Cantona: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Eric Cantona

Written by John White for Manchester United Did You Know That

Twenty-six years ago today, Eric Cantona returned to play for Manchester United against Liverpool in the Premier League at Old Trafford  following his 9 month ban.  Eric was banned from playing after he kung-fu kicked a Crystal Palace fan who was verbally abusing him as he walked towards the changing rooms after being sent off during United’s 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace on 25 January 1995 in a Premier League game at Selhurst Park.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes,” (Danish: “Kejserens nye klæder”) is a short tale written by Hans Christian Andersen, the famous Danish author and was published in 1837.  Anderson’s story is about two weavers who promise to make an Emperor a new suit of clothes that they claimed was invisible to those who were unfit for their positions, stupid or incompetent.  But, in reality, the two weavers tricked the Emperor and did not make him any clothes at all, convincing the Emperor that his new clothes were not only invisible to him but invisible to everyone.  When the Emperor paraded his “new clothes” before his subjects none of them dared to say that they could not see any clothes on him for fear that they would be regarded as being stupid.  However, a child in the crowd cried out: “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”  The weavers had been found out.  The tale has been translated into over 100 languages.

One hundred and sixty years later, the Emperor of Manchester United, Eric Cantona, changed his three Manchester United No.7 jerseys for a costume designer’s wardrobe as he took the decision to retire from football and concentrate on his acting career.  Eric’s shock decision came just 24 hours after he celebrated United’s fourth Premier League title win in the past five seasons with his teammates on the pitch at Old Trafford after they beat West Ham United 2-0 in the final game of the season on 11 May 1997 (scorers: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer & Jordi Cruyff).  Cantona signed for Manchester United on 26 November 1992, a £1.2 million bargain deal from Leeds United, and in his five seasons at the club he, to continue with the fairy tale theme, awoke a Sleeping Beauty from their 26 year slumber and played an instrumental part in helping United win the inaugural Premier League Championship title in season 1992-93.   On countless occasions, Eric made defenders look unfit for their positions, stupid or incompetent.    

“Everyone’s allowed to be in love with the wrong person at some point. In fact, it’s a mistake not to be.” (Harriet Evans)

Eric Cantona’s boyhood dream came true when he was 21–years old after his hometown club, Olympique Marseilles, signed him from Auxerre (82 League games, 23 goals), where he began his professional career in 1983.  For the young Cantona it should have been the perfect marriage, a marriage made in heaven.  He felt at home in his Stade Velodrome surroundings in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.  But the marriage did not work out and Eric was sent out on loan to Bordeaux (1989, 11 League games, 6 goals) and Montpellier (1989-90, 33 League games, 10 goals).  He felt unloved at his boyhood club and in 1991 moved to Nimes where he fell in love with the game again, scoring twice in 16 League appearances.  Eric won the first of his 45 international caps (20 goals) for Les Bleus in August 1987 and would have won so many more had it not been for the fact that in September 1988, he lost his head, and not for the first time.  He was furious after being dropped from the national team by the man who gave him his debut for his country, Henri Michel.  Cantona called Michel a “bag of shit” in a post-match TV interview and was indefinitely banned from all international matches by the French Football Federation.  The international ban was the final straw for Eric in his homeland and he decided it was time to pursue the next stage of his career in another country.

Despite a very keen interest from Trevor Francis, the Sheffield Wednesday manager (1991-95) in January 1992, Eric did sign for an English club, and one like the South Yorkshire based Sheffield Wednesday, nicknamed “The Owls,” Leeds United.  Because of the inclement weather Eric could not play in a “trial” match for Sheffield Wednesday.  Cantona’s arrival in England sparked a media circus, the “Bad Boy” of French football had landed on English shores. But contrary to what was reported at the time (January 1992), Cantona gave his version of events in an interview to our Four Two magazine in April 2020: “He (Trevor Francis) did not invite me for a trial with Sheffield Wednesday.  I was there for a week and I thought I was there to sign for them.  My lawyer was there and he spoke to try and find a way to agree a contract.  I trained and played in a friendly game (indoors).  We won 4-3 and I scored three goals.  After one week, Trevor Francis asked me to spend one more week on trial.  There weren’t a lot of foreigners in England then, maybe some from the north of Europe but not many from the south.  Maybe they were suspicious, but I was a France international and Sheffield Wednesday wanted more time to decide about me.  That was not a very good way to go about things.”

