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The year was 1966. England had won the World Cup, Indira Gandhi had taken control of India and the Moors murderers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady had been jailed for life. This was also the year that a certain Eric Cantona was born and began a journey that would eventually lead him to England to transformation the fortunes of England’s biggest club side – Manchester United.
Born in Paris, a young Eric Cantona soon moved to Marseille with his parents Albert and Eleonore and it soon became clear that this young Frenchman had an extraordinary talent. Honing his skills with any spherical object on which he could lay his hands, the familiar swagger and silky demeanour began to flourish. Blessed with a barrel chest and supreme upper body strength – standing at 6ft 2inches tall, the Frenchman had an athletic physique to support the deftest of touches and the cleanest of strikes – topped off with razor-sharp vision and an unerring confidence. The professional career of this precocious young talent began at French first division side Auxerre where, after two years as an apprentice in the youth side, Cantona made his debut in a 4-0 defeat of Nancy. However, just as his career looked ready for lift off it was grounded, as he was called-up for his 12 months of compulsory national service. Yet it appeared nothing could stand in the way of this most maverick of characters. Following a brief loan spell at second division side Martigues, Cantona fired 23 goals in 81 appearances – earning himself a call-up to the national side in the process.
Yet amongst spellbinding displays of untold brilliance were sporadic episodes of manic behaviour. It was clear that somewhere deep inside this outstanding talent was a burning desire – or anger – just ready to explode. It seemed the stage was not quite big enough to handle a character of Cantona’s size. A move to boyhood club Marseille appeared perfect – a club sizeable enough to handle both talent and ego. Yet, as with his entire career, the path did not run smoothly. Bust-ups with managers and teammates resulted in another two loan moves, firstly at Bordeaux and then at Montpellier, where Cantona well and truly found his feet – firing 10 goals in 33 appearances. Playing just off the central striker, ‘King Eric’ – as he would soon be known – revelled, dictating the game with his ability to find a killer pass or produce a phenomenal piece of individual brilliance just at the right moment – a rare quality found only in the greatest of players.
But, once more, success was short lived. Indiscipline reigned and, after a brief return to Marseille and short stint at Nimes, Cantona was ready for the next chapter of what had been a nomadic career – a chapter that would lead to England and the making of one the Premier League’s finest imports. Leeds United was the first club to take a gamble on the enigmatic Frenchman, using him sparingly to produce moments of brilliance from the substitute’s bench. Although the English public was only treated to glimpses of this wonderful talent, the ability was there for all to see – not least in a 4-3 Charity Shield victory over Liverpool, where Cantona bagged the most clinical of hat-tricks to well and truly introduce himself on English soil. Having secured the old English first division title it seemed the enigma had settled and found a haven for his mercurial talents. Yet when Sir Alex Ferguson made the most tentative of enquiries for his services in November of 1992, the rest, as they say, is history.
Manchester United was a club on the brink of glory. 25 years had passed without league success. Great players had come and gone. Old Trafford needed a spark, a character with an air of unpredictability and creativity to light a new era of dominance. And in Cantona, they had found their man – for £1.2m.
In five trophy-laden years, Cantona won four league titles and two FA Cups, scoring 80 goals in 181 league appearances to become the orchestrator of The Theatre of Dreams – bringing supporters to their feet with some performances of outstanding quality. In his first year with the Reds, ‘King Eric’ became the first player to win back to back league titles with different clubs as United lifted the inaugural Premier League crown, with the Frenchman at the epicentre of the success. His performance in the 4-1 demolition of Tottenham is one that has gone down in folklore.
The scorer of one goal and assisting the rest, Cantona became an overnight hero, a new legend in the United No 7 shirt. The outrageous piece of skill to set up Denis Irwin’s goal was symptomatic of his genius. As the ball was played into his feet on the edge of the box, Cantona produced the deftest of flicks that sent the ball spinning over the top of the Tottenham backline and into the path of the onrushing Irwin. His ability to read the game one or two moves ahead of play was unrivalled and often gave the appearance of having an eternity of time on the football.
Of course there were further episodes of indiscipline. The notorious ‘kung-fu’ kick and 9-month ban that threatened to end his career for good, an incident that would undoubtedly have been the knockout blow to weaker characters – but not this one. Cantona hung on, trained harder and waited for his moment to make Old Trafford his own once more. And he didn’t disappoint.
The moment of brilliance to win the 1996 FA Cup final against Liverpool – a swivelling volley that seemed impossible, fired past the helpless David James with just minutes to spare, sending supporters into raptures. Cantona could always produce that piece of magic at just the right moment. Yet a goal against Sunderland on December 21, 1996 is the moment with which he is possibly best remembered, a goal combining everything that Cantona symbolised. The touch to collect a pass, the guile to evade the challenges of three Sunderland defenders, the vision to lay off a delicate pass to Brian McClair and then the sheer audacity to send a majestic lob over the stunned Lionel Perez. And to cap off a quite sublime finish was a celebration of unadultered arrogance as supporters chanted his name in delirium.
When he announced his sudden retirement from the game in 1997 the world of football was stunned. But that was Eric Cantona – an unpredictable, unreadable a maverick with the sixth sense of picking the perfect time to produce moments that could shock even the most experienced of human beings. His legend lives on. A true great of the modern era.
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