Cantona: The leader
Some spend their whole lives aspiring to be leaders; others, like Eric Cantona, possess an overpowering magnetism that others cannot help but follow…
When Eric Cantona arrived at Old Trafford, complete with his enfant terrible tag, the notion of handing him the captain’s armband seemed unfathomable. Four and a half years later, he retired as club captain, having led United to a fourth league title in five seasons and played a central role in the development of some of the finest young talents the club had produced.
It would be easy to assume that the simmering Frenchman underwent some kind of change during his ban for assaulting a Crystal Palace supporter. Having one’s career on ice for nine months, of course, is long enough to cool anyone down. He excelled as a coach to local youngsters during his community service, but there was no defining moment of clarity which prompted an inner evolution. He never changed; he merely assembled a band of followers with his model professionalism and natural gnosis.
It was outside Eric’s control that he returned to a far younger side than the one he had left on the field at Selhurst Park. Gone were Ince, Kanchelskis and Hughes, while the Nevilles, Beckham, Butt and Scholes were first-team regulars. For those wide-eyed youngsters, thrown in at the deep end, it was impossible not to see Cantona, past indiscretions and all, as an example to follow. A man described by Sir Alex Ferguson as: “A model pro. The best prepared footballer I have ever had.” Perhaps most persuasively for those of tender years around him, Cantona was a man who carried everything off with a swagger.
“The manager gave him this free role, letting him express himself, do his flicks and score his goals. I think that’s why the lads looked up to him so much,” recalls Lee Sharpe. “They thought: ‘If I can be anyone, that’s who I want to be.
I want to be treated like that. I want to play like that. I want to be loved like that.’”
But Eric’s influence extended beyond his playing peers; his opinion was among the most valued at Old Trafford. Youth coach Eric Harrison, fresh from pumping six future England internationals into the Reds’ senior squad, went to the Frenchman to see how the club’s local youngsters compared to those in Cantona’s home country.
“He replied that, ability-wise, they were similar, but he thought the French boys received the ball better than our young players,” reveals Harrison. “I took that on board straight away and I acted. I introduced more juggling with the ball because it developed good ball control. Surely, if it was good enough for Cantona, it was good enough for my boys.”
Although his words carried substantial weight, Cantona was a character who opted to say little and do much, most notably in the 1995/96 season run-in, where he scored the winner in five of seven 1-0 Premier League wins and the FA Cup Final. His deeds and aura prompted Alex Ferguson to make him club captain when Steve Bruce left for Birmingham City in 1996. Not one to follow the ranting, raving model of leadership, Cantona had no considered method of motivating his team-mates. He just inspired awe in them all by being himself.
“The players genuinely liked Eric even though he was often a distant, almost remote figure,” Andy Cole wrote in his autobiography. “Inside the dressing room he’d open up, revelling in the banter and mickey-takes. He could mix it, although he clearly preferred to be very private. You didn’t mess about with him, whether he was playing football or having a pint. Off the pitch I saw him as a loner, but a great guy, and the way he behaved laid down a very obvious message: he was his own man.” One others couldn’t help but follow.
Eric wore the captain’s armband with pride
Captain Eric points the way during the 1995/96 title run-in
Cantona is mobbed by his young colleagues after the 1996 FA Cup Final