Greatest Transfers: Eric Cantona, from French exile to English king (twice)!

Manchester United Career Details:

Signed From: Leeds United, November 1992 for £1,200,000 by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Position: Striker
Appearances (Goals): 193 (89) between November 1992 & May 1997.

Honours:

F.A. Premier League Winner (4): 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997.
F.A. Cup Winner (2): 1994 (4-0 vs. Chelsea);
1996 (1-0 vs. Liverpool).

Individual Honours:

P.F.A. Premier League Team of the Year: 1994.
P.F.A. ‘Team of the Century’ member.
F.W.A. ‘Player of the Year’: 1996.
P.F.A. ‘Players’ Player of the Year’: 1994.
Sir Matt Busby ‘Player of the Year’ (2): 1994, 1996.
Inaugural Inductee to the English Football Hall of Fame, 2002.

To be honest, it’s sometimes hard to remain objective when discussing just how big an impact Eric Cantona had on the fortunes of Manchester United during the almost 5 years he spent at Old Trafford, particularly in his first two seasons. The Frenchman arrived from Leeds United almost cast in the role of pantomime villain, a maverick who could be either brilliant or a volatile ‘loose cannon’; what wasn’t in doubt was that he had just helped the Yorkshire side to ruin the Red Devils’ last ever chance to claim another Division 1 league title in 1991-92, and was therefore not someone who was in a position to garner instant adulation from United fans upon his arrival!

Eric Cantona was born and raised in the southern French port city of Marseille, the second son of a painter father & dress-maker mother, and was a fan of local giants Olympique Marseille as a kid. He began his football career at local junior club Caillolais, who also produced the brilliant Jean Tigana, one of the stars of the great French team in the mid-1980s alongside the likes of Michel Platini and Alain Giresse. The young Cantona quickly established a reputation as a skilled attacker, playing more than 200 games for the club, before being invited to attend Ligue 1 side Auxerre’s youth set-up during the summer of 1981.

After making his 1st team debut for Auxerre in November 1983, Cantona played 15 games for the club before being loaned to 2nd tier Martigues for the 1985-86 season; upon returning to Auxerre, he signed on as a professional player and quickly established himself as the club’s main striker, scoring an impressive 27 goals in two seasons, before securing his dream move to boyhood idols Marseille for a then French domestic record fee of 22 million French francs in August 1988.

By then, his reputation as a sometimes volatile ‘hot-head’ had also been established. He had punched an Auxerre team-mate in the face in 1987, and then received a 3-month suspension from the French Football Federation for a kung-fu tackle on a Nantes player the following season.

However, Cantona’s outrageous talent had also been recognised in France. He was an integral member of the France U-21 team that won the 1988 U-21 European Championships, scoring 3 goals against England in the two-legged Semi-Final. Unusually, by then he had already been called up for his debut in the senior national team, winning his first cap against West Germany in August 1987.

His early days at the Velodrome didn’t start auspiciously! He reacted furiously to news that national manager Henri Michel had omitted him from the squad for the forthcoming World Cup 1990 qualifying games in September 1988, calling the manager a ‘bag of shit’ in a TV interview, for which he received an indefinite ban from selection by the Federation. Luckily for Eric, Michel was sacked shortly afterwards as France surprisingly failed to qualify for the Finals, and new boss Platini recalled the young Marseille striker into the national squad!

Things didn’t improve at club level- he struggled to settle in Marseille, only managing 5 goals in 22 games, and again fell foul of the authorities when he reacted to being substituted in a friendly game by smashing the ball into the crowd and then ripping his shirt off- a month-long ban followed.

Marseille loaned him out to Bordeaux for 6 months, and then Montpellier for a further season. At Montpellier he again clashed with a team-mate, but helped the club to win the French Cup in 1990 and his form was good enough to persuade Marseille to recall him from loan for the following season. However, despite playing well enough alongside the electric Jean-Pierre Papin to help the club storm to a second Ligue 1 title in a row, Cantona often clashed with both manager Raymond Goethais and controversial club owner Bernard Tapie, and found himself transferred to newly-promoted Nimes at the end of the 1990-91 season.

