Written by John White for Manchester United Then & Now
We all have our very own special memories of Eric Cantona playing for Manchester United.
I would like to share my own with you from a game I was so privileged to be at.
A man can be an artist in anything. In food. In writing. Whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Eric Cantona’s art was scoring goals. He was about to create his Masterpiece.
The famous Italian artist, Leonardo da Vinci, painted the Masterpiece of his life, the “Mona Lisa,” between 1503 and 1506. It was an archetypal Masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance. On 21 December 1996, Eric Cantona put his football easel to use and painted his own Masterpiece, an iconic goal. It was an archetypal Masterpiece of the Premier League. The Italian Master put his art on canvas. Cantona’s canvas was the Old Trafford pitch. Da Vinci was also an Engineer and Inventor who conceived many ideas way ahead of his time on earth (1452-1519), conceptually inventing the parachute and the helicopter. He even drew the first ever plans for a submersible vehicle. Eric, United’s French Master, was also an Inventor, creating many goals in his mind before executing his plans and scoring a goal. He sank the hearts of many defenders.
On 21 December 1996, Sunderland visited Old Trafford in the Premier League. United were the reigning Champions of England and holders of the FA Cup. Sunderland were playing in their maiden Premier League season having won Division One by four points over Derby County in season 1995-96 who were also promoted to the Premier League. Sunderland’s style of play was aggressive, but totally committed to winning which reflected the demands and style of play their manager, the former Everton midfielder, Peter Reid was known for during his successful playing career. In season 1984-85, Reid won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year Award and came fourth in the World Soccer Player of the Year Award which was won by Juventus’s talismanic French captain, Michel Platini.
It was United’s 18th Premier League game of the season in defence of their trophy, having won 7, drawn 7 and losing 3 of their previous 17 Premiership games. The three losses all occurred consecutively: 5-0 away to Newcastle United, 6-3 away to Southampton (scorers: David Beckham, David May, Paul Scholes) and a 2-1 loss at Old Trafford to Chelsea (scorer: May). United were sitting in third place in the table.
Sunderland were maintaining their own among the “Big Boys” when they faced the Double winners who had their very own talismanic French captain, Eric Cantona. In their first 17 outings they notched-up 5 wins, 5 draws and 7 losses. Six days before they made the trip to Manchester, Reid’s side beat Chelsea 3-0 at their famous Roker Park home. Sunderland nicknamed “The Black Cats,” did not move to the Stadium of Light until the 1997-98 season.
The Manchester United team which played Sunderland was:Peter Schmeichel, Gary Neville, Denis Irwin, David May, Gary Pallister, Paul Scholes, Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Eric Cantona (Capt), Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Subs: Brian McClair (for Pallister, 46 mins), Karel Poborsky (for Solskjaer, 54 mins), Ben Thornley (for Giggs, 63 mins)
United’s “Baby Faced Assassin,” Solskjaer opened the scoring in the 36th minute. Two minutes before half-time Cantona scored from the penalty spot against his former Nimes teammate, Lionel Pérez, who was in goal for the visitors. Solskjaer made it 3-0 three minutes into the second half. The Black Cats were getting a mauling and it was United who were doing the purring. The visitors’ midfield was run ragged by a rampaging United who looked like they would score every time they attacked a beleaguered defence. Alex Ferguson’s side were producing the style of play which saw them win the Double the previous season. And in Eric Cantona, they possessed a player who knew what it took to win a game, and win it in style. Butt was rewarded for his endeavours in the United midfield when he scored to make it 4-0 in the 58th minute. There was still 30 minutes to go but the game was effectively over. There was no need for any United player to exert themselves any further and they would be forgiven if they took their foot off the pedal knowing they had another game in five days, Nottingham Forest at the City Ground. But Cantona wasn’t finished with Sunderland, he had them on his own ball of string and he was going to tease them further.