Cantona signed for Leeds United and helped them become the Champions of England in 1991-92, the last ever English First Division Football Championship while United were runners-up and Sheffield Wednesday finished third.  

There is a very old saying: “As wise as an Owl.”  But Trevor Francis’s decision not to sign Cantona certainly did not make him one of his club’s wisest Owls.  Francis was heavily criticised for allowing Cantona to slip through his fingers but as Francis pointed out in his autobiography, “One in a Million,” it wasn’t a case of Sheffield Wednesday allowing Cantona to opt for Leeds United instead of The Owls.  “In 1992, whilst we were still finding our feet in the top Division, I got a call from Dennis Roach, the agent who had taken me from Manchester City to Sampdoria.  He wanted me to do him a favour on behalf of Michel Platini who was the French team manager at the time.  Dennis was asking me whether I would allow Eric Cantona, who was coming out of retirement, to train with us for a few days.  Before agreeing I told Dennis that I didn’t mind helping as long as it did not cost the club any money – air fares, hotels, other travel – everything had to be paid for by his party.  It was all agreed and Eric arrived for two days’ training.  Unfortunately it was in a period when it was very wintry in Sheffield, such that we could not get on the training field.  On the first day of Eric’s stay we had to use an AstroTurf pitch in Rotherham and on the second we played an indoor game against an American team.  Cantona played quite well in that game and there was a lobby from the media about Wednesday signing him.  There was never, ever any suggestion of us signing Eric Cantona.  He was there purely as a favour for Dennis Roach and Platini.  I had made that clear right from the start,” said Francis.

Eric took the decision to retire in December 1991 after he threw the ball at the referee whilst playing for Nimes.  Eric did not like a decision the referee made.  Cantona was then ordered to appear before a disciplinary hearing by the French Football Federation and was given a ban for one month.  Eric wasn’t going to leave the room without having his say and he approached each member of the Disciplinary Committee and one by one he called them an “idiot.”  The Disciplinary Committee increased his ban to two months resulting in Eric announcing his retirement from football on 16 December 1991.

But Eric soon fell out of love with Leeds United and on 26 November 1992, Alex Ferguson scooped one of the best transfer deals he had ever made and acquired Cantona from the Yorkshire club for £1.2 million.

When he hung up his boots Eric was just two weeks away from celebrating his 31st birthday (born in Marseilles on 24 May 1966) and most definitely could have played on for at least two or three more seasons at the same level as before as he was a player who was one of the first to realise that his lifestyle and diet played an important part in the longevity of a player’s career.  The Arsenal manager at the time, Arsene Wenger, a fellow Frenchman, introduced a strict dietary regime among his players not long after his appointment as the boss of the London club on 1 October 1996.  The pair were football visionaries, Eric on the pitch, Wenger in the dugout.  In his five seasons as the “Emperor of Old Trafford,” United won their first top flight League Championship since Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best made United Champions of England in season 1966-67, the 1992-93 Premier League.  In season 1993-94, United won the Double of Premier League and FA Cup followed by a second Double in 1995-96 and the Premier League crown in 1996-97.  There is absolutely no argument, no doubt, no question that United would have also lifted the Double in season 1994-95 had King Eric not been given a 9 month ban from the game in January 1995.  But to quote the idiom: “There is no use crying over spilled milk.”   

In an interview with FourFourTwo magazine Cantona was asked about his “Kung-Fu” attack after being sent off in an away game versus Crystal Palace on 25 January 1995, and said with regret: “I did not punch him strong enough.  I should have punched him harder.  I didn’t watch it after on television. Because I knew. All I had was journalists around my house. That’s all I could see.  My house was small.  They blocked the light.”

“Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” (Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, 18 May 1804–6 April 1814 & 20 March 1815–22 June 1815)

The British press absolutely vilified Cantona after the incident as if we was some kind of new age professional football thug who attacked an innocent fan watching a game of football.  Eric reacted to what can only be described as disgusting and unpalatable remarks by a so called Crystal Palace fan about Eric’s mother. Eric was wrong in what he did, he knew that, but his volatile nature that night erupted like a volcano exploding, sending burning ash into the atmosphere.  After the Football Association handed down their sentence, Eric, quite rightly thought: “To hell with it.  I am fed up with football.  J’abandonne (I quit).”  And, only or the fact that his manager, Alex Ferguson, got on the first plane to Paris, France where his mercurial French star had retreated to after the ban, a punishment Eric considered to be more than harsh, and persuaded Eric to see the ban through, Cantona may have hung his boots up two years before he actually did.  His manager persuaded him to serve the ban and come back to Old Trafford, a better, more dedicated, driven, passionate and winning player.

