The Greatest XI: Eric The King

Football began over 150 years ago. For myself, personally, it began in 1990. At the age of ten, I fell in love with the sport and of course Manchester United. Watching the FA Cup Final with my father and his mates, followed by Italia ’90, it really did capture my imagination. This got me thinking, what or rather who would be my dream Manchester United eleven? Over the coming weeks, I shall be selecting my one to eleven.

10. Eric Cantona – In the hole

1966 was a great year for English football, Eric Cantona was born. The self proclaimed ‘King’ of Manchester. Cantona was like the pied piper of Hamlin, leading the team, all playing to the majestic tune of this iconic Manchester United player. The Frenchman, signed for a mere £1.2million from Leeds United, was the catalyst to a United team which would go on to dominate the Premier League for the next two decades.

When Howard Wilkinson, then-manager of rivals Leeds United, phoned Sir Alex on the off chance that Denis Irwin might be available, little did we know then that the player who had just helped the Yorkshire club to the First Division title, was about to be shipped across the Pennines to Lancashire. Ferguson had cheekily asked Wilkinson if the Frenchman was available, and as Cantona had caused Wilkinson a few sleepless nights, to his surprise he was given the all clear to table a bid.

Cantona arrived at United in the final days of November 1992. United were sitting in 10th place, stuttering in front of goal after summer signing, Dion Dublin, had been ruled out for the season with a broken leg, sustained only weeks after making his debut. Eric’s debut was at home to Manchester City in a 2-1 win and although Cantona hardly contributed that day, he would go on and make the rest of the season his own. United would only lose two more games that season, winning the first ever Premier League title by ten points. Aston Villa had chased hard but faded at the business end of the season.

His second season was even better than the first. United would go on to win both the Premier League and FA cup. Cantona, scoring two penalties in the final, beating Chelsea 4-0. Cantona would finish as United’s top scorer of that campaign with 25 goals in all competitions, and all this despite a five game ban for two successive red cards, firstly against Swindon Town and then just a few days later down at Arsenal. Eric had a short fuse, as we will find out shortly. Cantona would be crowned PFA Player of the year for 1993/94 to cap and already impressive season.

The 1994/95 season had played out the same way as the previous season. United won the Charity Shield, beating up and coming Blackburn Rovers, heavily backed by the millions of Jack Walker. The season got off to a flyer and by Christmas, United had already beaten Blackburn 4-2 and turned over noisy neighbours, City, 5-0. Cantona was on fire. A dozen goals by the new year and with Andy Cole being signed from Newcastle United, a third consecutive title looked to be heading to Old Trafford. That was until the 25th January 1995.

United, playing away at Crystal Palace, were being held to a 1-1 draw. A frustrating night in which United and Cantona, were not quite hitting the usual heights of performance. Crystal Palace defender, Richard Shaw, gave a tug on Eric’s shirt, and as Cantona was not too pleased about this, Kicked out towards the Palace defender. Unfortunately for Cantona, every man and his dog had seen this rash move. Cue red card and ref pointing to the tunnel. As Eric walked along the touchline, an angry Palace fan shouted obscenities towards Cantona and something inside the fiery Frenchman made him flip. A ‘kung-fu’ kick that Bruce Lee would of been proud of, followed by a raft of right hands, rained down on the startled fan before one of United’s coaches pulled him off and whisked him down the tunnel.

“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea” – Cantona’s famous quote to the press following his ban.

Manchester United would issue a public statement and ban Eric from football for four months, unfortunately the FA decided to double this. Cantona was appalled by the decision and retired there and then on the spot, which Sir Alex then had to fight to overturn his decision. A ban until October 1st 1995, would see United squander both the Premier League, to Blackburn Rovers, and lose in the FA cup final to Everton. A successive double would of no doubt been on the cards had the enigmatic Frenchman still been available.

” We came into the changing room after the game, Eric was just sitting there. No one could believe what had just happened. In came the boss. He was apoplectic. Shouting at each and every one of us. Why did we let them cross the ball for the goal? Who was marking him at the back post? He went round each of us, tearing a strip off of us, till he got to Eric. Eric, you cant go around doing that son, and then he moved on to someone else. Unbelievable” – Lee Sharpe on the night Cantona was sent off.