His career at Nimes lasted 17 games. In December he again reacted furiously, this time to a refereeing decision, throwing the ball in anger at the official. At the Federation disciplinary hearing into the incident, Cantona reacted to their one-month ban judgement by walking up to each panel member and calling them an ‘idiot’ to their face… so his ban was increased to two months. He responded by announcing his immediate retirement from football at the grand old age of 25.

Thankfully, the story didn’t end there. On the advice of several influential figures like Platini and Gerard Houllier, Cantona was persuaded to travel to England, where he was spurned by Liverpool manager Graeme Souness (who cited concerns about Cantona destroying dressing-room harmony at Anfield) but given a trial by Sheffield Wednesday boss Trevor Francis. Francis decided not to sign him, but Leeds United’s Howard Wilkinson was impressed enough by Cantona to pay Nimes £900,000 to bring the Frenchman to Elland Road.

At Leeds, he joined a team that were already ‘on a roll’, fighting to secure a first league title success since 1974, with arch-rivals Manchester United their chief protagonists. Despite only making 15 appearances and scoring 3 goals, Cantona was instrumental in helping the Yorkshire side secure the championship, assisting main striker Lee Chapman reach 16 goals. He then began the 1992-93 season ‘on fire’, scoring a hat-trick against Liverpool in the 4-3 Wembley Charity Shield victory, and following that up with a second treble in the 5-0 Premier League thrashing of Tottenham Hotspur. By the time of the now infamous telephone call between Wilkinson, Leeds United chairman Bill Fotherby, United chairman Martin Edwards and manager Alex Ferguson, Cantona had managed 11 goals in 20 games between August and November 1992.

On that fateful day, Fotherby & Wilkinson had rang Edwards to enquire about the availability of United left-back Denis Irwin… after rebuffing Leeds’ advances over Irwin, Ferguson had directed Edwards to ask about whether Wilkinson would consider selling Cantona to United, as he recognised that the Red Devils had been struggling for goals, all the pressure by then lying on Mark Hughes’ shoulders. New summer signing Dion Dublin had suffered a broken leg in only his second game, and United had been rejected that summer by Southampton’s Alan Shearer, who instead opted to take more money at Blackburn Rovers, and had also failed in an attempt to sign Sheffield Wednesday striker David Hirst. Wilkinson’s answer, surprisingly, was ‘yes’; it turns out that despite his positive impact and goals for Leeds United, Howard Wilkinson didn’t like Cantona’s work ethic or attitude around Elland Road. The transfer fee, £1.2 million, may be one of the greatest bargains of all time.

Almost from the moment he stepped into Old Trafford, Eric Cantona finally looked like he had ‘come home’. Unlike some players, who looked petrified by the sheer scale of everything at Manchester United, he cut a regal figure off the pitch, almost like a king strutting around his palace, but more importantly, his presence and telling contributions ON the pitch transformed a stuttering United side into an irresistible force. His debut was as a substitute in the 2-1 Derby win over Manchester City at Old Trafford on 6th December 1992; his first goal arrived in the 1-1 draw at Chelsea on 19th December.

The following week at Sheffield Wednesday, United found themselves 3-0 down by half-time, and it seemed they were going to play the role of the ‘turkey’ in that season’s Boxing Day tale; however, Cantona had other ideas, emerging after half-time with shirt collar up-turned (which would soon become his trademark!) to turn the game on its head, and grabbing another goal too as United fought back for a 3-3 draw.

Two days later Coventry City were mauled 5-0 at Old Trafford, Eric grabbing his first goal at home for United from the penalty spot. When Tottenham Hotspur were similarly demolished 4-1 in early January (Cantona opening the scoring before creating a simply stunning second goal for Denis Irwin with a sublime flicked return pass for the Irish left-back to blast home) United fans were starting to realise just what a great early Christmas present the enigmatic Frenchman had been!

