Eric Cantona Part 3 - The king of Old Trafford
Eric Cantona was unquestionably delighted with his move to Old Trafford at the end of 1992 and excited at the prospect of playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world. United were down in sixth place in the Premiership, nine points behind surprise leaders Norwich City and struggling to get goals. They had a rock solid defence with Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister protecting Peter Schmeichel, but they had only scored 18 goals in 17 matches.
Cantona made his debut for United in the Manchester derby with City on December 6 and his first goal in the new colours came in a 1-1 draw at Chelsea on December 19. A week later United launched an amazing comeback away to Sheffield Wednesday, coming back to 3-3 after being 3-0 down with just twenty minutes to go. Cantona got the decisive final goal and the fightback convinced United they had the resolve and spirit to beat anyone. It was a key point in the Old Trafford club's rise to dominance of English football.
In these games the Frenchman was obviously trying to find his feet and learning exactly how best to play with a very different set of players from what he was used to at Elland Road. He was now just one of many star names and his unique style had to be moulded into the team's pattern.
The next couple of weeks saw a 5-0 win over Coventry and a 4-1 thrashing of Tottenham and the improvement in form was enough to take United to the top of the table. A visit to Cantona's former family at Leeds was an eye opener for the man who was now reviled by his former disciples. The supporters welcomed United with their customary venom and hostility and were satiated when he was booked in the 30th minute, but United had the last laugh, coming away with a point from a goalless draw. Cantona's ten months at Elland Road were now fully behind him and he turned his attention to the future.
United were locked in the last few weeks of the 1992-93 season with Aston Villa and Norwich in a three way battle for the title. United played Norwich on April 5 with just six matches left. Aston Villa headed the table with United and Norwich a point behind. United's 3-1 victory that day was topped off with a third goal from Cantona and the result was vital, effectively putting Norwich out of contention.
United followed up with convincing wins over Chelsea and Crystal Palace and as things moved to a climax with United now topping the table, Cantona joined up with his French colleagues for a vital World Cup qualifier with Sweden on April 28. Cantona hit both goals in a wonderful 2-1 win.
Four days later Cantona could celebrate a title win for a third successive year, and all with different clubs. Villa had lost 1-0 at Oldham and could no longer overtake United - after 26 years the championship had finally returned to Old Trafford. It was a special moment in the history of Manchester United and Cantona had been the inspiration for the triumph. He hit 9 special goals in his 22 Premiership games and was now as loved at Old Trafford as he had been previously at Elland Road. The cry of "Ooh, aah, Cantona," had been exported across the Pennines and Eric had truly found his spiritual home.
1993-94 was to be even better and in all competitions Cantona scored 25 goals in 48 matches. United kicked off the season in all conquering form, although their assault on the European Cup was a disappointment. Turkey's Galatasaray drew 3-3 at Old Trafford and the second leg was a 0-0 draw to send the Turks through on the away goals rule. And to complete United's night of misery, Cantona was sent off in the mayhem that followed the final whistle following comments made to the referee. He was banned for four European matches in a throwback to his disciplinary problems in previous years in France. He was certainly less hot headed since he had crossed the Channel, but controversy had returned to dog his footsteps.
By the end of January 1994, United had their sights set on the English treble - they were in a two horse race with Blackburn for the Premiership, they had progressed to the League Cup semi finals and they were making their customary assault on the FA Cup. Cantona sustained an injury in a 2-2 draw at West Ham in the league and missed United's marvellous second leg win against Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup. United booked their tickets for Wembley with a 4-1 victory. The other game he missed, however, was less successful. Chelsea came to Old Trafford and became the first away side to win there in 17 months. Were they taking on too much?
It certainly looked like it, as United's season seemed about to fall about in an explosion of indiscipline and bad temper. Cantona got red carded again in two successive matches, against Swindon and Arsenal. The second dismissal against the Gunners was evidence that Cantona's history was starting to cause problems as it did not appear justified. He received a five match ban. Around the same time goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel and winger Andrei Kanchelskis also received red cards.
United had reached the FA Cup semi finals, but were starting to look shaky in the league and seemed to have shot their bolt when Aston Villa thoroughly outplayed them at Wembley to win 2-1 and secure the League Cup, putting paid to United's dreams of an unprecedented treble.
Unconvincing home wins over Liverpool and Oldham and an away defeat at rivals Blackburn provided ammunition for the sceptics and for a long period it looked like Oldham were going to win the FA Cup semi final against United, until a typical Mark Hughes volley 45 seconds from the end of extra time kept double hopes alive. United went on to win the replay and secure a Wembley date for the final with Chelsea.
Cantona returned from suspension for the away match at Leeds and helped United gain a 2-0 win which helped settle the frayed nerves that were showing. United ended the season with a run of victories which enabled them to retain the Premiership. That left the Cup final with Chelsea as the only hurdle remaining in United's pursuit of a League and Cup double.