With 21 minutes of play remaining, Cantona collected a pass on the halfway line with his back to the Sunderland goal. Using his strength and sublime skill, he spun around Kevin Ball and Richard Ord and passed the ball to McClair who was making his way into the Sunderland half. Ord kicked thin air when he attempted to tackle Cantona. Ball and Ord had hopelessly failed to pin Eric down throughout the game, both players fully aware that he was the one player who made United tick. But they could get nowhere near him. “Twister,” a movie about extremely violent tornadoes was released in 1996 and trying to pin Cantona down was like trying to stop a tornado from wreaking havoc in its’ path. Cantona could be equally as destructive. McClair and Cantona did a quick one-two, McClair’s lay back feeding Cantona who was just inside the penalty box. Cantona composed himself, looked at where Pérez was standing and cooly chipped the ball over his fellow Frenchman and into the net off the inside of the left hand post. It was the deftest of touches, a dink which was executed to perfection, a work of art. But Eric had one final stroke of the paintbrush left before his Masterpiece was complete. Still standing on the same spot, collar turned up, hands by his side, Cantona slowly rotated 360 degrees to accept the adulation scoring such a spectacular goal deserves. There was no expression on his face as he raised his arms in the air. McClair hugged him as if to say: “Thank you Eric for allowing me to be part of such a beautiful goal.” The United fans were delirious with delight, they had just witnessed a very special goal from a uniquely special player. But Cantona just looked around him as if to say to the fans: “I am Cantona. What else did you expect me to do?”
It would have been so appropriate if the stadium announcer had played Carly Simon’s song “Nobody Does It Better,” in recognition of Cantona’s extraordinary, but perfectly executed, chip which he celebrated inauspiciously, but with so much impudence.
“Nobody does it better, Makes me feel sad for the rest, Nobody does it half as good as you, Baby, you’re the best, And nobody does it better, Though sometimes I wish someone could, Nobody does it quite the way you do, Why’d you have to be so good?”
Cantona’s celebration after scoring such an iconic goal was voted the Premier League’s greatest ever celebration. Cantona was aged 30 at the time. Pérez was wearing No.30 on his back. United won the game 5-0 with Eric giving the United fans an early Christmas present.
In 1935, the second edition of the world famous golf tournament, the US Masters (in 1934 it was known as the Augusta National Invitational Tournament), was held at the Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Virginia, USA, a moment occurred in the fourth round of the tournament, which became Golf’s fourth Major, which went down in the annals of sporting history. The American golfer, Gene Sarazen, who snubbed the inaugural tournament the year before when it was known as the US Invitational, trailed leader Craig Wood by three shots after 14 holes of play. At the fifteenth hole, a Par 5 covering a distance of 530 yards and named “Firethron,” Sarazen found himself 235 yards from the flag. He took out the 4 wood from his golf bag and fired his shot at the hole. Sarazen’s shot was hit lower than Cantona’s measured chip, it never rose higher than 30 feet off the ground, and it carried the water hazard and skipped its way towards the hole, and then dropped inside it.
Watching the game, O.B. Keeler, an actor and a writer, described Sarazen’s shot: “The ball bounded once, twice and settled to a smooth roll, while the ripple of sound from the big gallery went sweeping into a crescendo, and then the tornado broke.” However, Grantland Rice, a founder member of Augusta National, then famously summed it up best of all by calling it: “The Shot Heard Around The World.” Perhaps Rice was alluding to the celebrated sportswriter Keeler wrote: “The ball bounded once, twice, and settled to a smooth roll, while the ripple of sound from the big gallery went sweeping into a crescendo. And then the tornado broke.” Lovely words but it was the foremost voice of his generation, and a founding member of Augusta National to boot, Grantland Rice, who summed it up best, a clever use of words to allude to the start of the American War of Independence in 1775 and which lasted until 1783. Sarazen’s albatross shot, a double eagle in golfing terms, could not quite match Cantona’s chip towards the Sunderland goal but it did ensure that he pulled on the famous Green Jacket to identify him as a US Masters Champion.
Eric Cantona’s beautifully lobbed dink over Pérez to score may not have reached the ears or eyes of the world as Sarazen’s shot some 70 years before did, but it reeked havoc in the Premier League. Cantona’s goal sent vibrations throughout the other teams who must have been thinking just how can you stop Cantona and the Genius that he is. “Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than with the imagination being awake?” Leonardo da Vinci
Many years after the game Pérez recalled the albatross moment his side went 3-0 behind during an interview with SunSport. Pérez who was at Nimes with Cantona in 1991, said: “This goal (Cantona’s lob) shouldn’t exist. We were losing 3-0 after 48 minutes and Eric had stopped playing. He stayed in the middle of the pitch and didn’t run any more because the game was over. Then there was one moment, when Ryan Giggs crossed and he had a shot which I saved. It was the only save I think I made in the game. Eric then said to me, just in a funny way, ‘Lionel, you should have left it!’ But I didn’t want to be smiling with him when we were losing. Before the match, one of my friends rang me from France to say he’d seen Eric playing against Chelsea and Frank Leboeuf was very friendly with him on the pitch. I thought, ‘I’m not going to be kind with him because I don’t want any French cameras seeing that. I don’t want to be that man laughing when we are losing 3-0’. So I just blanked him when he was joking with me. And after I blanked him he started to run everywhere because he wanted to f*** me! He started to be mental. He was like, ‘F****** hell, he doesn’t want to give me an answer. If this guy doesn’t want to talk to me, he’s going to see what I am made of.’ I am very sure that if I answered him, he would have stayed calm until the end of the game. But, instead, his attitude really changed.”