Having already been eliminated from the U.E.F.A. Cup and League Cup, United were free to devote their attention to ending a 26-year wait for a domestic league title win, and in Eric Cantona they had found a talisman who treated the paranoid suggestions of a few United fans that the Club was under a curse in the league with the utter disdain it deserved. With the exception of a couple of surprising narrow reverses at Ipswich Town and Oldham Athletic, United didn’t lose a single game for the rest of the campaign, Cantona acting as the ‘commander-in-chief’ of a powerful side that included the likes of Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce, Paul Ince and Lee Sharpe.

Included in this run of form was a 0-0 draw at Elland Road in February, during which Eric was subjected to sustained, vile personal abuse and missiles from those who had ‘adored’ him only months earlier. He had scored the winner at home to Sheffield United the week before and followed that up with the equaliser in a 1-1 Manchester Derby draw at Maine Road in March.

By the time the Red Devils traveled to East Anglia to face Norwich City at Carrow Road for an evening mid-week kick-off in early April, the title race had been reduced to a three-horse squabble between the Canaries, United and Ron Atkinson’s Aston Villa. On the night, the visitors were simply devastating in their counter-attacking play, Cantona cutting the Norwich defence to pieces almost at will in the opening half-hour; Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis benefited from Eric’s wonderful touch and vision, getting on the end of delicious killer passes to give United a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes; a minute later the big Frenchman scored himself, and the points were secured.

Five days later Bruce stole the headlines with two sensational late headers in front of the Stretford End to give United a decisive 2-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday, and the surge in belief generated by that late victory carried United past Coventry City and Chelsea in the following weeks, Cantona adding a third goal in the 3-0 defeat of the Stamford Bridge club. By now it was very apparent that rather than dividing the dressing-room, as Graeme Souness had feared when rejecting Cantona on Liverpool’s behalf, the big Frenchman had had the opposite effect at Old Trafford. Alex Ferguson recognised that Cantona was a bit of an eccentric, a maverick free-spirit, and perhaps gave him a longer leash than others experienced from the Glaswegian; the other players didn’t resent this, also appreciating the touches of Gallic genius that Eric brought to the party, as well as witnessing his utter dedication to keeping his body in supreme condition for matches, working out in the gym every single day at the training ground… in short, he inspired all those around him to seek to make even greater efforts themselves.

By the time big centre-half Gary Pallister became the unlikeliest goalscorer of the season as he got United’s third in the dying seconds of the 3-1 win over Blackburn Rovers, United were already Champions of England for the first time since 1967, as nearest challengers Villa had decisively lost the previous afternoon. Afterwards, as Old Trafford celebrated the long-awaited title triumph with the players during their lap of honour, Eric Cantona grabbed the golden crown from the top of the new Premier League trophy and placed it upon his head as he pointed knowingly to the Sky Sports TV camera; it was an enduring image which perfectly summed up the status the man had now been bestowed with at England’s biggest club- he was the new ‘King of Old Trafford’, never taking Denis Law’s place as the original ‘King’, but instead forging a new ‘empire’ in a new football world.

If his debut season in Manchester was very good, Cantona’s second season was simply majestic! The addition of Roy Keane in midfield added further steel alongside Paul Ince, and allowed the creative players to combine to devastating effect in front of the industrious Irishman. Cantona was in his element, conducting a cast of sheer quality all around him, all the while wearing the iconic number 7 United shirt which had been granted to him by his manager when registering the squad numbers with the Football Association in August.

United started the league campaign in top gear, registering five victories and a draw before slipping up at Chelsea; the following weekend Eric blasted a 30-yard free-kick past David Seaman at the Stretford End to give United a 1-0 win over Arsenal, the start of a run of eight straight wins that included a superb double salvo from the Frenchman against Manchester City as United overturned a 0-2 deficit to win 3-2 at Maine Road. That Derby win was even more impressive as United had just returned from a shattering trip to Istanbul where they had been subjected to extreme intimidation and hostility whilst crashing out of the European Cup on the away-goals rule to Galatasaray; Cantona himself had been manhandled and abused by the Turkish police as he left the pitch, and there were allegations that he had been deliberately hit by a police baton in the tunnel area too. After later accusing the referee of cheating to ensure the Turks won the tie, Cantona was banned for 4 games by U.E.F.A.