After close opening exchanges, two penalties, both converted by Cantona, sparked off an easy 4-0 win and Cantona had once again proven himself as a lucky talisman - he had now won four league titles in a row and could also boast a key role in the achievement of a rare occurrence in English football, the double. His personal contribution was recognised by the PFA, when the Frenchman was elected as Player of the Year by his fellow professionals - a sweet moment, indeed, after all the controversy over the years.
His season was made complete when the new French national team manager Aime Jacquet asked him to captain the side. France had failed to qualify for the World Cup finals in the USA and United had crashed in the European Cup, but in the summer of 1994, Eric Cantona was feeling on top of the world.
The Frenchman scored one of the goals as United beat Blackburn 2-0 in the Charity Shield at the start of the 1994-95 season, but that was the best memory of a dismal and controversial season. United were to be Double runners up, losing out on the last day to Blackburn in the Premiership and to Everton in the Cup final, but Cantona was to miss the second half of the season.
Andy Cole arrived from Newcastle in January 1995 with the intention of forming a new partnership with Cantona as United chased Blackburn in the league after another dismal European Cup exit. Cole's debut was against Blackburn but it was the Frenchman who got the only goal of the game, heading home ten minutes from time.
Three days later the two were in the team again as they faced Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. Palace set out to provoke Cantona, having seen the way he tended to lose his cool in the heat of action over the previous 18 months. There had been a series of niggling fouls which had gone unpunished by referee Alan Wilkie and the chief culprit was defender Richard Shaw. First, a tackle caught Cantona on his ankle, then a second challenge by Shaw seemed to be directed at his Achilles tendon as he twisted, back to goal, to try to lay off a pass to the running Cole. There were other less blatant efforts to push him over the brink and the longer the game went on, the more he seemed to be seething inside, ready for revenge when the opportunity came. An injustice had to be punished. So it was that early in the second half his spring finally snapped. In his eyes, Shaw had escaped justice too many times, so Cantona took the law into his own hands and retaliated. Wilkie saw it and had no hesitation in dismissing him.
As he left the pitch he ran the gauntlet of the baying home supporters goading him from the grandstand. One of them, Matthew Simmons, went a step further. He made his way down the gangway from his seat somewhere below the press box, hurling abuse and waving a clenched fist in Cantona's direction. Suddenly, the Frenchman stopped, turned and made eye to eye contact with Simmons. He seemed to ask, 'What did you say?'
He stepped over the frost repelling tarpaulin sheet which had been rolled up alongside the pitch, and leapt through the air, ramming his foot into the supporter's chest forcing him backwards. Simmons got to his feet flinging punches, but a right cross from Cantona floored him again before both men were wrestled apart.
The next day, the tabloids went to town, demanding Cantona's head and hysterically asking for him to be kicked out of the game. United acted swiftly, banning him to the end of the season and fining him two weeks' wages. The FA extended the ban until September 30 and Cantona then faced a Magistrate's court hearing on a charge of assault. He got a two week jail sentence, but on appeal this was reduced to community service, on the basis of the provocation from Simmons. He was also stripped of the French captaincy and never played for the side again.
There were rumours that Cantona would quit England as he had France, but while he was out of action he spent his community service coaching youngsters in Manchester and found himself loving it so much that he continued even after the formal sentence was completed. United were relieved to announce on April 28 that Cantona would be staying and, in fact, had signed a three year contract. He had decided to fight his way back and prove his many critics wrong.
It was October 1 1995 and Eric Cantona was about to return to the United side. The Frenchman made his comeback in a match against Liverpool, which was moved back a day so that he could play in a match that Sky Television were covering live.
The season was five weeks old and United had got off to an indifferent start. They had occupied top spot in the Premiership for one Saturday night, dropping to second place the following day as Newcastle continued in formidable form. In the League Cup they had suffered a major setback, losing 3-0 at home to York City in the first leg of their opening tie, but, perhaps more disappointingly, they were out of contention in Europe. Rotor Volgograd ended hopes of a run in the UEFA Cup by scoring twice at Old Trafford. Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis had all left Old Trafford during the summer and many felt that, with the youngsters that Alex Ferguson had drafted in to replace them, United would struggle.
Almost up to the day of his return, there had been doubts about Cantona's future. Despite assurances he would stay at Old Trafford, the predictions that he might walk continued. But he duly walked out to a rapturous greeting at Old Trafford. The moment they had all waited for had at last arrived. There he was with that familiar straight backed walk which gave him that seeming air of arrogance. It was the same as it had been the day he first stepped out at Old Trafford for the second half of a derby game against City. The flicks, the vision, the back heels, the skills were all still there. He was an immediate success.
United could not have got off to a better start. In the first minute they took the lead with Cantona creating a goal with virtually his first touch. Nicky Butt forced the ball home from close range, but King Cantona really was back and the crowd sensed that success was in the air again.
It would not come that particular afternoon though. Liverpool fought hard. They were the form team and showed it when Robbie Fowler levelled the scores after 33 minutes, then silenced the home fans by chipping Schmeichel for a second goal. For 17 minutes the visitors led. Then Ryan Giggs burst through but was pulled back by Rob Jones. Referee David Elleray pointed to the spot and Old Trafford erupted again. It was a penalty, and the moment of truth had come.
