Made in Marseille; Made for Manchester. Why Cantona is my Heaven.
The story of human progress can broadly be divided into two symbiotic narratives; invention and destruction. Invention; the pursuit through art and science of answers to questions man faces from the world around him. Destruction; the brutal and often irrational devastation that stems from this pursuit of success.
Sport like Art like Politics so often imitates life. Each movement requires a leader. Someone who knowingly or otherwise carries the fight for progress. To address the ills of the past and present in order to ensure a better future.
On rare occasion this is a person blessed with invention untrammelled by destruction – a Gandhi. Yet more commonly the individual upon whom our hopes are pinned not only treads the fine line between invention and destruction but is all the richer for it. Mandela the statesman was able to bring a new peaceful dawn on account of the experiences of Mandela the terrorist.
For Manchester United the wounds incurred by 26 years without a championship were open. We needed a new leader to allow us to cross the rubicon.
For a decade Bryan Robson had fought a lonely battle against the Mersey might, only to be let down by those around him. His waning powers could not make the difference in 1992 as self-destruction on the home straight meant again United fell short.
Manchester United needed an inventor. A player of considerable individual talent who could make those around him believe that redemption could become reality.
He had tantalisingly threatened to be the second coming of Platini yet for all his invention a predication for self-destruction had left him a pariah. Even in an era of Clintonian comebacks, in Autumn 1992 the resurrection of Canto seemed implausible. Exiled from his homeland and now distrusted by the coach at the middling Yorkshire club whom he had helped to a title. Where did the inventor/destroyer go now?
Manchester United chose Eric out of desperation. Bereft of invention; the near miss of 92 seemed destined to be the zenith of the Ferguson era. Goals were few, entertainment was rare, and the glamourous under-achievers were resigned to a familiar narrative.
Eric was the difference.
A manager’s punt has since been recognised as a stroke of genius. Before joining United Cantona had played as a number 9, traditional 10 and even spells in a withdrawn attacking midfield role. For Houllier’s France he had arguably looked most effective in a 433 – both a link to midfield and an attacking spearhead in an early version of the false nine. The opportunistic nature of the signing meant Ferguson lacked a pre-ordained tactical role for Cantona. Though a quirk of fate this turned out to be crucial in unlocking ‘the inventor’ (a freedom he also seems to have granted Robin van Persie whom, for all the Berbatov comparisons, is much closer in style to Cantona than the Bulgarian).
Eric adapted his own game dependant on who he was alongside – happiest playing off the powerful Hughes, he took on a more physical role when twinned with McClair and later Solskjaer. Not all whom he played with were a natural fit; despite goals eventually flowing he never looked truly happy alongside Cole and was perhaps too similar to compliment his heir apparent Paul Scholes.
The relationship that dominates my memories of Eric’s best displays is his telepathic understanding with Giggs. The wingers fondness for flashing crosses and hitting passes early appealed to Eric who launched and finished countless counter-attacks in tandem with the Welshman. I would go as far to say that in the all the 39year old’s decorated career no other colleague has come close to matching the chemistry he enjoyed with the French forward.
Cantona’s expressionism should not be confused with luxury. No player worked harder for the team. He was white shark efficient – as happy scoring mundane goals against mundane foes as he was executing astonishing golazos in cup finals. I feel that the reputation, particularly in his home country, of ‘Eric the flat track bully’ was down to a misunderstanding of his impact. Cristiano Ronaldo suffered the same critique – an absurd view then and now.
A similar accusation which has clouded views of him is his minimal impact in the European stage. This is a more valid criticism – certainly in major ties (the semi-final against Dortmund springs to mind) he was a shadow of his domestic self but context is key here. The foreigner rule decimated his first great United side with predictable results. The other variable which limited his impression on the continent was the tactics of his manager. For all his success and brilliance, Ferguson had been a late developer as a European tactician. During the age of Eric, it was common for Cantona to play as an isolated front man which neutered his influence. I would love to have seen how Eric would have fared as part of the 2008 squad with the influence of Carlos Queiroz so apparent. You won’t convince me that Cantona wouldn’t have been a phenomenon flanked by Ronaldo, Tevez or Rooney. It remains the unfulfilled aspect of Canto’s Old Trafford career and it clearly concerned him enough at the time of his suspension for him to seriously contemplate a move to Internazionale in pursuit of continental success.
