It has now been been 13 years since Eric Cantona played his last Premier League game for Manchester United yet the mere mention of his name still sends shivers down the spine of fans who were fortunate enough to experience his five seasons at Old Trafford. Thousands of younger fans will barely remember those halcyon days except for some images on old VHS tapes yet the stories they heard still has them in awe of the great Frenchman.
Many words have been written about the enigma called Cantona, many have tried to understand the man behind the name but while it proved to be almost impossible to do so, his football was just the opposite. It was flamboyant, exhilarating, a thing of sheer beauty and artistry. For those who may not have yet come across a book which was published nearly a year ago, a book that possibly comes closest to accurately describing the man known as ‘King Eric’ to his Old Trafford fans who in 2001 voted him as Manchester United’s Player of the Century, it’s a story that must be read by young and old fans alike.
Cantona: The Rebel Who Would be King by Philippe Auclair
The Sunday Times review by Rod Liddle
This is a very French book about a brilliant anglophile French footballer, written by a very good anglophile French journalist. It takes its subject seriously and asks that you do the same. It is clearly, for the author, a labour of love rather than a quick buck hagiography, a fascinating portrait of an exquisitely talented and intelligent but also petulant and arrogant monkey who illuminated and perhaps changed for ever the British game and who is better known as Eric Cantona.
He was born in 1966 to mixed Sardinian and Catalan stock up in the hills where the heady squalor of Marseilles gives way to the bourgeois villages of Provence. His ancestors hacked out a cave from the mountain rocks for the family’s first home but by the time Eric was born, the Cantonas had established themselves as semi respectable artisans, consumed with a love of football.
Eric shone from a young age, both at football and at fine art for which he retained a most un-Premier League passion. His early career was, much as later on, troubled and intermittently brilliant. He fell out with a succession of rogues and megalomaniacs who owned some of the top French teams and not infrequently, with his team mates as well. Effectively driven from the French game following an act of childish spite while playing for Nîmes – he only threw the ball at the referee and stormed off, he ended up in the unlikely embrace of the manager of Leeds United, Howard Wilkinson.
A championship winning season at Elland Road was followed by his transfer to their loathed rivals Manchester United. Alex Ferguson bought Cantona for a snip, the low transfer fee reflecting the imputation that the player was virtually unmanageable, and it was over five seasons at Old Trafford that the Frenchman came closest to fulfilling his considerable potential, propelling United to successive league championships with imperious audacity.
He still found time, however, to behave like a madman and was suspended for close to a full season for attacking a thuggish, Crystal Palace supporter with a flying bicycle kick, an act that, frankly, I found rather commendable, having always believed that this is the appropriate response to all Crystal Palace supporters, thuggish or otherwise. Ferguson and the United team stuck by him however, even if the French national side did not. He was never to win an honour with the best French side in living memory.
Philippe Auclair tests out a number of theses. First, that throughout his tempestuous football career, Cantona was seeking a father figure who might be both indulgent and paternalistic towards him, and to whom he might offer unalloyed trust. He at last found that figure in Ferguson, who handled his charge with latitude and thoughtfulness. Auclair also suggests that Cantona, more than any other player, changed the shape of the English game.
He was the first foreign player around whom a team could be built, and thus demolished the notion that foreigners were incapable of shining in a league built upon grit, stamina and physicality. Then finally, Auclair reckons that Cantona invented a position new to the British game, that of the “number 9½”, that is, a player who is not quite as prolific a goalscorer as a centre forward, but rather less ephemeral than a number 10.
Cantona retired from the game in 1997, rather earlier than expected, and now fills his time playing beach football and appearing as himself in films by Ken Loach. He was, without question, an iconic and beautiful player and admirably idiosyncratic and witty off the pitch. But sometimes, on the biggest occasions, he had a tendency to go missing. And he has only his own hauteur to blame for alienating a succession of French national managers.
Though he captained the French team for a couple of years, he never picked up a World Cup winning medal, that honour fell to his despised successor Didier Deschamps, to whom Cantona referred slightingly as a “water carrier”. But while French managers realised they might do without Cantona, they knew you cannot do without water.
What is your fondest memory of Cantona from his Old Trafford career