The return of the King
The pressure was on Eric Cantona like never before ahead of his eagerly-anticipated return against Liverpool on 1 October 1995.
Old Trafford prepared to shower affection on the much-missed maverick with his extended suspension, 248 days and all, finally drawing to a close but many wondered if the temperamental talisman would ever change his ways.
Chairman Martin Edwards warned: “Cantona is a wonderful player but, if there is any recurrence of unacceptable behaviour, that is the end. We have stood by him and we can only hope he appreciates that fact. He knows what we think of him. He has a new three-year contract and a new start with us. It is up to him now – we are all holding our breath.”
United legend Sir Bobby Charlton had his say on the great comeback and also seemed wary of what might follow from the unpredictable No7.
“I don’t think anybody can believe he is going to be perfect or anything like a Saint,” he stated. “But we have to hope he has learned a lot from his experience. He loves to play and I don’t believe he will want to be put out of the game again.
“But who knows? He perpetrated a terrible crime as a footballer and we can’t avoid that fact. But we’re all excited that he’s coming back. He’s an absolute pleasure to watch when he’s performing to the peak of his ability. I am not on tenterhooks about his return but I am prepared for anything.”
Even Alex Ferguson seemed to have his doubts after needing to travel to Paris to convince his striker to remain at the club when the FA were unhappy with his appearance in a practice game during the ban. “I hope my reputation doesn’t have to be judged on Eric Cantona’s life with Manchester United,” he conceded. “If that is to be the only blip in my career, I’ll accept it and go to the big penalty box in the sky quite happy. In fact, very happy.”
Patrick Barclay complained in The Observer: “He hasn’t apologised and he hasn’t explained. But he has done his time and so today the Red Devil returns. Yet hope remains that, at 29, after months of contemplation, he has acquired a tolerable balance, in which case few of us will continue to wish Cantona had found it in his heart to say sorry for his most bizarre rush of blood.”
There was a strong belief at the time that Inter Milan would sign United’s wayward genius. Esteemed journalist Brian Glanville commented in The Sunday People: “If United can keep Internazionale’s hands off Cantona until the Italian transfer window closes in November, then he’d probably remain for the rest of the season. Though who knows how many games he’d be eligible to play?
“My own feeling remains that United would do best to let their rolling stone roll on, not simply because he’s bound to face provocation by opposing fans and could always explode, but because his whole brilliant, tempestuous career has been one of brief encounters with his various clubs.”
The manager reportedly scuppered Sky Sports’ plans to show the Frenchman pulling on his shirt in the dressing room for the first time since that fateful night in South London. Nonetheless, the cameras tracked his every move from the tunnel to out on the pitch as the fans worshipped their idol in a manner rarely seen before and since.
Liverpool were only a point behind and had designs on the title themselves, even if Newcastle were still everybody’s favourites for the crown. Paul Wilson summed the situation up in The Observer thus: “Liverpool are looking ominously threatening again, with a young team which appears capable of greatness if Roy Evans can keep it together. United are clearly in transition, experimenting with young players who may take another couple of seasons to fully mature.”
What followed from the first whistle was simply unbelievable. In only the 67th second, United drew first blood against the biggest of rivals with Cantona inevitably involved in teeing up Nicky Butt’s opener. Robbie Fowler’s two-goal salvo looked to be earning him the mantle of party-pooper extraordinaire before the main man took centre stage once again with 20 minutes left.
Ryan Giggs was flattened by Jamie Redknapp and David Elleray’s decision to point to the spot allowed Cantona to nervelessly beat David James and celebrate in front of his adoring public. The mixture of relief and elation was obvious from the returning hero. “This was a moment of gladness not madness,” commented the Daily Mail‘s Alan Fraser. “A moment for celebrations not recriminations. Here was the smiling face of the man from the moon. The dark side will be seen soon enough.”
The Reds would have to settle for a 2-2 draw, leaving opposing boss Evans to complain bitterly afterwards: “It is a sad story when the referee thinks he has equal billing with Eric Cantona. I thought Cantona passed the test but the referee did not. We deserved more than we got. We lost two points on a dodgy decision.”
The United manager preferred to focus on Cantona, even though he was weary of the attention being lavished on his influential centre-forward. “Eric did well,” he stressed. “He’s tired, of course, but he can be pleased with his performance. And the hype’s over – thank goodness.”
David Lacey wrote in his report in The Guardian: “Second comings could be worse.” Except this was only ever going to be the beginning. Cantona would go on to inspire a second Double, his next strike against the Merseysiders, in the dying seconds of the FA Cup final at Wembley, proving to be one of his sweetest and arguably knocking Liverpool’s side irrevocably off the path of future greatness.