Cantona: The catalyst
Eric Cantona’s Old Trafford impact extends beyond his on-field exploits. Over the next 12 days, we assess the myriad ways he built a lasting legacy as a true United great…
That Eric Cantona’s arrival from Leeds only slightly preceded the end of United’s 26-year wait for the League title was no coincidence – the Frenchman was the brooding, swaggering catalyst the Reds had craved.
Prior to his signing, United teetered between nearly men and battle-hardened winners. So much was already in place for success: The unflinching defence, a midfield of industry and incision, and a blend of brutality and subtlety in attack. It was a side which could claim to be the finest in the land, yet missed that telling je ne sais quoi of champions. Cantona’s arrival provided the Gallic flair to send United over the tipping point – just as he had with Leeds nine months earlier as the Whites pilfered the 1991/92 title.
Midway through the following campaign, with the Reds in steady but unspectacular form, a phone call from Leeds chief executive Bill Fotherby provoked a moment of opportunism from Sir Alex. Fotherby had broached the potential signing of Denis Irwin. Instead, less than an hour later, he and Leeds boss Howard Wilkinson had agreed to send Cantona across the Pennines for a cut-price £1million.
With that spontaneous counter-offer, Ferguson bought the player who would bring glory back to United. As the manager later admitted: “One of the most extraordinary periods in our history was about to begin.” Beyond simply signing a top-class talent, the Reds had snared a man with the mentality and charisma of a champion. Even the manager was taken aback by Cantona’s off-field impact.
At the end of his first training session at The Cliff, Eric asked Sir Alex for two players and a goalkeeper. An extra half-hour was spent with the Frenchman volleying crosses from either side. The next day, half the first team squad stayed for the extra-curricular session. “Many people justifiably acclaimed Cantona as a catalyst who had a crucial impact on our successes,” said the manager, “but nothing he did in matches meant more than the way he opened my eyes to the indispensability of practice.”
A squad who, hitherto, had little tangible success to back up their glaring promise was revitalised. Over a quarter-century of anguish and near-misses was soon a distant memory as the Reds elbowed their way to the head of a three-way tussle for the title alongside Aston Villa and Norwich City. There was even the flourish of champions – seven straight wins to end the season in style.
The winning habit had started and Cantona, chest puffed, collar upturned, was the charismatic face of the new champions. Previously something of a journeyman, the Frenchman had a loving home at last. He had achieved near-divinity with United fans, who saw an edgy visionary which had lived deep within Manchester’s favourite sons, from Best to Bez.
As adulation gushed forth from the stands, trophies flowed at a similar rate. In five seasons at Old Trafford, Cantona won four Premier League titles and two FA Cups. Indeed the only season in which the Reds failed to clinch England’s crown, the French talisman was spectacularly sidelined. Had Cantona not taken exception to the baitings of Crystal Palace supporter Matthew Simmons at Selhurt Park, collecting a nine-month ban for his troubles, the history books could tell of five successive titles between 1993 and 1997.
Cantona’s importance during his playing career was obvious: talisman and a phenomenal player. But it’s the seismic shift in mentality he instigated among the players which continues to be felt around Old Trafford. The winning habit he championed remains evident.
Eric Cantona celebrates United’s first Premier League title with Bryan Robson
Cantona and Gary Pallister celebrate beating Arsenal in the 1993 Charity Shield
Eric holds the Premier League trophy aloft, before going on to complete the Double
Having scored twice, Cantona celebrates the 1994 FA Cup final win over Chelsea
Having beaten Blackburn, Cantona and fellow scorer Paul Ince clutch the 1994 Charity Shield
Eric and Sir Alex celebrate clinching the first Double Double in 1995/96
Captain Cantona holds aloft the 1997 Charity Shield after the hammering of Newcastle
After his final Reds appearance, Eric celebrates the 1996/97 title with United’s stars of the future