Despite the disappointment in Europe, United continued to cruise through their domestic fixtures; nearest challengers from the previous season, Aston Villa (who had been transformed into a very, very good side by big Ron Atkinson), took an early lead at Old Trafford just before Christmas 1993, but Cantona scored twice, including the decisive goal in the 89th minute, as the Champions came back to win 3-1.

However, life was never a quiet, easy ride when Eric was around! He scored twice in the 5-0 demolition of Sheffield Wednesday in mid-March, but the following week got involved in an off-the-ball incident with Swindon Town’s John Moncur, which culminated in Cantona earning a red card for standing on Moncur as he lay faking injury on the County Ground pitch. The following weekend at Highbury, he was dismissed for a second time as United drew 2-2; the F.A. hit him with five-match suspension for poor discipline.

He was able to play in the League Cup Final against Aston Villa at Wembley the following weekend, but a poor, flat performance from the whole team saw Villa deservedly triumph 3-1.

Cantona returned from his suspension in time to help the team book their place in the F.A. Cup Final with a 4-1 replay win over Oldham Athletic, and then scored both goals in the 2-0 league win over Manchester City.

By the time he scored his 18th and final league goal of the season in a 2-1 victory at Ipswich Town, United had all but reclaimed their league crown, and eventually did so with an 8-point gap to runners-up Blackburn Rovers. The ‘icing on the cake’ came at Wembley on 14th May, as Cantona inspired those in red shirts around him with two well-taken 2nd half penalties to propel United to a 4-0 thrashing of Chelsea, thereby sealing the Club’s first ever ‘Double’. His personal contribution to the triumphant season was recognised in winning awards: the coveted P.F.A. ‘Players’ Player of the Year’ and Sir Matt Busby ‘Player of the Year’ at United.

Season 1994-95 again started well for the Red Devils, but three successive away league defeats in early autumn (including a 2-1 defeat at Leeds in which Eric was again the subject of widespread abuse from the home support) was perhaps an early indication that United wouldn’t have things their own way this time. The European Cup Group stage had been a frustration, with United unable to avenge Galatasaray, only drawing 0-0 in Turkey, and then getting hammered 4-0 by Barcelona at Camp Nou after a 2-2 draw with the Catalans at home; the 3-1 defeat at surprise-packet Gothenburg was a decisive blow, as despite thrashing the Turks 4-0 at Old Trafford in the final Group game, United could only finish 3rd and were eliminated.

In the Premier League, a stunning run of form followed those autumn set-backs, as United lost only once (a shock 2-1 defeat at home to Nottingham Forest) before taking on title rivals Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford on 22nd January with new signing Andy Cole on board; Eric scored the only goal ten minutes from time, and things looked rosy for a third title victory in a row.

Then disaster struck, in the unlikely location of Selhurst Park. In a bad-tempered affair, Eric had been subjected to constant physical and verbal abuse by Crystal Palace defender Richard Shaw, and when Shaw again pulled Cantona’s shirt as they challenged for the ball midway through the 2nd half, the Frenchman could hold his temper no longer and petulantly kicked out at the Palace player; the subsequent red-card was little surprise, though Eric later stated that he felt he had got no protection all evening from the referee. As he was being ushered towards the tunnel by United kitman Norman Davies, a Palace thug ran down from the rear of the stand and shouted racist abuse directly into Cantona’s face- he exploded in rage, launching himself over the railing with a kung-fu kick into the startled attacker’s chest, and then attempted to twice punch the thug in the face.

