“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”
Early in the new year of 1995, Old Trafford marked the £7 million arrival of Andy Cole from Newcastle United. He had struggled to replicate the superb form of his record breaking goal scoring and Kevin Keegan was happy to let him leave. His Manchester United debut ended with a 1-0 victory over nearest league rivals Blackburn Rovers. Cole’s second game in a United shirt was at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace. A win for United would put them top of the table above Blackburn, but having played two games more.
Although Cole was the man of the moment, Richard Shaw had been given clear instructions to man mark Eric Cantona. To follow him around and suffocate his influence on the game. Little did Shaw know he would become one of the catalysts of Eric Cantona influencing the game of football more than anyone could ever imagine.
Shaw was a physical player. Tough tackling and tight marking were his strongest abilities. His team always deployed him to maximise every ounce of his specialised skills. At halftime, Alex Ferguson was so infuriated with Shaw’s treatment of Cantona, he gave the full hairdryer treatment to referee, Alan Wilkie. Shaw fouled Cantona at every opportunity. So much so, that at halftime the Frenchman was disbelieving that his marker had not been booked.
Shortly after the break in the 48th minute, Shaw and Cantona collided again. As Shaw turned to run, Cantona tried to swipe at him with his leg, almost within arms-reach of the linesman. Wilkie showed no hesitation and dismissed Cantona.
As he walked off the pitch, Cantona turned down his famous collar and trudged towards the bench. Ferguson stood and stared straight ahead with steely eyes. Refusing to acknowledge his number 7. The Frenchman started a slow walk to the tunnel located by the corner flag.
Matthew Simmons was a Palace fan and sat 11 rows back from the touch line. Upon the delivery of the red card he left his seat and ran to the edge of the pitch just a few metres from Cantona. What was said is still open for debate. Whether it was about having an early shower, being told as a foreigner to leave the country, or something about his mother – it enraged Cantona. And the rest is history.
Ferguson said he missed the incident because he was trying to reorganise tactics to adjust playing with 10 men. When he finally did, he was shocked. He waited until the early hours of the following morning to watch the footage. He knew United and Cantona had reached a crossroads.
That season, United went on to finish runners up behind Blackburn. Missing out on the title by only one point. In the following months, Cantona led a solitary life. He stayed alone in a Manchester hotel and trained with the youth team. He had been banned from all active, formal football behaviour so could not even be around the first team. The club tried to maintain his sharpness by organising training ground friendlies. Word leaked to the press that Cantona took part in a training ground friendly match against Rochdale. Some in the FA argued this breached his ban and called for it to be extended.
This was the final push for Cantona. He left Manchester for France to be with his family and submitted a transfer request to the club. Ferguson recognised the severity of the situation and flew to Paris to meet with him. Ferguson told him if he stayed at United they could win the title together.
Whatever it is you think of Cantona; a failure, prodigy, troubled genius, volatile and unstable, constantly on the brink of igniting with violence, or simply a legend. His influence on Manchester United and the wider game of football in England is undeniable. In his home country he is regarded as a martyr. A victim of the football system and of xenophobia – victimised because of his brilliance. Others see him as self-destructive and having no one but himself to blame for failing to become one of football’s all-time greatest players. But Cantona was the first glimmer English football saw of the untapped spectacular genius a player could become.
Convinced by Ferguson’s faith they could bring success to Old Trafford – Cantona changed his mind and agreed to return. He served out the remainder of his ban and returned to playing against Liverpool. In true Cantona fashion, he assisted Nicky Butt to open the scoring inside 2 minutes, and later he scored the equalising penalty in a 2-2 draw – sparking riotous scenes of celebration amongst United fans.
His return is significant to his own career – a fall from hero to villain, followed by a transient change to saviour. In the hearts of United fans he sits as king, idol and legend. Significance also lay in Manchester United’s Premier League trajectory. His talismanic influence supported and guided the abilities of the growing Class of 92 graduates and began to transform United into a global footballing superpower.
Cantona himself once said: “On the day I caressed a ball for the first time, the sun was shining, people were happy, and it made me feel like playing football. All my life, I’ll try to capture that moment again.”
Eric Cantona returned to playing football in October 1995 and the King was about to reign supreme once more.