Cantona: The showman
Eric Cantona’s starring role in Looking For Eric appeared written in the stars, having played to the crowd so brilliantly as a player…
Every top-level footballer who takes the field knows that the world is watching them. Very few have the nerve to stare back. Back straight, chest puffed, Eric Cantona would peacock strut around the field, unashamedly flaunting his plumage.
Watching United in the mid-90s wasn’t a trip to the football; that was merely a sub-plot in the weekly adventures of the mercurial Frenchman. Exaggerated gestures – hands perched on hips, or thrown frantically around – weren’t just made to the immediate target, they were a gift from star to audience; an insight into the mood of the lead character.
Cantona had the ability to do anything he liked with a ball, but there was scarcely any over-indulgence. The ability to play the simple, and invariably right, pass was his greatest gift, but his unerring need to entertain meant even the most routine exchange of possession was carried off with classy panache. He never lost sight of football’s position as an entertainment business. Any who sought to blight the game with negativity or stifling tactics were scorned, hence the dismissal of famed French holding midfielder Didier Deschamps as ‘a water-carrier’.
The poise and assuredness in Cantona was unyielding and impossible to ignore. Throw in his bad-boy reputation from repeated dismissals and skirmishes with authority in French football, and here was a character who could capture the world’s attention. Hence Eric fronting numerous Nike advertising campaigns, even long after his retirement.
Most memorable was 1996’s effort, when a host of the world’s top players were pitched into a battle against demonic spoilers from hell (late challenges, stray elbows, Hannibal Lecter mouthguards – it could easily have been Vinny Jones’ Wimbledon). Inevitably, it was Eric who had the
killer line and the starring role. Who else could stop the ball, upturn his collar and mutter ‘au revoir’ before belting a shot through the devil’s chest?
Previously, a Nike campaign accompanied the completion of Eric’s nine-month ban for assaulting Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons. “He’s paid for his crimes, now it’s their turn,” billboard posters ominously advised ahead of his comeback against Liverpool. Followed from start to finish by camera lenses, Cantona took just two minutes to lay on Nicky Butt’s opener before having the final say with a late penalty of his own. Not content with the goal, Eric embarked on a jubilant pole dance at the Scoreboard End, giving the world’s press their Monday morning lead. Never before has an individual been so scrutinised during a match, but to Cantona it was just another chance to shine in the spotlight. Another big occasion which cried out for a star man. Two FA Cup Final appearances featured three goals, with two more scored across three Charity Shields.
He top-scored in the 1993/94 and 1995/96 Premier League title charges, bagging a string of vital winners along the way. The more pressure, the better Cantona performed. Some may justifiably point to the Frenchman’s inconsistent form in the Champions League (five goals in 16 appearances), but the fact that United never truly came to terms with the unforgiving nature of Europe’s elite competition during his time at Old Trafford provides some mitigation.
It was one such defeat, to Borussia Dortmund in April 1997, that contributed to Cantona’s decision to call it a day. The departure, when it came the following month, was inevitably dramatic – a press conference held without any warning. There was no fading away, no slinking to the back of the stage, merely a step forward, one last emphatic bow and an exit, stage right. Like any great showman.
Cantona steers home a penalty against Chelsea, becoming the first foreigner to score in an FA Cup Final
Eric celebrates his comeback goal against Liverpool with an impromptu pole dance
Cantona celebrates one of his most famous and most important goals, 1996’s winner at St James’ Park
Cantona watches on as his shot arrows past the Liverpool defence to win the 1996 FA Cup Final
A dapper-looking Eric clutches the 1995/96 PFA Player of the Year award
Eric makes a point on the field, no doubt eloquently