Cantona picked up the ball and stepped forward. He placed it on the spot, turned away from goal then took two strides forwards and rammed his shot to the left of David James as the keeper moved in the opposite direction. The crowd went wild with delight - the King was back!
In the weeks that followed, opposing fans and players went out of their way to provoke a reaction, but always Cantona went calmly about his business, not getting involved, acting as the peacemaker if trouble flared. His brief from Alex Ferguson following his return was that he should not make challenges which could lead to retaliatory situations. Tackling was never one of Cantona's strongest points.
In the Premiership, the gap between United and leaders Newcastle widened as winter set in. Two points separated the sides after United beat Bryan Robson's Middlesbrough at Old Trafford, but the difference grew to five following defeat at Arsenal.
December was a disaster. It began with a 1-1 draw at Chelsea in which Cantona was booked for a foul, his only caution of the entire season. The squad was depleted by injuries and suspensions. It seemed there was little hope of winning the title; Newcastle were in the driving seat, swept along by a run of victories and their enthusiastic support. Cantona scored twice in the home game with Sheffield Wednesday, his first goals since the day of his return, but the game was the third successive draw and was followed by defeats at Leeds and Liverpool.
However, as United entered January they went on a remarkable run inspired by a burst of goals from Cantona. Their run started with the somewhat fortunate 2-2 home draw against Sunderland in the third round of the FA Cup, when the Frenchman's equaliser kept them in the competition. A draw with Aston Villa was followed by ten consecutive wins. Cantona was in explosive form, scoring the only goal at West Ham, two against Wimbledon on his media hyped return to Selhurst Park, Cup goals against Reading in the fourth round, and a penalty against Manchester City in the fifth round, which levelled the scores before Lee Sharpe struck the winner.
United were through to the quarter finals of the Cup, and in second place in the Premiership, though still nine points adrift of Newcastle. The Tynesiders were clear favourites, but there were signs that the pressure was getting to them and their form started to slip.
United visited Newcastle on the run in and were forced back by the Toon Army for the first 45 minutes. Peter Schmeichel was in remarkable form, making save after save as his defence stood solid around him. At one point he was beaten by a goalbound shot, but it was headed off the line by none other than Eric Cantona. It seemed to be just a matter of time before Newcastle would take the lead. Could United stand the onslaught? One man had the answer. Eric Cantona.
The second half was a transformation. United came more and more into the game, having soaked up all the home side could offer. David Ginola was booked for a foul born of frustration and it was time for Cantona to take command. 51 minutes had gone, Andy Cole forced the ball out to Phil Neville on the left flank and the young full back ran forward a few yards, crossed, and Cantona met the ball on the right hand edge of the penalty area. He took it in his stride and hit a low half volley which bounced beyond the reach of Srnicek in the Newcastle goal. Again the taunters had been silenced.
The next Sunday, United beat Middlesbrough 3-0 with Cantona as captain in Steve Bruce's absence through injury. They had regained the title. And Cantona retained the captain's armband for the Cup final against Liverpool. It was a tense and consequently dull game played out in a stifling midfield stalemate. The game needed a touch of flair and class and it got it. With extra time four minutes away, United won a corner on the right. As the cross came over, David James, the Liverpool keeper, misjudged his jump, collided with a team mate and could only palm the ball out of the penalty area. It reached Cantona who, leaning back to get into the correct position, hit a powerful right footed volley through a ruck of players between him and the goal. Wembley erupted and that was that. United had become the first side to win the League and Cup double on more than one occasion.
Steve Bruce left Old Trafford in the summer of 1996 and Cantona therefore became the official club captain for the new term. It began well for him as he scored the first of United's four goals as they trounced Newcastle 4-0 to win the Charity Shield. He also returned to Elland Road and hit the final goal in a 4-0 hammering which signalled the departure of Howard Wilkinson, the man who took the original risk in introducing Cantona to English football. An irony if ever there was one.
However, something was missing. He still had the same arrogance, the touches of brilliance, but his play lacked consistency. His match winning performances grew rarer and rarer. He was still better than most players in the Premiership, but he was growing dissatisfied. The European Cup excited him, and United went their furthest since the 1968 win, but they surprisingly stumbled in the semi finals against Borussia Dortmund. The Premiership win in 1997 was something of a formality though it was not settled until the beginning of May. An air of disillusionment and almost complacency had settled on the Frenchman, and clearly there was something wrong.
On Sunday May 18, United chairman Martin Edwards held a press conference and shocked the world by announcing Cantona's retirement. And that was that - Cantona was gone, never to return.
He left behind him a glorious memory of how football could be played in the Premiership in England - it doesn't have to be the crude kick and rush and hoof of the playground, there is time and space if you can create it, and glorious applause if you use it well. There were none better at that than Eric Cantona. In the years from 1992 to 1997, he was simply the best there was and will be long remembered for it.