The reason Eric is my favourite player ever* is as much about his influence on the club as his (admittedly magnificent) output in terms of goals.
His early achievement was acceptance. Respected and indulged in an intimidating dressing room full of hard, egotistical characters from the old school. Bruce, Ince, Robson, Keane et al could be expected to treat the intruder with suspicion yet Eric’s work ethic, ability and dark side won them over.
The dark side – the destruction element – is seen by some as the caveat to heralding greatness. Needless assaults on Goss and Moncur were in my eyes more repugnant than the martial arts doled out to Matthew Simmons that became the defining image of his career. Lurking beneath the invention was always the capacity for violence. Eric embraced the cliche that this flame could not be extinguished or he wouldn’t be the same player. Ferguson bought into this fallacy and presided over a side characterised by arrogance and aggression. In his magnificent biography, Phillipe Auclair goes as far as to liken this vintage to Revie’s infamous Leeds team. It is fair to say that such on-field behaviour if replicated today would mean eleven players remaining on the field would be a rarity.
As it happened, upon his return from suspension the demons that were alleged to be so integral to his characteristic were nowhere to be seen. Just as Mandela traded in violent insurgency for peaceful resolution; Eric dampened the fire inside him. Auclair attributes this to the cleansing experience of working in the community as a consequence of his assault on Simmons. A ringing endorsement for community service orders if one were needed.
In a narrative that would be reproduced by two successive successors to his famous number 7 shirt, Eric found that by remaining calm in the face of vitriol you could gain an even sweeter victory; Respect. Elland Road and Anfield aside, by the end of his comeback season opposing fans had given up the charade of football as pantomime and reluctantly appreciated witnessing the greatest footballing import to these shores. These days no doubt he would be faced with witless Sloop John B derivative abuse from the stands but enough true football lovers attended matches in 1996 for such an absolution to occur.
Eric’s contribution after returning from his ban was as close to a one-man title victory as I have seen. An unbalanced mix of untried youth, ageing veterans, a catalogue of injuries and players struggling with the expectations of the club resulted in as weak a side as Ferguson would put out until the season of the Djemba twins. It is my belief that Hansen’s much derided prediction that United would ‘win nothing with kids’ would have been vindicated had Cantona not raised his game still further. It is arguably the stand out attribute of Cantona – courage to lead in adversity. It served him well earlier in his career with Auxerre, Montpellier and Nimes, but none more so in 96 where he literally sealed an improbable double.
For any player to become a true Manchester United great for me they must have an enduring legacy. Cantona – just as he helped lay the foundation for the French world cup triumph – played the key role in instilling the indefatigable characteristic which has been intrinsic in Ferguson teams ever since.
Much has been written about his influence on the golden generation who delivered the season of seasons in 99. Yet his legacy goes still further; prior to Eric’s arrival Manchester United were the bridesmaid at best. Second in the league sometimes with a cup for good measure. Cantona transformed us into the bride. His winning mentality over time has become the fabric of the club – right up to the present where the belief that ‘Manchester United don’t lose, they just run out of time’ still holds sway.
I was born in 1983. My time watching United has coincided with the most successful in the history of the club. I’ve seen Giggs tear teams apart, Keane be f’ooking magic, and Ronaldo make even the best teams look shite.
Yet above all of these great teams with all of these great players only He deserves to be known as the King.
*Given my adoration love for Cantona, fittingly my first born son arrived this week on the 20th anniversary of His arrival. Several have asked why I’ve not named Joshua after my hero yet the answer is surely obvious; there can only ever be one Eric.