The Real King of England
Controversial, charismatic, captivating – Cantona. An enigma whose presence left an indelible mark on the English game. Logan Walker profiles one of the Premier League’s most gifted and iconic players.
“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea”.
You would be forgiven for thinking this is a quote from some bearded philosopher, gazing forlornly towards the sea at sunset, musing on the follies of human nature.
It is not. It’s a quote from Eric Cantona, said at a press conference shortly after being sentenced to two weeks in prison for flying into the stands and delivering a kung-fu kick to a Crystal Palace supporter. An incident he would later describe as “a memory he is happy for fans to treasure”.
For the most interesting player to ever play in the Premier League, it was the defining moment that cemented him in the minds of supporters (and detractors) forever.
Born in Marseille to a painter and a dressmaker, Cantona spent his childhood in the family home, which just so happened to be inside the walls of a cave on the outskirts of the city. It was an unconventional upbringing for an unconventional person, and it is not hard to assume that this contributed to his unconventional approach to football, which was, at times, a combination of aggression and elegance.
Initially a goalkeeper in his youth, his desire to express himself on the pitch led him out from between the sticks and on to the field where he would become renowned for his explosiveness and skill. Cantona’s first club was Auxerre, but he would spend time at several teams in France, including Bordeaux, Montpellier and Marseille, adding a French Cup and a league title to his trophy cabinet.
The disciplinary problems that would become so closely associated with his career developed at an early age, some of these early infractions include but are not limited to: punching a teammate in the face, committing a brutal and reckless tackle which resulted in a two-month suspension, throwing his boots at a teammate’s head and last but not least, during a disciplinary hearing for a previous offence, calling each member of the committee an idiot directly to their face.
After receiving a two-month suspension for the last offence, he promptly announced his retirement from football. Thankfully, he was wisely persuaded that rather than retire, perhaps he should seek to ply his trade overseas.
Arriving at Leeds United in January of 1992, it didn’t take long for Cantona to make an impact in English football. Coming off the bench to terrorise the tired legs of opposition defences with quick feet and slick movement, his Leeds side went on to secure the league title, and the Frenchman’s performances were key. Cantona provided goals and assists, earning a growing reputation as a mercurial talent along the way. After less than a year at Leeds, a falling out with manager Howard Wilkinson paved the way for Cantona to make his move to the club where he would become a Premier League legend, for all the right (and a few of the wrong) reasons.
Cantona made the switch to Manchester United in November of 1992, and instantly changed the fortunes of the club. Floundering in mid-table when he joined, Cantona’s explosive performances helped United rapidly climb the league table, and he led the Manchester club to their first league title in 26 years, becoming the first player ever to claim consecutive domestic titles with different clubs in England.
It was not all perfect for Cantona however, the disciplinary problems that plagued his early career in France had followed him to the cold streets of North West England. On a return trip to Leeds, Cantona spat at a fan, prompting a police investigation and a £1000 fine from the FA.
Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, chapter in Cantona’s career came in January of 1995, as Manchester United played away to Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. It was a tough game, and Cantona was on the receiving end of several harsh tackles from Palace players. Deciding to vent his frustrations on a Palace centre-half, Cantona lashed out with a kick after one particular challenge that ignited his French fury. Sent off by the referee, sullenly making his way towards the dressing room, he suddenly burst into action. Running at full pace towards the stands, Cantona launched himself feet first into the crowd, directing his boot at the chest of a Palace supporter. After bringing himself to his feet, Cantona proceeded to launch a barrage of punches, before being pulled away by a combination of stewards, coaching staff and players.
It was too late, however. The damage was done, both to the fan and to Cantona’s career and reputation. Following the incident, Cantona was charged with assault, ultimately being sentenced to 120 hours of community service after appealing a two-week prison sentence, in addition to being handed an eight-month ban by the FA. It appeared that his career was in jeopardy. There was talk of a move abroad, to Italy or back to France, but FIFA quickly quashed any chances of that, stating that the FA’s ban would apply internationally. Options were very limited for the temperamental forward, and rumours of him quitting the game altogether circulated.
Ever one to defy expectations, Cantona quietly served out his suspension at United. He made his comeback in a league game against arch-rivals Liverpool, scoring and assisting. Despite missing out on a large portion of the season due to his ban, Cantona finished the season as United’s top goal scorer, as the club won a domestic double of the league and FA Cup.
The 96/97 season was another successful campaign for Cantona and United, as another league title was brought to Old Trafford. During a game against Sunderland in December of 96, Cantona scored one of the most iconic goals of his career and indeed of the Premier League era. Picking up the ball at the halfway line, Cantona danced past several opposition players, exchanged passes with Brian McClair, and then, from just inside the box, chipped the helpless keeper. He celebrated by slowly, calmly, turning and raising his arms. The king surveying his kingdom.
At the end of the season, at the age of 30, Cantona abruptly announced his retirement. As suddenly as he had appeared, he was gone. The transition from man to myth was complete.
Having left football, Cantona directed his energies towards a new endeavour and began a career as an actor. The most sensible career choice for any retired footballer, of course. Perhaps missing the limelight of being an international superstar, he found himself in front of cameras once again, though this time any punches or kicks thrown would be thoroughly choreographed by a team of professionals. His most notable role to date was as himself in the Ken Loach directed Looking for Eric, which was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or. I doubt many footballers can claim to have been in the running for both a Ballon d’Or and a Palme d’Or, but Eric Cantona can.
So, how best to sum up Eric Cantona? Volatile but brilliant. Troubled and gifted. An icon and an iconoclast. The only one of his kind maybe? A rockstar who knew how to play football. A rebel. A legend. It’s been almost 25 years since he last stepped foot on a pitch, yet here we are, still talking about him. His talent was so immense and his personality so electric, that fans continue singing his name in the stands.
Cantona himself once said: “I’m so proud the fans still sing my name, but I fear tomorrow they will stop. I fear it because I love it. And everything you love, you fear you will lose.”