When Cantona returned from his ban, you would of bet your mortgage on him having a say on his second coming. Liverpool were in town. Just two minutes into the game and a Cantona cross was turned into the net by Nicky Butt. Into the second half and after Ryan Giggs was brought down by Jamie Redknapp, who else but Cantona, to stick the penalty into the back of the net. United would go on a run, winning a majority of their remaining games 1-0, and Cantona more often than not, being the scorer. Newcastle United, who had amassed a 12 point lead, were caught and over taken. A third Premier League title in four years, but that was not all. A third successive FA cup final appearance, this time against old foe, Liverpool. Steve Bruce was injured for the final and Eric Cantona was named as captain. The game was absolutely shocking until the 86th minute. A half cleared corner dropped to Cantona on the edge of the box, who swivelled and volleyed the ball through a crowded box of Liverpool players, into the bottom corner. Another double.

“In my early years at United, there was a players’ pool and each of us would get about £800 out of it at the end of the season for the work we’d done for the in-house magazines, the club videos,” Keane said in his autobiography, The Second Half.

“We were all on decent money and eight hundred quid wasn’t going to make or break us, so one time, we decided to put all the cheques into a hat and the last cheque out, whoever’s name was on it, got to keep all of the cheques.We all put our cheques in except a couple of the younger players – I think it was Becks and Gary and Phil (Neville). They opted out. They were new on the scene and didn’t have the money to spare, but Scholesy and Nicky Butt put their cheques in. I think I was the third last name out, so I got a run for my money, but the last cheque out – Eric Cantona. He’d won about sixteen grand.

“He came in the next day, there was plenty of banter – ‘Eric, you lucky b——!’ F—— money to money.’
“But he had got somebody to cash the cheques, he’d split the money in two and he gave it to Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt because, he said, the two of them had the balls to go into it when they couldn’t really afford it. The two lads took home about eight grand each. I just thought, ‘what a gesture.’ Nobody else would have done it.”

Keane admits that Cantona’s captaincy opened his eyes to the alternative qualities required of a successful captain.
“Cantona led by his presence more than anything else – his charisma,” Keane said. “A captain doesn’t have to be loud; Eric rarely said a word.” – Roy Keane

The 1996/97 season would see Cantona named as captain of Manchester United. In a season in which Cantona would score thirteen goals, United would fall short in the Champions League, losing in the quarter finals. Another Premier League title would make its way to Old Trafford, making it four championships in five seasons. An impressive return for the million pound paid out just five years previous. As Cantona turned 30, many believed that he would be leading the team into another season of domination, until he dropped the bombshell that he was going to retire. Sir Alex again tried to talk him round, this time failing in doing so. It would be an end of an era.

Cantona had left a mark on both his team mates and fans. Voted greatest player ever by ‘Inside United’ magazine, the Frenchman was a really special talent. An iconic number seven, with upturned collar and gaelic swagger, Cantona had earned his “King Eric” moniker. Cantona had won the league title in six of his seven previous seasons. Four with United, one with Leeds and the previous season with Marseille. This could of been a perfect record, had the red mist not descended down at Selhurst Park, one cold January night. Eric the King would compliment this team perfectly.

Appearances – 185

Goals – 82

Honours:

Premier League (4): 1992–93, 1993–94, 1995–96, 1996–97
FA Cup (2): 1993–94, 1995–96
Charity Shield (3): 1993, 1994, 1996

Individual:

Ballon d’Or – Third Place: 1993
Premier League leader in assists (2): 1992-93, 1996-97
BBC Sport Goal of the Month (2): February 1994, December 1996
PFA Premier League Team of the Year: 1993–94
PFA Players’ Player of the Year: 1993–94
FWA Footballer of the Year: 1995–96
Premier League Player of the Month: March 1996
Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year (2): 1993–94, 1995–96
Onze d’Or: 1996
ESM Team of the Year: 1995–96
Premier League 10 Seasons Awards (1992–93 to 2001–02)
Overseas and Overall Team of the Decade
Overseas Player of the Decade
Inducted into the inaugural English Football Hall of Fame: 2002
UEFA Golden Jubilee Poll: #42
FIFA 100 Greatest Living Footballers: 2004
PFA Team of the Century (1907–2007):
Team of the Century 1997-2007
Overall Team of the Century
Football League 100 Legends
Golden Foot Legends Award: 2012

About the Author

John McNicoll
Southern Red and Football enthusiast.