Eric Cantona was the Premier League's first genuine superstar, a man who helped to build Alex Ferguson's Manchester United empire. Few had the ability to match King Eric on the pitch; fewer still possess the courage to walk away as he did.
This week's inductee to The Cult was the Premier League's first genuine superstar, a man who helped to build Alex Ferguson's Manchester United empire. Few had the ability to match King Eric on the pitch; fewer still possess the courage to walk away as he did. You can read previous entries here.
Cult Grade: The Advertising Standard
There is one truly memorable piece of football advertising that stands out from my childhood. Launched by Nike in 1994, it appeared in a variety of places: on leaflets nestled beneath your new Tiempo boots, among the sacred pages of Match magazine, and amid the ad breaks that punctuated Champions League ties.
But the one that has stuck with me was a 14-by-48ft billboard that towered over a busy roundabout in my hometown. Initially, it grabbed my attention because of the blood red Saint George's Cross that provided the backdrop to an otherwise black and white image. This was not only visually arresting but borderline provocative: I lived in a town 30 miles west of Swansea, where you rarely see the English flag in such a vibrant, unblemished state.
But while the backdrop was unfamiliar, the figure stood in front of it was instantly recognisable. To an eight-year-old, Eric Cantona was among the most famous and enthralling men in the world. The Frenchman was perhaps the most significant player in the young Premier League, the star player at champions Manchester United and an enigmatic maverick to boot. Cantona oozed nonchalance yet was capable of things that could only have come from hours of practice and dedication. He wore his collar turned up in defiance, a symbolic middle finger to the conformists of this world. Cantona was unquestionably the best and he did not give a solitary shit about what anyone else thought.
What struck me, even back then, was the sheer arrogance on display. It is in the curve of his mouth, the tilt of his eyes, the angle of his collar. You even know that it is in the parts of his body that you can't see: the angle of his spine, the placement of his hands upon his hips. It all adds power to the statement itself: that Cantona's birth was a greater landmark than England's World Cup triumph.
Arrogance is great, so long as you can back it up. Few could do so like Cantona, who was equal parts genius footballer and bombastic agitator. By the end of the 1993/94 season United were Premier League champions for a second time in succession and secured the double with a 4-0 win over Chelsea in the FA Cup Final. Individually, Cantona was voted PFA Players' Player of the Year and the United fans' player of the year, scored 18 league goals, and netted a brace of penalties at Wembley to help sink Chelsea.
Which is to say that he was the star of the biggest show in town. At a time when football in this country was still transitioning from the horror of the eighties – when the sport had seemed almost ready to die out – Cantona restored badly needed flair, style, and self-confidence, all of which seemed to have disappeared from the English game. He looked, acted, and quite plainly was a man of unique brilliance.
Only he could appear in an advert that suggested a Frenchman was more important than England's greatest sporting triumph. And if you had dared question him about it I imagine he would have shrugged, eyes unmoving, and ask: "Is it not true?" And then he would score an unstoppable free-kick and you would think: "Yes, it is true. England's World Cup win was broadcast in black and white, whereas Cantona is brilliant Technicolor."
Point of Entry: Front Row, Main Stand, Selhurst Park
What does it say about us that two of the most iconic football moments of the past quarter century were acts of violence? While we're at it, what does it say about the French that both were carried out by their players? I speak, of course, of Zidane's head-butt during the 2006 World Cup Final, and Cantona's unscheduled introduction to the crowd at Selhurst Park in January 1995.
Both men seemed to snap at provocation, losing control and completely breaking football's rules of engagement – specifically, the one that says you shouldn't physically assault anyone. Zidane's headbutt on Marco Materazzi was pure, artless aggression, the antithesis of the way Zizou played the game. But what Cantona did was something else. There was an underlying grace to the chaos he caused in the Selhurst Park stands.
The game took place on 22 January 1995, when United travelled to South London to play Crystal Palace. Three days earlier Cantona had scored to give them a 1-0 win over title rivals Blackburn Rovers. Now he became the villain, seeing red for lashing out at Richard Shaw after the Palace defender tugged at his shirt.
