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Apr 22, 2012

Cantona: King of the Premier League

Eric Cantona is back where he once belonged, at the forefront of English football consciousness and as the subject of heated debate, after picking up five nominations in the 20 Seasons of Premier League awards.

• Celebrate 20 seasons of the Premier League

It's been 15 years since Cantona last played a competitive match for Manchester United, but his standing among those who worship him is undiminished. Still they chant his name home and away, still they arrive at Old Trafford with his No. 7 shirt on their back and collars turned up in tribute to the man whose spirit embodies the club they fell in love with. For the generation bred on United's second coming under Sir Alex Ferguson, it's Cantona, rather than any of the great Best, Charlton and Law triumvirate, who will always be the messiah.

For United fans, Cantona's greatness is a given. It's not about the number of goals, trophies or appearances he put down in the record books - it's about the things he made possible. Before Cantona, United were a team on the brink, streamlined by Ferguson and moving in the right direction but missing a vital ingredient. With him, they became an all-conquering force with a swagger and snarl that would launch a dynasty.

In that sense, Cantona transcends stats. His 64 goals in 144 Premier League games is a decent but unspectacular haul, while his five seasons - one famously interrupted, of course - is a fleeting cameo compared to the remarkable longevity of his former team-mate and fellow nominee for the Premier League's best player of the last 20 years, Ryan Giggs, who was there when Cantona arrived from Leeds in December 1992 and is still there now.

These are the numbers being used to argue against Cantona's case as potentially the greatest Premier League player of them all, and when you consider that two of his most prominent rivals for the accolade, Alan Shearer and Thierry Henry, helped themselves to 260 goals and 176 goals respectively, it's easy to see why.

But cold stats don't tell the full story. They don't paint a picture of Cantona's graceful genius, his featherlight touch or his brilliant football mind. They don't show us the passes he saw that nobody else did, or the number of times he willed United over the line when they might have fallen - consider, for example, Cantona's six winners in 1-0 victories during the second half of United's 1995-96 Double-winning season. And they don't even come close to measuring the legacy he left behind when he bade farewell to United in 1997.

Giggs could play for 50 seasons and would never reach the higher notes in Cantona's repertoire, while Henry was a supreme athlete and an instinctive natural finisher but nobody can really argue that he's had the weight of influence at Arsenal that Cantona did at United. Arsenal won two titles in Henry's eight seasons; United won four in Cantona's five and the one that got away owed much to his self-enforced absence. Yes, Henry has a statue at the Emirates, but Cantona is a religion at Old Trafford.

Shearer was a rampaging force of nature, but while he was perpetually sprinting off to the crowd with one arm in the air celebrating, Cantona was forging an empire. And though Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane have both earned their place in the pantheon of Premier League greats, Cantona's legacy will live on long after they resume their hostilities in the great football match in the sky.

The remaining nominees - Paul Scholes, Dennis Bergkamp, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gianfranco Zola - are fully deserving of consideration too, but none of them altered the football landscape as fundamentally as Cantona did. They just coloured it for a while - a very long while in the case of Scholes, but we'd never seen anybody quite like Cantona and we probably never will again.

When we remember Cantona, we must always remember the football club he walked into, and the one he left behind: United hadn't won a league title since 1967 when Ferguson lured the Frenchman from Leeds in 1992. Five storied and glorious years later, Cantona walked away having been hugely influential in bringing four titles to Old Trafford, and two of them came in Double-winning seasons. "I am not a man. I am Cantona," he once famously said, and in that sentiment could be found something for both his team-mates and the fans to believe in.

In the winter of 1992, with the weight of expectancy bearing down after United's capitulation the season before, Ferguson came upon the answer and Cantona took to his throne. Ferguson said of his arrival: "He swaggered in, stuck his chest out, raises his head and surveyed everything as though he were asking, 'I'm Cantona, how big are you? Are you big enough for me?'."

Without Cantona, it's quite possible Ferguson wouldn't be at Old Trafford today; they could still be waiting for that first league title since 1967. And when you consider that United represent the dominant force of the Premier League era, having won 12 of 19 titles, Cantona's influence is thus surely greater than any other player to have graced the competition over the last two decades.

His influence endures at United to this day. The class of 1992 who came of age alongside him and learned how to hone their talent from a master have passed their work ethic onto the next generation. Those who saw Cantona train and prepare will talk of a consummate professional, with nothing but the heady sway of his heart to distract him from the business of being brilliant. As legacies go, you'd take it.

Like every genius, he was flawed. But when we look back on the five years Cantona spent in the Premier League, the heady highs far outweigh the lows.

Chest puffed, collar up, with a tap-dancer's touch yet the build of fighter, Cantona was truly something to behold. He did things no other players would have thought of and changed the way we think of footballers forever. He remains, without question, the greatest player to grace the Premier League. And there's no stat anywhere that can convince me otherwise.

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