Remembering Eric Cantona's impact at Manchester United 25 years later
Eric Cantona arrived at Manchester United 25 years ago, on Nov. 26, 1992, and his skill and creativity became the "missing piece of the jigsaw" for Sir Alex Ferguson's first title-winning team of 1992-93, according to some of those who knew him best.
United won the title for the first time in 26 years the season Cantona signed from Leeds, and they went on to win three more before he departed. United legends Gary Pallister, Steve Bruce and Bryan Robson spoke to ESPN FC about the iconic Frenchman and, even now, it is clear how big an impact he had on his teammates.
"All of us remember when he signed," Bruce tells ESPN FC of the day Cantona arrived. "I don't think any of us thought he'd just walk into Old Trafford, but from the first time he stuck his collar up and thought: wow, this is for me.
"Most players walk in and think: 'blooming heck.' You get a shock when you realise how big the club is. It was as if he said: 'this is my stage.' Even in his first game, [a 2-1 win] against Manchester City as sub, you could see he had the talent to back that confidence.
"None of us really realised how big he was at the time. He was a man mountain and had the presence where if he walked into a room, everyone turned around. He had an aura. It's all very good having an aura and eccentricity but you have to play, too, and he really could. For somebody so big, he had balance, technique, pace, power, heading -- he had a bit of the lot."
Robson adds: "We'd seen him when he was at Leeds and thought he was a great player with a lot of charisma. When he came into the club I think he was Sir Alex's last piece in the jigsaw: he could score goals and was also a really creative player."
It didn't take long for the Frenchman to get used to his new surroundings.
"When someone joins the dressing room all eyes are on them, to see how they cope and what kind of character they are," Pallister says. "He was fine -- he loved socialising with the boys, going out for a beer when we won games. Around those times, a lot of people were saying the English drunk too much and didn't look after themselves, but Eric certainly enjoyed going out with the lads in what we used to call 'team bonding sessions.'
"I think he went on to wine a bit later, but he certainly enjoyed a beer. He loved the craic, enjoyed the banter, although if he didn't want to talk about something he'd pretend he didn't quite get the English. He loved it."
Cantona scored 82 goals in 185 appearances for United, and won the FA Cup twice, before abruptly leaving and retiring from the game in 1997, disappointed by the team's European failures. But he almost didn't make the move to Old Trafford to begin with.
Ex-United chairman Martin Edwards still claims Cantona was one of the best three signings the club made in his 22 years in charge from 1980, but accounts of how the transfer from Leeds came about differ slightly, with the versions of Ferguson, former Leeds chairman Bill Fotherby and Edwards varying on whom should get the credit for the deal.
But this is what Edwards told ESPN FC: "Leeds were after Denis Irwin and we weren't prepared to sell him. I mentioned Cantona to Bill Fotherby and he said that wasn't as stupid as it sounds -- we all knew Eric and [Leeds manager] Howard Wilkinson didn't get on that well.
"When Bill came back on for Denis and I said no, we threw in Eric again, and he said we'd need to do it quickly because the supporters would kill them if they knew they were selling.
"He was most concerned about what the fans thought of the fee. He wanted to show the fee as £1.6 million, the figure he initially wanted for Eric, and we told him he could say what he liked. So, first of all it was quoted as £1.6m, then for a long time people said it was £1.2m. The actual figure was £1m.
"There are always different versions of these things, and I've read numerous -- but I did the deal."
Transfer business back then was vastly different to the way it is done today. United did no background checks on Cantona, despite his hot-headed reputation after incidents with teammates, club officials, a referee and disciplinary body in France. There was no scouting dossier, either, with Ferguson relying on what he had seen at Leeds and positive feedback from Bruce and Pallister.
"I had played against him that season in the Championship and funnily enough the manager had asked me and Brucey what we thought about him after the game," Pallister says. "We'd said he was a really handful: strong, physical, clever with the ball. I knew he was a quality player but didn't know he would have the impact that he did.
"We knew in terms of quality he was a good signing, but he had that label with him when he came: he'd had problems in France, was a bit of a wildchild, difficult to deal with and all that. So we didn't really know what to think in terms of what his personality and character were going to be like."
Bruce was closer than many of the other players to Cantona and the former defender (now manager at Aston Villa) paid tribute to his professionalism.
"He was a wonderful trainer and very serious," he says. "His philosophy was that if he trained hard in the week, Saturday's game would become easier. Some people don't think like that: they don't do a lot in training, keep themselves for a Saturday. He gave us that sprinkle of invincibility."
Pallister agrees: "The way he conducted himself in training, looking after himself, preparing for games was a real eye opener for most of the professionals at the club. It was that fact that he was the first one at the training ground, to prepare for it, do his own little stretches and warm-ups.
"Whereas most lads would rock up something like 15 minutes before training, get themselves stripped and ready, he'd be there an hour beforehand getting a massage or stretching and so on. That was something that we hadn't really seen.
"The fact that he stayed out on the pitch for quite a while after training finished to practice free kicks, penalties, crosses, heading. It was practice, practice, practice. He wanted a warm-up room before games at Old Trafford and it was something we had added on to the dressing room eventually so Eric could go in there and just warm up, get his touch right and hone his skills before a game. He was teaching old dogs new tricks.
"Sometimes we'd stay out and muck around, with shooting practice and going in goal. But he was organising extra shooting practice, and getting kids like Beckham, Neville, Butt and Scholes to cross balls for him. They got to watch it all firsthand."
The 51-year-old has legendary status at the club, despite only being there for five years.
"In my era, he's certainly thought of as the same category as Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best," says Pallister. "He was what Old Trafford wants to see: an exciting player, who could do different things to most mere mortals. In the pantheon of greats he's well up there. The fans still sing his name, and rightly so. He was unique.
"He was very much his own man, didn't pander to anybody, led his life how he believed was right and when he was wronged, as he felt he was at Selhurst Park [when he famously kung-fu kicked a Crystal Palace fan and was banned for nine months], he took matters into his own hands."
And such is Cantona's legacy that, 25 years on, people are still talking about who can fill his boots at Old Trafford.
"Zlatan [Ibrahimovic] has got similarities," says Robson. "I know he has only been at our club for a while but there are similarities in the way he plays, that presence they both have, and Zlatan is really nice guy off the pitch as well. You can get on with him easily and that's exactly what Eric was like."