“We learn from everything,” mused Eric Cantona, the day before the 1996 FA Cup final. “A bad thing can be turned into a good thing. It’s very difficult at the time, but if we think about the future then we use it.”
Slouched in a faintly regal chair in United’s Waltham Abbey base, the Frenchman was locked in discussion with Des Lynam. Then the moustachioed face of BBC Sport, Lynam had proffered that Cantona’s nine-month ban for fighting with Crystal Palace supporter Matthew Simmons had actually evolved into a positive experience for the Frenchman.
Lynam already had a swaying pile of evidence to support his claim. A day later came the most compelling exhibit of all, as Cantona captained United’s fledgling team to an unforgettable Double with victory over Liverpool at Wembley. Having scored the Reds’ stunning late winner, the Frenchman subsequently walked away from a potential flashpoint when an opposing supporter spat on him as he ascended to collect the day’s spoils.
There was no refuting that Eric had changed, and the signs had been glaring ever since United’s win at Upton Park on January 22, 1996 – almost exactly a year since the incident at Selhurst Park. Though he returned from his suspension with a goal and an assist against Liverpool six weeks into the 1995/96 season, Cantona had to feel his way back into regular involvement; his first fifteen Premier League outings yielded just four goals, of which only a pair came in open play.
United faced West Ham on a freezing cold Monday evening, twelve points adrift of a Newcastle side who were little more than a black and white speck on the horizon. Without a win at Upton Park since 1989, during which time the struggling Hammers had twice derailed United’s title bids, the omens were hardly stacked in the visitors’ favour.
In an ominous start to proceedings, the Hammers rattled the woodwork within three minutes as Tony Cottee pounced on a Steve Bruce error to thud a shot against Peter Schmeichel’s crossbar. The game’s next opening, however, crucially and decisively fell to Cantona. Ryan Giggs impudently spun the ball past Julian Dicks, circumnavigated the burly left-back and attacked down the right wing. Having nipped inside Dicks again and fed Cole, the winger slipped behind a ramshackle backline to receive the striker’s return pass and slide a wonderful cross between Ludek Miklosko and his defenders.
Though the ball traversed the corridor of uncertainty, there was nothing tentative about its dispatch into Miklosko’s goal. Cantona steadied himself and, despite the bobbling ball arriving on his left foot, six yards past the goal and two yards out, side-footed a devastatingly simple finish to bely the complexity of its execution. Co-commentating on Sky Sports, Trevor Francis purred: “This really is a truly outstanding goal. Great play from Giggs, lovely return from Cole, but just look at the angle that Cantona’s got. How many players could possibly have got that in from that sort of angle? He’s not entitled to score from there.”
Before the half-hour mark, Cantona crossed for Lee Sharpe to head what appeared to be a comfort-inducing second goal, only for referee Steve Lodge to decree – incorrectly, replays showed – that the Frenchman had handled the ball during the build-up. Suitably buoyed by that let-off and bayed on by the vast majority of the 24,000 onlookers, West Ham would not be found physically wanting in their attempts to get back into a fiercely competitive game. Danny Williamson forced Schmeichel into a smart, near-post save with his legs and Ian Bishop’s effort was heroically cleared off the line by Denis Irwin, but the visiting backline largely shackled the hosts painlessly, with Steve Bruce and Gary Neville composed in the centre and flanked by the equally alert Irwin and Phil Neville.
Tempers began to simmer, however, as the game entered the final 15 minutes, boiling over as Dicks launched into a reckless, two-footed lunge on Cole.
“We were such a close team,” recalls the striker. “If someone took out one of your team-mates, I don’t think there were too many morals around somebody retaliating and sorting it out for you.”
Moments later, Nicky Butt hurtled into a vengeful challenge on Dicks, winning the ball but sending the hulking defender up into the air. Even before Dicks had landed, a gaggle of protagonists were charging towards the scene. The seething Cole was keen to be involved in whatever ruckus was to follow, while Roy Keane’s presence in such a scenario was a foregone conclusion. So too was that of Cantona, already nursing a bloodied mouth after an earlier accidental clash with Marc Rieper. With Butt and Dicks aflame with rage and so many short fuses in attendance, referee Steve Lodge might have feared the worst. Rather, what followed would provide a watershed in Cantona’s United career.
Before Lodge could brandish his yellow card at Butt for the second time in the game, Cole waded into the mire to lament Dicks’ role in proceedings. “It was a bad tackle by Julian,” he recalls. “Someone had to calm me down because they knew that if I’d had the chance, I’d have been sent off as well. Eric was actually the main one calming me down, and it was very, very strange for him to be doing that. Usually, when Eric lost his temper, he lost his temper. He wasn’t captain at the time, but he played a captain’s role that night.”
Once Cole’s punishment had been limited to a mere caution – followed hastily by a diffusive substitution – Cantona continued to perform his revel in self-appointed responsibility as United began to battle without the dismissed Butt. The Daily Mirror’s Harry Harris joked: “Not content with his Henry Kissinger role in that explosive 76th-minute flashpoint, the Frenchman then separated the warring Roy Keane and Dicks. Cantona might look like a convict with his cropped hair, but he was the epitome of restraint, and while all around him were losing theirs, Cantona was in control of his emotions.”
Despite a numerical handicap, United closed out the win in relative comfort and Cantona – having suffered sustained abuse from the home support – received unanimous praise afterwards. “Eric’s a saint now,” smirked Steve Bruce, while Sir Bobby Charlton concluded: “He gets a worse reception than any other United player I can recall, but he has shown how well he can handle real pressure. If we can win the league no one will deserve it more than him.”
They would prove prophetic words from the Reds’ record goalscorer. Cantona, 1-0 would become United’s signature scorecast in a run of victories over Newcastle, Arsenal, Tottenham and Coventry, at a time when Kevin Keegan’s side began haemorrhaging points. The Magpies’ run of five defeats in eight games precipitated the first part of United’s Double, the second instalment of which was wrested from Liverpool in typical fashion: Cantona, 1-0.
The following summer, on the eve of what would prove to be his final season in football, Eric looked back on an undulating campaign which had ended in another stratosphere – and there was one game which he held above all others. “The best moment was at West Ham,” Cantona reflected. “If we had lost there… after West Ham, every game was important. Newcastle was just one of the games we had to play. We had to win every one. That moment was very important.”
Both short-term and long-term, collectively and individually, Cantona was right. He departed Old Trafford having assumed a greater role than any other player in establishing a culture of success which has filtered down through subsequent sets of players. Within his own beaming half decade at the club, a dark January evening at Upton Park still burns bright.