“History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”  (Napoleon Bonaparte) 

When Eric Cantona served his ban and once again pulled on the No.7 jersey of Manchester United versus Liverpool on 1 October 1995, he set about creating more history for Manchester United.  Making a comeback after such a setback could prove to be insurmountable for most men, but as Eric famously said in the 2009 movie “Looking For Eric,” “I am not a man.  I am Cantona.”  And, in season 1995-96, Eric did indeed help United rewrite the English football history books when United won a second Double, with Eric scoring many crucial goals along the way.  He scored in five 1-0 victories after the turn of the year and the only goal of the game in the 1996 FA Cup final victory over Liverpool.  One of the favourite songs of United fans during the 1990s was D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better.”  In season 1996-97, Alex Ferguson wanted more from his players. Despite having already won 3 League titles, 3 FA Cups, a League Cup, the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the UEFA Super Cup, Ferguson knew that in order for him to be considered one of United’s greatest ever managers, he had to step out of Sir Matt Busby’s shadow and bring the Champions League (European Cup) to Old Trafford.  Then, he would be held in the same aura as Busby.  He would be immortal. 

The summer of 1996 saw some comings and goings at Old Trafford.  Steve Bruce left on a free transfer and joined Birmingham City, Lee Sharpe joined Leeds United in a £4.5 million transfer, back-up goalkeeper Tony Coton moved to Sunderland for £600,000 and Paul Parker was given a free transfer to Derby County.  Four new players arrived: centre half Ronny Johnsen from Besiktas for £1.2 million, the Czech Republic winger Karel Poborsky who had been one of the stars at the 1996 European Championships hosted by England was signed from Slavia Prague for £3.5 million, Jordi Cruyff, the son of the legendary Johann Cruyff, arrived from FC Barcelona for £1.4 million and an unknown striker who cost United £1.5 million.  The striker was none other than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who left FK Molde in Norway to start a career at Old Trafford which would make him a Legend.

“The truth about the life of a man is not what he does, but the legend which he creates around himself.” (Oscar Wilde)

In season 1996-97, Eric Cantona left Old Trafford a Legend.

United’s defence of the Premier League tie began with a tricky opening day visit to Wimbledon.  The Dons were homeless at the time having vacated their old Plough Lane ground in 1991 and rented the home of Crystal Palace, Selhurst Park, until they could find a new home.  United won the game 3-0 and it seemed quite fitting that the player who secured them their second Double three months earlier scored the first goal of the new campaign, Cantona.  Denis Irwin added a second before David Beckham unleashed a shot from just inside his own half which sailed over the head of a hugely embarrassed Neil Sullivan.  As Eric would say it was “Magnifique.”  United then drew their next three games before Cantona paid a trip to his old stomping ground, Elland Road, on 7 September 1996.  The Leeds United fans berated Cantona throughout the game but he ignored the incessant booing, turned is collar up and got down to what he did best, orchestrating his midfield and directing play in his wing section.  Cantona, the United captain, led his teammates to a comfortable 4-0 victory with an own goal by goalkeeper Nigel Martyn and goals from Nicky Butt, Karel Poborsky (his first for United) and in the 90th minute Eric issued the Coup d’Etat.  Eric, not for the first time in his career, had silenced his critics.  A week later United went to the top of the table after defeating Nottingham Forest 4-1 at Old Trafford with Eric converting two penalties in is usual confident manner from the spot and goals from Ryan Giggs and Solskjaer.  But United then had a horrendous late October and too many their hopes of retaining their mantle as Champions of England had gone after two bruising defeats. Newcastle United exacted the perfect revenge after being totally outclassed by United in the curtain raiser to the season, the 1996 Community Shield when they were beaten 4-0 (scorers: Cantona, Butt, David Beckham & Roy Keane) at Wembley Stadium, London.  The Geordies were superb at St James’ Park and thrashed United 5-0.  Then six days later, 26 October 1996, United went down 6-3 to Southampton at The Dell (scorers: Beckham, David May, Paul Scholes).  When United lost 2-1 to Chelsea at Old Trafford on 2 November 1996 (scorer: May), they had slipped from top spot to 6th in the table.  The bookmakers were offering attractive odds on United ending their slump and rallying back to win the title, a bet not many punters took-up.  On 26 November 1996, Leicester City put United out of the League up in Round 4, winning 2-0 at Filbert Street, Leicester.  The Foxes made it all the way to Wembley Stadium for the 1997 League Cup final where they drew 1-1 with Middlesbrough after extra-time and then won the replay 1-0 after extra-time at Hillsborough Stadium, Sheffield.  

