I happened to notice in passing an article the other day, which recalled that it has been 25 years since Eric Cantona played (briefly) for Sheffield Wednesday. The article included two great photos: one of a crumpled newspaper cutting from a Yorkshire local newspaper discussing how Wednesday had just signed this troubled but talented striker from France, who had blown it at numerous clubs there due to his poor attitude, a surly grumpiness mixed with a rotten temper, that had led even to fuming nastily at a referee and throwing a ball at him, leading to a lengthy ban. Needless to say, he had failed to make it at various clubs, big and small, in France, but Wednesday had given him a trial and were going to sign him on a contract. The article was actually premature. Cantona wouldn’t sign for Wednesday, as they couldn’t afford his wages, being a newly promoted club from the second division, but instead nearby Yorkshire rivals Leeds United swooped in cannily and offered him a contract, which he took. Pretty far-thinking by manager Howard Wilkinson, as at this point English clubs didn’t see much need for foreigners, they had plenty of good enough British strikers. And a foppish, floundering Frenchy forward was unlikely to be to handle its grim, muddy fields and its butchering old-school defenders.
The other photo on the article was even better. Cantona, in a shirt and leather jacket, unshaven and looking rather pale and unathletic, sitting at a smoky bar with half a pint of lager in front of him. And looking over his shoulder in the vague direction of the camera, almost seeming to query, “Why are you here? I’m having a beer.” Not exactly the picture of a star culture-changing master of his sporting craft, and a picture you’d never see of a Premiership superstar now.
But that was Cantona. He did things his way, and no-one before or since has done it quite like him.
This is a man who was told he needed to leave French football and seek the relative mental sanctuary of England … by his psychologist.
At the time, I of course despised Leeds United. A 16 year-old Manchester United fan, at that point I had been following the team vaguely for about 6 years, and rabidly for the previous two seasons, during which they had won the FA Cup, League Cup and most gloriously the European Cup-Winners Cup, but had failed to win the league. Their best chance to end a 25-year drought going back to the practically sepia-toned 1967 team of Best, Law and Charlton, had petered out feebly – after a traumatic New Year’s Day 4-1 hammering at home by QPR, they would go on to only win 6 of their next 19 league games, letting Leeds United, aided by new signing Cantona, take the title. It was awful, screamingly horrible. I can still remember clear as lightning an interview with Leeds’ dogged defensive midfielder David Batty after they won the league, and being asked what it meant, he said, “Well, it’s a bonus, int’it?” When every Manchester United fan had been desperate for a league title again, and had been tearfully pinning their hopes that this year the mighty Bryan Robson and our great club would be champions again after a wait of a quarter of a century … to them, it was … a bonus.
And every United fan knew the problem. We needed a striker who scored more goals. In the league, our strike partnership Mark Hughes and Brian McClair had scored less than 30 goals between them, and our next highest scorer was a defender, Steve Bruce, with 5. It was clear the team needed a striker with the ability to smash home goals, to twist defences into errors, and to create openings for his team-mates. Rumours flew that Southampton’s young ace Alan Shearer had been approached, alongside the likes of David Hirst, Matt Le Tissier and Brian Deane. But none of these materialised. Meanwhile, Leeds had this new French striker who it turned out was rather useful and effective, skillful but also hearty and strong, not to mention flamboyant, who was scoring breath-taking goals, like one where he chipped the ball over defenders and volleyed it into the net with aplomb.
The next season, 1992-1993 got started with United much the same, decent but still lacking a cutting edge in front of goal. I can clearly remember the evening of November 26th 1992. I was lying on my bed in my bedroom, reading and vaguely listening to my little radio, when the sports news came on. It was announced that Manchester United had completed the signing of Leeds’ striker Eric Cantona for a fee of £ 1.1 million.
I leapt out of bed and put my ear right against the speaker. It was true, Cantona had signed for United! Who cares about those dunderhead English up-front lumps we had been chasing, we just got Cantona! Why the hell would Leeds let him go? Arrogance? Prejudice? Had Cantona slept with the chairman’s daughter? Who cares! Eric is at United!
And it didn’t take long for his magic to kick in. Dropping off the main striker into the hole of space just in front of defenders, his wandering but considered movement bamboozled British centre-backs used to strikers being up in their face. Suddenly they had to go looking for him. From deep, his thoughtful elegant passing was a joy on the eye, gracefully releasing our speedy wingers Giggs and Kanchelskis to fly into space; and then suddenly he would appear in the box, to smash home headers with a slam of his philosophical brow, to dribble around tackles like his toes were on fire, to laser home volleys with a ballet dancer’s balance, to flick off the ball gift-wrapped to an on-running team-mate, to slip finishes under goalkeepers like notes under a door – all done with a joie de vivire, an elan, a matador’s, musketeer’s, magician’s swoop of arrogance, playfulness and joy in the game, in the entertainment of it, the art of it, of turning mud and sweat and ugly billboards and grass and pink-faced fans and white lines and netting and wooden posts, into wonder and awe and indelible memories. Of returning royalty to the golden Manchester United Football Club badge, of returning rage and pomp and fiery flair to the red shirt, of restoring the mischievous devilishness to the Red Devils. Collar up, shoulders back, gazing at the crowd with an insouciance and a raised eyebrow that said, “Mais oui, would you expect anything less, mes amies?” Eric arrived and United went wild.
And we won the league that year. After a 26 year wait. By 10 points.
Right now, I won’t go into all the good, bad and ugly that Eric Cantona did after that in his 5 seasons at United, but let’s just say, for any United fan lucky enough to have been around to watch them, those years are unforgettable. He’s still my favourite ever player in a United shirt.
So thank you Sheffield Wednesday for bringing Eric Cantona over for a trial 25 years ago…