The fall-out was predictably over-the-top, some pundits and media sources calling for Cantona to be banned for life. In the end, he was sentenced to 120 hours community service for common assault (which he ‘served’ by taking training sessions for local kids), and slapped with a ridiculously harsh 8-month ban from all football globally by the F.A. and F.I.F.A….. France manager Aime Jacquet stripped him of the country’s captaincy- he would never win another cap for France again (in 2015, Eric claimed that had he still been involved with the national team, he would have extended his playing career so that he could feature in World Cup ’98 in his home country… a case of what might have been). His disdain for those heading up the French Federation was so strong that he has since openly supported his ‘adopted’ nation, England, in major tournaments rather than France.

The press conference that followed was one of the most iconic ever witnessed, Eric walking in to calmly state that “when seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea… thank-you very much”, before abruptly walking out again, leaving a stunned press pack struggling to decipher his meaning.

Eric himself felt (not without some justification!) that the entire world, certainly the entire football fraternity, was firmly against him, and he decided to go home to France to ponder his future. Whilst there, and having pretty much decided to permanently quit the game, he had a visitor: Alex Ferguson. Having heard of Eric’s low state of morale and his intention to retire from football altogether, the Scot made a desperate attempt to  persuade the French artisan to return to United after the summer of 1995 and resume his career, assuring Cantona of a “king’s welcome” from the Red Devils’ army of fans. Thankfully, Sir Alex was always a supreme master in the art of persuasion, and the maverick Frenchman duly changed his mind about quitting the game he loved and returned to Manchester for pre-season training that July.

In his absence, United battled on gamely, new striker Cole scoring regularly, but two defeats on Merseyside and dropped points at home during the run-in proved decisive as Blackburn Rovers clung on to pole position, thanks largely to the prolific Alan Shearer. A final day draw at West Ham United condemned United to runners-up spot, and the following week’s 0-1 defeat in the F.A. Cup Final against Everton confirmed the fans worst fears: without Eric, United were merely good, not great.

Going into the new 1995-96 season, Alex Ferguson appeared to share that sentiment. In the summer he controversially sold club legends Hughes, Ince and Kanchelskis, and opted to field some of the kids coming through the Club’s academy. By the time Cantona was allowed to return from his ban in October, United had only lost one league game, on the opening day at Villa; predictably, his return was nothing if not dramatic- after setting up Nicky Butt’s opening goal after only two minutes, Eric scored an equalising penalty in the 2-2 home draw with bitter rivals Liverpool, and celebrated it by swinging from one of the goal-netting poles in front of a delirious Scoreboard End paddock!

Perhaps a bit ‘rusty’, and surrounded by a host of talented young players who idolised him but hadn’t played with him competitively, both Cantona and the team’s form was a bit patchy for a few months, and three league defeats over the Christmas period seemed to confirm that United would struggle to keep pace with runaway league leaders Newcastle United. However, 1996 was going to be a vintage year at Old Trafford; after the festive period, the Frenchman was both inspirational and in electric goalscoring form himself. He scored 10 goals over a 3 month period, including the decisive strikes in 1-0 victories over West Ham United, Newcastle United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Coventry City as the Red Devils stormed to a third Premier League triumph in four years, overtaking a seemingly unstoppable Newcastle side led by an emotional Kevin Keegan.

The season was crowned perfectly for both Eric himself and Manchester United fans worldwide when he scored a beautiful driven volleyed winner in the dying minutes of the F.A. Cup Final at Wembley against arch-rivals Liverpool to clinch a second ‘Double’ for the team. In the absence of injured skipper Steve Bruce, Eric held the trophy aloft as captain, and in doing so became the first ever foreign player to do so. Personal acclaim followed as he was named both F.W.A. ‘Player of the Year’, and also Sir Matt Busby ‘Player of the Year’ at the Club for a second time.

After Bruce departed to Birmingham City that summer, it surprised nobody when Alex Ferguson named Eric as club captain for season 1996-97; surrounded by a team of supreme quality, they murdered Newcastle United 4-0 in the traditional Charity Shield season opener, and then witnessed young David Beckham score one of the all-time great goals from inside his own half at Wimbledon in the opening league fixture.

