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Jan 28, 2010

Eric Cantona: The King of Old Trafford

"I am not a man, I am Cantona." Those words, delivered with a knowing twinkle in last year's Ken Loach-directed film "Looking for Eric", perfectly sum up the demi-god status afforded to a man still hailed by those of a certain age as their favourite Manchester United player of all time.

From his shock arrival at Old Trafford in November 1992 to his decision in May 1997, at just 31, that it was better to burn out than fade away, Eric Cantona was the galvanising element that transformed United from being a club trading on past glories to English football's premier force. His sudden vacation of the stage would allow protégés like David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs to carry on the torch.

This Monday marked the fifteenth anniversary of the very apex of the Frenchman's fame. Four days after heading United back into the 1994-95 title race with the winner in a 1-0 victory over Blackburn Rovers, Cantona travelled to Selhurst Park to face Crystal Palace and a rowdy and hostile crowd.

Dismissed by referee Alan Wilkie after kicking out at Palace defender Richard Shaw during a game in which United looked likely to blow the foothold they had gained on the previous Sunday, Cantona had clearly been baited. Anger at the injustice of his lack of protection from both opponent and vocal abuse saw him take an astounding course of action against what Mancunian pop impressario and TV presenter Tony Wilson, present in the crowd that night, later called a "bunch of obnoxious Croydon wankers".

Also earlier this week, Cantona made his Paris stage debut in Face au Paradis (Faced with Paradise), directed by his wife Rachida Brakni. He plays a man trapped under rubble, after a tall building has collapsed and he may well be drawing from experience; after his actions on the evening of January 25, 1995, it seemed a ton of bricks would descend upon him.

It is tribute to Cantona's effect on the English game that this is by no means the sole memory of his five-and-a-half years of footballing life across the Channel. Nevertheless, the launching of a kung-fu kick on a supporter, one Matthew Simmonds, and the ensuing hay-maker of a punch on his not-so-innocent victim, still stand out as the most shocking incident of the Premier League era. A nine-month ban soon followed, as, briefly, did a custodial sentence which was swiftly overturned on appeal.

The violence of the incident was sensational, with Alex Ferguson, as he used to be known, admitting that, on realising the full extent of what had happened to his Gallic talisman, his first instinct was "for letting Eric go. I felt that this time the good name of Manchester United demanded strong action. The club is bigger than any individual."

Ferguson was soon dissuaded from excommunicating the Frenchman, taking the advice of Sir Richard Greenbury, then chairman of Marks and Spencer plc, that Cantona was a firebrand talent like that of tennis legend John McEnroe, a pleasant man off the pitch who was prone to losing his cool yet who drew much of his mastery of the game from the dark side. Ferguson chose to back Cantona, and soon the tide of sympathy turned to the Frenchman. United fans, so thankful for the part he had played in delivering them from a wilderness of 26 years without a title, never wavered, with a group of them camping outside Croydon Magistrates' Court the night before his trial hearing.

Much of the ire turned on the putative victim, Simmonds, whose leather-jacketed form had been seen to descend to the front row at Selhurst to launch the volley of invective that turned Cantona's head. Few believed his statement that his words had simply been "off, off, go on Cantona, it's an early bath for you", least of all the magistrate who sentenced him to seven days in jail for threatening language and behaviour. The seagulls soon followed the trawlers in a wonderful single-sentence press statement delivered by a smirking Cantona as he brushed off the media with the arrogant disdain with which he treated many a central defender.

On having his sentence changed to community service, which he spent coaching children in the Manchester area, and a slight wobble in which Ferguson had to motorbike across Paris to talk him out of joining Inter Milan, Cantona's return date was set for October 1, 1995 and a match against Liverpool. An assist for Nicky Butt's goal and an unerringly slotted penalty announced the end of Old Trafford's interregnum.

Once Cantona had recovered his match fitness and his on-field radar had been restored, he set about wresting back the trophies his team had lost without him as United hauled back Kevin Keegan's Newcastle from a 12-point lead via a series of Cantona interventions. Meanwhile, a team of youngsters were following his lead, staying back after training with him and honing the skills that would eventually garner them trophy after trophy for the next decade and a half.

Newcastle began to ail after a March defeat at St James' Park when a late Cantona winner built on the groundwork laid down by a wonderful goalkeeping display from Peter Schmeichel. The Dane had deflated Geordie optimism and Cantona pricked the balloon from a Phil Neville cross. From then on the Frenchman, now captaining the team, exerted his iron will on destiny, as United won their second double in three seasons. A dog of a FA Cup Final between United and Liverpool was won by a Cantona goal, delivered in the last minute as he kept his head while all around were losing theirs.

A year later, the king had abdicated his throne. Another league title, his fifth in six years in English football, had been collected in almost routine style. Failings on the European stage and a growing taste for other things in life that did not complement the rigorous discipline needed to keep his large frame in trim meant he had fallen out of love with the game. Cantona himself would later cite his unease at United's increasing exploitation of his image for commercial gain as key to his final decision.

And while he can never be anything but associated with football and his deeds for Manchester United, Cantona the man would not consider that his footballing afterlife has been any less productive. Not for him a retirement to the golf course, the opening of a restaurant, a moribund media career or the taking of training badges. His involvement in the game that made his name is in beach soccer, while he has established himself as an actor of some acclaim, with 17 credits to his name, and never by settling for the dull-witted hardman roles that a Vinnie Jones would play.

Loach's film reiterated the depth of sentiment that Manchester United fans still feel towards the one-time "leader of our football team", as the terrace anthem still has it.

And Cantona - playing an apparition of himself imagined by a postman, also called Eric, at the end of his tether - clearly relished the chance to re-associate with the grassroots fans who never lost their faith in him. While their links with United have been increasingly frayed by the lust for lucre that has enveloped their club in the plc and Glazer eras, Cantona will forever be the king of their hearts.

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