Enigma: a person or thing that is mysterious or difficult to understand.
Every club has its cult hero, they’re not always the best footballer, but the fans have an affinity towards them that’s often difficult to describe.
It could be their one club status like Ryan Giggs, Jamie Carragher or Matt Le Tissier or players like Jimmy Bullard who always seem to play the game with a smile, or maybe so-called ‘enforcers’ footballers like Roy Keane and David Batty, or maybe footballing geniuses who had their obvious flaws like George Best and Paul Gascoigne.
But you wouldn’t describe any of them as being an enigma, that tag belongs to one footballer and one footballer only.
The Premier League is now in its 25th year, and during that time I can’t recall a player having managers, fans, media and even fellow players transfixed as much as Manchester United’s mercurial number 7: Eric Cantona
In the summer of 1992, the maiden season of the premier league a then under pressure Alex Ferguson had first tried to sign Alan Shearer from Southampton but lost out to Blackburn Rovers.
He even tried to sign David Hirst from Sheffield Wednesday, but a £3 million bid was turned down.
It’s always easy to look back and think ‘what if’ but what if Sheffield Wednesday didn’t turn down that record £3 million bid. Just a thought.
Mysterious transfer deal
Cantona signed for Manchester United for just £1.2m in November 1992 and mystery still surrounds about how exactly he signed for Manchester United.
Alex Ferguson in his book ‘Just Champion’ states that he and then chairman Martin Edwards were together when they got a surprise call from then Leeds United Managing Director Bill Fotherby inquiring about the availability of Dennis Irwin, which was immediately dismissed.
Ferguson then began frantically writing down the name of Cantona on a piece of paper, Edwards inquired and within an hour a fee was agreed.
Yep, that simple.
However, according to Edwards, Ferguson wasn’t even with him when the Leeds director called and used his own initiative.
Despite the differing version of events it was a signing that changed history.
It’s easy to forget that before Cantona arrived at Old Trafford, Manchester United hadn’t won the league since 1967 and were languishing in 8th place that season.
Sir Alex Ferguson might have the statue outside Old Trafford, but Cantona proved to be the true messiah.
During Cantona’s 5 years at Old Trafford, United won the league 4 times and the FA Cup twice. They probably would have won the league 5 times in a row, but for a bit of karate practice at Selhurst park on 25th January 1995.
A mad genius
It’s often said genius and madness go hand in hand. Many of history’s most celebrated geniuses were considered slightly potty: Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, and you can probably add Eric Cantona to that illustrious list.
So let’s set the scene: United are 2 points behind their main rivals for the title that season Blackburn Rovers.
If they beat Crystal Palace, they go 1 point clear at the top. It’s a game they need to win.
They are wearing their black away kit, most of the players are un-shaven. They are here for a fight (pardon the pun), but so are Palace.
Richard Shaw is given the unenviable task of marking United star man Cantona and his doing a great job, he was his shadow for the game, wherever the Frenchman went he was close by, any chance he gets he’s having a kick at Cantona, holding his jersey, whispering in his ear, he was doing a fantastic job, even the ‘Italians’ would have been proud.
His ‘red mist’
Slowly, but surely the famous Cantona ‘red mist’ had started to descend and it was a ploy most managers had used. For all his genius, Cantona was a ticking time bomb who had been sent off numerous times for United before.
Wind him up and he will go and it worked to a tee, Cantona was given his marching orders for kicking out at Richard Shaw.
Then came the routine walk down the tunnel , but nothing has ever been quite routine when it comes to Cantona.
In his defence: the abuse players receive from opposing fans is vile, disgusting, embarrassing and players are taught to act like robots, ignore it, be the bigger man, block it out, and pretend you can’t hear it.
99.9% of the time they do, but this night that 0.01% of the time Cantona decided enough was enough.
He did what every football player dreams of doing (maybe even some managers).
He answered back by jumping over the barrier between players and fans, kung-fu kicking Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons in the chest Bruce Lee-style before landing a punch on the top of his head.
He was banned for 8 months, given a 2 week jail sentence (he would successfully appeal this), was never selected by the French national team again, fined two weeks wages and United went on to lose the title.
Enigma status sealed
So did he regret it? Well, kind of.
In 2011 Cantona admitted that the infamous attack on the Crystal Palace supporter was “a great feeling” and a memory he is happy for fans to treasure, but it was a mistake
After winning his appeal against a 2 week prison sentence, Cantona gave his first press conference since the now infamous kung-fu kick and the media were waiting with bated breath as to what he was going to say, pencils sharpened, questions and tape recorders at the ready and as per usual he didn’t disappoint, he broke his silence and said the following:
“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”
He then walked out. His true enigma, legendary status was sealed without even kicking a ball.
Moments of brilliance
Like many great players it’s hard to pick out that one moment that defines them, the strike against arch rivals Liverpool in the FA cup final on the half volley was majestic, but if there was one goal that defined both his brilliance, arrogance and utter self belief it was against Sunderland.
He picks the ball up glides past 3 players plays a one-two with Brian McClair and then chips the goalkeeper from 15 yards, most players would run wildly to their fans or players in celebration, but not Cantona.
He simply stopped, no gesticulations, puffed his chest out and did a full 360 as though summoning energy from the delirious fans at Old Trafford, he was their king.
Fondly remembered by United supporters
He retired relatively young at 30 stating, “I loved the game but no longer have the passion to go to bed early, not to go out with my friends, not to drink, and not to do a lot of other things, the things I like in life.”
He was voted as Manchester United’s greatest ever player by Inside United magazine.
That’s debatable when you think of the likes of Best, Charlton and Ronaldo.
One thing that is certain though: his signing on November 26th 1992 for Manchester United changed the landscape of English football forever.
Written by Ade Oladipo
Follow Ade on Twitter @BoxTalkUK
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