, David Beckham. Cantona, his ability, his ego, his swagger and everything else about him will remain an idol of mine for the rest of my life.
Not that I want to be like him, or even be him – I won’t – but the guy deserves so much respect for what he did during his career, especially for Manchester United. Eric Cantona literally attempted to kick racism out of football. Whilst the Frenchman will be lauded for what he did, he did admit in 2011 that the Kung-Fu Kick on the Palace fan was “a great feeling”, also that he was happy for the fans to treasure it but “… it was a mistake.”
Written by John Walker