Not for the first time, Cantona headed towards the tunnel earlier than planned – he'd done so three times the previous season – but on this occasion he became distracted by a Palace supporter hurling abuse in his direction. The man was Matthew Simmons, who had rushed forward 11 rows to loudly suggest that Cantona might wish to "fuck off back to France".
The next few seconds have become part of English football's collective memory. Cantona's very Gallic stroll towards the tunnel being broken when he hears the abuse, his head turning as if caught by a fishing hook. Alive, suddenly, and wriggling through the hands of United kitman Norman Davies. Just a few rapid steps and then he is rising into the air, powerful right leg protruding, United's talisman taking flight into the crowd. The face of the woman stood next to Simmons, aghast, somehow shocked to see an act of violence at an English football ground. And then: absolute chaos. But before it, a silence seemed to fall over the crowd, in the second or so between Cantona taking off from the turf and landing on the advertising hoarding.
I remember seeing the story on the nine o'clock news and feeling unsure as to what Cantona had done, but understanding that the severity with which the newsreaders were discussing it equated to something very serious. Presumably he had killed someone, maybe slaughtered a few people in quick succession. I didn't know. But what he had done was "ugly and violent" and the police were preparing to question him. To an eight-year-old who had watched NYPD Blue, this was serious shit. Definitely murder.
That he had merely kicked a man – a man who had verbally abused him – seemed rather tame in comparison. To a child, the whole episode felt confusing. Cantona was a hero whether you supported United or not, and it seemed strange that the serious grey-suited adults on the TV were treating him like a villain.
The FA did the same, banning Cantona for eight months and thus ruling him out of the remainder of the Premier League campaign. United went on to lose the title by a single point.
But the episode's most enduring moment came at a press conference, arranged after Cantona had been sentenced to 120 hours of community service. In a packed little room, with dozens of journalists desperately waiting for a quote, Cantona spoke slowly: "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea." Silence, save for the sound of cameras snapping photos. Then he thanked the assembled press, stood, and left.
The journalists called after him, still following the trawler in the hope of more, but Cantona was gone. The arrogance to say it and the brilliance to pull it off: that is Cult.
The Moment: Filer à l'anglaise ("to leave English style")
After returning from his ban in September 1995, Cantona quickly re-established himself in Alex Ferguson's all-conquering team. Two more Premier League titles followed in succession, as well as another FA Cup in 1996, when Cantona scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Liverpool. The press confirmed their adulation by awarding him the Football Writers' Association Footballer of the Year award for 1995/96, while his unparalleled status at United was confirmed when he became club captain following the departure of Steve Bruce.
Then, seven days after winning his fourth title in five years at Old Trafford, Cantona announced that he was retiring from professional football.
Few saw it coming: he was 30 years old, had missed only two league games that term, and had topped the assists chart. Less than six months earlier he had scored a goal that will be talked about for as long as United fans walk this earth. It felt sudden and shocking, then, to land on Ceefax page 302 and learn that Cantona was gone, just like that, with barely any hint of a goodbye.
In hindsight, that Cantona would take such a bold decision so suddenly without ever wavering seems entirely in character. He knew that he could not continue to be United's most important player and had no intention of stepping into a less pivotal role. He went out in his own style, on his own terms, never to grow old and unimportant.
Perhaps more than any United player, Cantona should be remembered as the catalyst for the incredible success that the club enjoyed during Ferguson's tenure. He helped United shift from a very good side to a great one, and showed a group of youngsters that included Giggs, Scholes and Beckham what true brilliance looked like. He was dynamic, short-tempered, and he buggered off without a proper goodbye once he'd had enough. In truth, he was more a representation of English football than anyone born on this island.
"Some players, with respected and established reputations, are cowed and broken by the size and expectations [of Manchester United]. Not Eric. He swaggered in, stuck his chest out, raised his head and surveyed everything as if to ask: `I'm Cantona, how big are you? Are you big enough for me?'"––Alex Ferguson