United then went on one of the trademark unbeaten runs, a stretch of 16 in the Premier League, which catapulted them back up to the top of the table.  Cantona scored four times during the run which Sunderland ended on 8 March 1997 winning 2-1 (scorer: Andy Melville own goal), United’s last ever visit to Roker Park as Sunderland moved into their new home, The Stadium of Light, in July 1997.  Solskjaer was in a rich vein of form and scored eight times but Eric was a goal maker as well as a goal scorer.  The top spot had been reclaimed after beating Southampton 2-1 at Old Trafford on 1 February 1997 with goals from Gary Pallister and Cantona.  United stayed top until the end of the season but their dreams of winning back-to-back Doubles and winning a first ever Treble were over on 4 February 1997 when they lost 1-0 to Wimbledon at Selhurst Park in an FA Cup Fourth Round replay.  Borussia Dortmund beat United 1-0 home and away in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals and went on to defeat Juventus 3-1 in the final at the Olympiastadion, Munich, Germany.   

United already had the Premier League title wrapped-up long before West Ham United arrived at Old Trafford on 11 May 1997 for the final League game of the season and United’s fourth coronation as Premier League Champions.  The Hammers were safe, they finished 14th, whilst Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest all dropped into the First Division.  It was a dull game, both sides looked weary and were already thinking about where they would go on holiday. United won 2-0 with goals from Cruyff and Solskjaer who finished as the club’s top goal scorer in the season scoring one goal less, 19, than the No.20 he wore on his back. 

Manchester United: Peter Schmeichel, Gary Neville, Denis Irwin, David May, Ronny Johnsen, Karel Poborsky, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Eric Cantona (Capt)

Substitutes: Michael Clegg for Irwin 46 mins, Jordi Cruyff for Scholes 49 mis, Brian McClair for oborsky 71 mins     

Three lines from the song “Pinball Wizard,” by The Who summed Ole up:

“How do you think he does it?
I don’t know.
What makes him so good?”

When Eric Cantona was presented with the glittering Premier League trophy, no one in the Theatre of Dreams that day knew that they had just watched The King abdicate his throne.  Cantona who once said: “I am in love with Manchester United.  It is like finding the perfect wife,” was about to file for divorce.  

Manchester United fans had the honour of watching The King play 185 times, scoring 82 goals, many of them sublime Masterpieces.  Eric’s appearance record for United was: 143 Premier League games, 64 goals; 17 FA Cup games, 10 goals (including 3 in finals); 6 League Cup games, 1 goal; 3 Charity Shields scoring twice; 16 Champions League games, 5 goals.   

As for Individual honours, Eric was named the Professional Footballers’ Association Players’ Player of the Year in 1993-94, the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year in 1995-96 and the winner of the Onze d’Or in 1996, an award presented by the French magazine Onze Mondial, to the player voted the best in Europe.  In 1993 he became the first United player since 1971 to be named in the Top 3 for the prestigious Ballon d’Or which was won that year by Roberto Baggio of Juventus with Inter Milan’s Dennis Bergkamp second.  In 1971, the Belfast Boy also finished in third place in the voting behind runner-up Sandro Mazzola of Inter Milan and the winner, the world’s best footballer at the time, Johann Cruyff of Ajax Amsterdam.    

Michel Platini was 30 years old when he collected his third consecutive Ballon d’Or award in 1985, the same age as Eric when he fell out of love with football.

Did You Know That?

In early 2020, Eric Cantona played the role of a King in the official music video for Liam Gallagher’s song “Once.”  The video, which was filmed at Gunnersbury Park in west London, depicts Gallagher, a Manchester City fan, as a bowing butler/chauffeur serving King Eric with a glass of red wine.  King Eric mimes along to Gallagher’s voice as he majestically sweeps through the grounds wearing a red cloak and a gold crown before getting into a Rolls Royce and driven away by Gallagher.  Some of the lines in the song contain the lyrics “But oh, I remember how you used to shine, back then” and “You only get to do it once.”  Eric was crowned a Premier League Champions four times.

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