It is now well over two decades since Eric Cantona signed for Manchester United and changed the course of history.
Moving from the champions of England, Leeds United, to their bitter cross-Pennine rivals and the team they beat en route to the 1991/92 league title, Manchester United, it is little exaggeration to suggest that Cantona was the initial catalyst for the 13 Premier League titles won by Sir Alex Ferguson.
His arrival was a watershed moment for United under the Scot- or at least coincided with one. Cantona made the move to Old Trafford in the very first Premier League season: the first season of Manchester United dominance over English football under Ferguson.
It’s easy, from this vantage point, to mythologise Cantona. He carries around him such a radiating aura. If he were a 19th century dramatist, a multitude of searing quotes and piercing witticisms would be misattributed to his greatness. He is the Sherlock Holmes of the footballing world: a troubled and obnoxious genius. His greatness is undeniable, but his self-centredness, his childish selfishness, his penchant for the controversial all make him unbearable.
The 1991/92 season was the end of football and the beginning of Football. The irony – and such irony is never far away from troubled greatness – is that Cantona is an irresistible part of the very modernisation he despised; the critical link between the noble old and the soulless new.
His part in the title-winning Leeds United side of the final pre-Premier League season is easy to overstate. He scored only three league goals that season, fewer than teammate Gary Speed and the same number as Leeds defender Tony Dorigo. United were hardly purchasing Leeds’ talisman.
But for Cantona, it was a Faustian deal with the Red Devils. A deal that saw him go from champion in 1992 – the final days of the old First Division – to retirement in 1997 at the age of 30 after four new Premier League titles and two FA Cups with Manchester United; a retirement decision taken in protest at the growing commercialisation of football.
He was a valued part of a grand old football team in Leeds, but he was the moral, spiritual and footballing leader of a grand new Football team in Manchester. He went from good to great, from talent to icon.
His rise at United was rapid. One of Ferguson’s greatest talents was the ability not just to see a player’s strengths, but to nurture them. With Cantona, he saw a useful dark side and gave it fertile ground to grow. The Frenchman tripled his goal tally in his first season at Old Trafford, scoring nine Premier League goals. He then finished the next season, in 1993/94, as United’s top goalscorer.
Indeed, the next year, 1994/95, that famous ‘Kung-Fu kick’ forcing him into his very own Napoleonic exile, saw Cantona end his season in January yet still manage to finish as United’s second-top goalscorer, only one goal behind Andrei Kanchelskis. That’s how important he was, and United slumped to losing the title to Blackburn Rovers on the final day.
His exile looked as though it would signal the end of his greatness. A loss of form and a loss of match fitness is almost inevitable after eight months in the wilderness. But his comeback season saw United win back the Premier League title and lift the FA Cup, too.
Cantona started his final campaign, the 1996/97 season, in a reasonable vein of form. Four goals in United’s first six matches was a respectable return for a team who were unbeaten in those six games, but had only won two of them.
But late October saw things take a turn for the worse – United lost three games on the spin, a 5-0 defeat to Newcastle United spelled the beginning of a horror Halloween, and left Sir Alex Ferguson’s side with ground to make up.
Going into a game against Sunderland in December, the Red Devils were sitting in sixth place, and nine points behind the league leaders, Liverpool. Cantona hadn’t scored a league goal in 11 games – over three months of football.
But then Cantona, the catalyst as always, starred in a 5-0 victory. He had already scored, but with his side 4-0 up with 11 minutes to play, the Frenchman picked the ball up just past the halfway line, but with his back to goal. To say there was no danger would be an understatement: but when Cantona had the ball, there was always danger.
Two Sunderland players were turned with ease before a driving run into the the heart of the Black Cats’ half meant there certainly was danger now.
A quick one-two with Brian McClair took another three defenders out of the game and Cantona only needed one more touch. Not a touch to set himself for a shot, not a touch to smash it into the top corner, just one touch to deftly lob the ball over the goalkeeper and into the goal.
But this was Cantona. It wasn’t just about the goal. It was about the theatre.
The goal was entertaining. It was beyond entertaining. But it couldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the lethargic form, the trials and travails of the tortured genius. It couldn’t have happened without the doubters and without the precarious league position. And it couldn’t have happened without a celebration.
With the look of a boxer who had just landed an unexpected knockout blow, unsure of the true greatness of his own power, Cantona slowly surveyed the landscape with a scowl before proudly raising his arms into the air. It finally dawned on him what he’d done. It dawned on everyone. And United went on to win the league.
With the arrival of the Premier League, the theatre became as important as the sport. The great sporting moment was no longer enough. Combined with a great theatrical moment, the sporting became the iconic. And no one could create the iconic better than Cantona.
But the irony is palpable.
It may be exaggeration to pronounce Cantona the man who made the Premier League into the global behemoth it is today, but he certainly was the first great global component part.
And yet that was to be Cantona’s final season as a professional footballer. Caused by the pain of his suspension, the media pressures, a Champions League semi-final defeat to Borussia Dortmund, the growing globalisation and commercialisation of the game, his inability to cope with his troubled genius or just the very fact he was Cantona. Who knows. Maybe it was one or all of those things. But, like the end of the career of a rock star or a poet, he retired at the age of 30, brought down by the very monster he created.
From the iconic to the ironic. The beautiful and the damned. That’s Cantona.