Cole: Eric had extra
As a player and a terrace icon, Eric Cantona provided United with a bit of magic and mystique. A born winner and an entertainer, he was enigmatic and influential both amongst fans and team-mates at the precise moment English football caught the continental bug.
Andy Cole arrived at United in January 1995 and instantly saw the two opposing sides of Cantona’s character. On his Reds debut, it was Eric the leader, the match-winner; in a clash with title rivals Blackburn Rovers, Cantona grabbed the game’s only goal with a brilliant header from Ryan Giggs’ raking cross. Four days later came the incident at Selhurst Park – arguably the moment the tables turned in the title.
“I remember he scored the winning goal on my debut against Blackburn and then the next game was the infamous incident at Crystal Palace,” Cole recalled in an interview withManUtd.com. “I saw everything in those first two games. I certainly never expected to see that – and football is full of surprises. When it did happen I was like, ‘wow, did that just happen’? It was an eye-opener for me as it was for a lot of people.
“But I think you have to look at the other things that he did at the club, the positive things: the impact on the younger players at the club in particular, and the part he played in winning trophies. I always remember him going on a goalscoring spree where we won a string of games 1-0 in the run-in. He was capable of that kind of influence.”
Cole scored 12 goals in 18 games for the remainder of the 1994/95 campaign but didn’t really find his finest United form until after Cantona retired in 1997 – like the feted Class of 92, Cole was still learning. “I enjoyed playing alongside Eric and I tried to learn from him too, as I did with all the good players I played alongside.
“I was a young boy when I came to Manchester United but I never felt it was difficult to fit in, you just integrated into the system and became part of it. You just get on with. The senior professionals have that status for a reason, but what I realised at United was that everyone was respectful, mostly because those senior players had been successful before. That’s what I really enjoyed about the club was that everyone got on so well. The teams I played in, we were like a family off the football pitch. The crazy thing is, nobody was allowed to take liberties on the football pitch. If you ever felt that there was an injustice on the pitch, it was a vendetta, and your team-mates would sort it out for you. That’s just how close that team was. The camaraderie was incredible. When you’ve got a team bond like that it’s special. And that’s made up of all the characters involved.”
“I remember having a conversation about Eric with Bryan Robson and he summed it up perfectly: when Eric first arrived he was that little bit of magic that the team needed. The catalyst. There was already an extremely hard-working team with some real quality players – the players in that team had almost everything in the locker, but that something extra pushed the team over the line. So when Eric came in he brought flair and helped take it to the next level – and that team was very, very good by the way. It wasn’t like United became a one-man team. It’s just that Eric complemented the other players and added something extra. He achieved a lot at Man United and he will always go down as one of the club’s legends.”
The timing was perfect for Cantona – and for United and English football – as the explosion in popularity of the Premier League coincided with an influx of foreign talent. “Eric came to England and he was just so different from English footballers. It was the French way, he had an aura about him, an air of mystique. He was an entertainer and a showman on the field and that’s why people loved him. He could be so aloof at times that people would think: wow, I wonder what he’s thinking? Or he’d play the game and shoot straight off after the match and people would just be in awe. Half the time he was like a whirlwind. But people would watch him and say: “I want to be like Eric”. He had that effect on people.
“Would an English player get away with saying some of the things Eric said? Hell no! If you asked Eric himself he’d probably laugh about all the stuff he used to come out with – I think he said in the past he was just talking a load of mumbo jumbo when he talked about seagulls following the trawler. If I tried any of that they’d have brought the strait-jacket out!”
The impact Cantona had at Old Trafford is astonishing considering he was only a United player for four-and-a-half years. It is thought that United’s failure in Europe in 1997 – losing to Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League semi-finals when a spot in the final appeared within reach – was a decisive factor in Eric’s early retirement from football.
Cole can certainly share Cantona’s pain recollecting that game. “Eric was desperate to win the European Cup and it was in that time that we should have been challenging in Europe and we didn’t quite manage it. We lost to Dortmund at Old Trafford in 1997 and to this day people ask how we managed to lose that tie. And I still don’t know how. But that’s football.”