During a UTD Podcast Cantona was asked about his floated goal over a dumbfounded Pérez. The United Legend said that his goal was an act of revenge and explained why. “I never celebrate a goal in the same way, because every goal is different. The energy is different, everything is different. But maybe I did this celebration, I don’t know, it’s nice to take the energy of all the fans, you know? And sometimes it’s even more. Maybe it’s because the goalkeeper, he was French. Before the game, in the tunnel, I came to him to shake his hand and say hello to him because I hadn’t seen him since I left (Nimes). It was the last club I played for in France. And he didn’t want to shake my hand. So maybe I scored this goal because of that! That’s the biggest humiliation for a goalkeeper, and this kind of celebration too. Because he’s angry and you don’t run anywhere. I just stand there. Look at me.”
Pérez added: “Even now, every time Eric is on the TV in France, I have phone calls from friends because they show the goal all the time. I’m on TV a lot, but it’s not because of me unfortunately! I smile because I always remember all my family were over to see me for Christmas and came to watch the game. My Grandma was there and after the game she said, ‘Have you seen all these French flags? They are for you.’ It was funny because she didn’t realise they were not for me, but for Eric!“
Leonardo da Vinci was also renowned in the fields of chemistry, geometry and mathematics. Cantona’s goal against Pérez had the chemistry of his one-two touch move with McClair, the geometry of Cantona knowing the properties of the space around him and a perfectly calculated chip towards goal that even the eminent mathematician, Albert Einstein, would have been proud of.
Leonardo da Vinci once famously said: “Marriage is like putting your hand into a bag of snakes in the hope of pulling out an eel.” Eric Cantona said: “I am in love with Manchester United. It is like finding the perfect wife.” Cantona was as slippery as an eel and had an electric shock to go with it.
The Mona Lisa hangs proudly in Le Louvre Museum, Paris, France. The painting’s novel qualities include the subject’s expression, which is frequently described as enigmatic, the monumentality of the composition, the subtle modelling of forms, and the atmospheric illusionism. The enigmatic Eric Cantona was born in France and an image capturing his iconic goal against Sunderland hangs proudly in the hallowed corridors of Old Trafford.
Did You Know That?
During the COVID-19 pandemic no football was played and so BBC TV’s Match of the Day programme on a Saturday night decided to get Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Ian Wright together via a three way teleconference from their own homes to talk about football. A number of shows were produced along with a “Top 10” style theme to them. One such show was “Top Ten European Imports.” Each player selected their Top 10.Shearer’s Top 3 were: 1. Roy Keane, 2. Thierry Henry, 3. Eric Cantona (Cristiano Ronaldo was No.7)Wright’s Top 3 were: 1. Roy Keane, 2. Thierry Henry, 3. Cristiano Ronaldo (Eric Cantona was No.4)
During the discussion about Eric Cantona, the following was said:Ian Wright: “For me. He was the ultimate talisman in a football team.”Shearer: “If you are going to play with your collar up you’ll have to be some player. And he was.”Lineker: “He’s quite the individual though wasn’t he? Quite a personality. On the field and off it.”
Wright had nothing but admiration for Cantona and he recalled the goal against Pérez fondly: “It’s so majestic. He could have been a Gladiator in Roman Times. That’s how he celebrated. He had such an aura about him.” Wright then recalled how his Arsenal teammate, Marc Overmars, failed so badly in attempting to copy Cantona after the Dutch winger scored the only goal of the game at Old Trafford on 14 March 1998. Arsenal’s 1-0 win effectively sealed the 1997-98 Premier League title for The Gunners. Wright held his hands up in the air and said: “Did you see when Marc Overmars tried it? It was ridiculous. It was like watching an Oompa Loompa doing something.” Shearer burst into laughter.
Wright then turned his attention to Cantona’s celebration after scoring and said: “You know something? I still feel that the Cantona celebration is the best because only he could do that celebration. He is the only one who could exude that kind of arrogance and confidence (Shearer could be heard agreeing). It was beautiful to watch. It was a beautiful thing to watch. They should do it in slow motion so people could ………….Do it in slow motion so people can watch it in slow motion. Just watch the magna ……. the majesticness of him.”