Partnered in the main by a new signing, a young baby-faced Norwegian assassin called Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Cantona turned into ‘choir conductor’, simply dictating the rhythm of most games. United remained unbeaten until late October, before losing three league games in a row, including a 5-0 trouncing at title challengers Newcastle United, who had beaten Ferguson to the signing of Alan Shearer that summer. However, unlike 1995, Cantona was in place to help steady the ship, and with the maestro in majestic form, United wouldn’t lose another Premier League game for four months.

Whilst his own personal goal tally decreased in this, his final season, his status with the fans as an absolute iconic superhero was never so vibrant. This was highlighted again a few days before Christmas 1996 in the game with Sunderland, when he finished a majestic inter-passing counter-attacking move with a simply outrageous clipped finish over the head of the unfortunate visiting keeper and in off the far post at the Scoreboard End net….It was a goal so good that it is still a “YouTube” hit video all these years later, a goal which he celebrated by enquiringly looking around the stadium at the delirious fans, hands held out to the side, as if to say: “well, was that good enough for you?!”

Under his leadership, United lost only two league games in 1997 (one of which, a 2-3 defeat at home to Derby County, was witnessed from the Stretford End by your bemused author, as a lanky Caribbean striker called Paulo Wanchope went a long way to convincing Alex Ferguson that Phil Neville might very well be better plying his trade elsewhere as Wanchope ran through powder-puff challenges to score Derby’s winning goal….). Cantona had scored the winning goal at home to Southampton on 1st February to carry the Red Devils to the top of the table, and they never relinquished that grip on the title race, finishing 7 points clear of Newcastle United.

Whilst it was all smiles on the home front, the grins on faces after United demolished a very decent F.C. Porto side 4-0 in the Champions League Quarter-Finals (including a goal from Cantona) were wiped off by a gritty Borussia Dortmund team in the Semi-Finals, the Germans winning both games 1-0. It was the lowest point of an otherwise excellent season, and deepened the sense of frustration around Old Trafford that the team seemed unable to translate their growing domestic domination onto the European stage, and Cantona was not immune from that criticism in the popular press.

Those gathering for the final league game of the season at home to West Ham couldn’t have known it, but they were in attendance at Eric’s last ever competitive game of football. Having lifted the Premier League trophy, his fourth title in five years, Cantona shocked the football world by announcing his immediate retirement from the game, citing his interest in devoting his time and energies to developing an acting career; as with football, this he has done very successfully, particularly in French cinema.

Eric Cantona became an almost ‘larger than life’ character whilst wearing a Manchester United shirt. No-one with even a passing interest in the English version of the ‘beautiful game’ could fail to notice his impact, especially when Nike plastered his face (super-imposed on a St. George’s flag) on billboards with the message: “’66 was a great year for English football. Eric was born….” during 1993 and 1994. It perfectly portrayed what was perceived as Eric’s unrepentant arrogance towards his detractors, and only served to make him even more hated by those who despised United, even more adored by those who didn’t. I could very easily envisage enraged Leeds United fans climbing up roadside gantries around West Yorkshire to attempt to rip down those provocative Cantona billboards!

He also appears in commercials, particularly for Nike, on a regular basis and has a significant presence on social media platforms, often giving his forthright views on current football happenings whilst seated on a throne, a grey, grizzled ‘king’ of the game to the last! His stature amongst United fans is arguably as revered as any star of past or present, right up there alongside iconic figures like George Best, Denis Law, Sir Bobby Charlton and Bryan Robson. He came, he saw, he conquered…and all with considerable panache! In the pantheon of stars to have pulled on a United shirt during Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure, Cantona was probably the brightest of the lot, his influence all-pervading. He gave English football more enduring memories in those five seasons than just about anyone else who has ever kicked a football has in an entire career.

About the Author

Rodney McCain
A passionate supporter of Manchester United since I was 6 years old. In life I'm a consulting civil engineer, but that's only to pay the bills. Originally from Northern Ireland, I was a regular at Old Trafford for many years, but now reside in the United States, which makes getting to games a tad difficult.... I love to write about football, which hopefully comes across to readers on these sites.