Football's Mavericks - Eric Cantona

Can a maverick footballer, on the verge of his career ending early in furious defiance, get a second chance to become a hero who leads a club to glory?
The two word answer to that question is Eric Cantona.

Whereas many outrageously gifted, but what could best be described as unique individuals, tend to infuriate as much as they excite and often times end their careers unfulfilled, Cantona did no such thing.

The reason that his career didn't spiral into that typical narrative is his decision to leave his native France and head to England, eventually finding a club and a manager that gave him his platform to shine.

Born in Marseille in 1966 to Albert Cantona, a painter and nurse, and Éléonore Raurich, a dressmaker, his was a close knit family of immigrants. His mothers parents had been Catalan separatists who had fought in the bloody Spanish Civil War against the forces of General Franco, escaping to France after the conflict, and his fathers parents had come to Marseille from Sardinia.

The future star's rebellious spirit, his outlook and sense of justice were more than likely derived from his upbringing.

On the football side, Cantona in later years recalled crying his eyes out as a youngster when West Germany defeated the brilliant 'Total Football' Netherlands side in the 1974 World Cup Final. The style and swagger of that team, and in particular the majestic skill of Johan Cruyff captured his imagination and would have a strong influence on how he later thought football should be played.

Despite growing up as a Marseille fan, Éric Daniel Pierre Cantona started his professional career under the legendary Guy Roux at Auxerre. A club that was famous for giving opportunities to young players was the perfect place for him to begin his career.

After making his breakthrough into the first team, it was apparent that Cantona was a player of some ability and he received his first full cap for France just after his 21st birthday.

Unfortunately, the dark side of his game also began to surface around that time as he drew a fine for punching teammate Bruno Martini in the face after a dispute. Shortly after this indiscretion, he made headlines for the wrong reasons again after an X-Rated challenge on Nantes' Michael Der Zakarian drew a two month suspension.

After helping France to a European U21 Championship in 1988, Eric got his dream move to his hometown club Marseille, but things were about to take a turn for the worse for him in his native land.

Banned from the French national team for calling coach Henri Michel "a bag of shit" on national TV, he found himself in trouble at club level after reacting angrily to a substitution in a friendly against Torpedo Moscow. After kicking a ball into the crowd, then ripping off and throwing away his shirt, the club banned him for a month.

Struggling to settle in at Marseille, Cantona was loaned out to Montpellier where he was again at the heart of a fiery incident.

After a dispute in training over where the team's problems lay, his teammate Jean-Claude Lemoult had the temerity to blame the forwards, so Eric responded by smashing his boots into the midfielders face.

With six of his teammates demanding he be sacked, it was only the intervention of Laurent Blanc and Carlos Valderrama that convinced the club to keep him on and as a result he later helped them win the French Cup.

After another stint at Marseilles, he was transferred to Nimes where his career in France effectively ended. During a league match in December of 1991 he threw the ball at a referee, he perceived to be having a poor match, and was called before the French Football Federation for a hearing.

Strolling into the hearing, Cantona walked up to each person on the panel individually and said, "Idiote!" in each of their faces.

This predictably did not go over well with the FFF and he was banned for two months. A frustrated Cantona announced his retirement from football on December 16, 1991 at only 25 years of age.

On the advice of Gerard Houllier though, he decided to restart his career in England and after an unsuccessful trial at Sheffield Wednesday, he eventually joined Leeds United.

In the final season before the Premier League, Leeds were fighting tooth and nail with old rivals Manchester United for the 1991/1992 First Division title. The introduction of the mercurial Frenchman into the Yorkshire side pushed what was already a strong squad over the top and as they won their first league championship since 1974.

One of the main reasons that United had stumbled in their bid to win their first league title in 26 long years was the lack of options upfront and it was with this in mind that United boss Alex Ferguson, rather cheekily, asked about the availability of Cantona, when Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson made an inquiry about Denis Irwin.

Incredibly, Wilkinson allowed Cantona to join Manchester United for £1.2 million and made his debut for the club as a substitute against Manchester City in December of 1992.

Coming to a club that had had some success in the domestic cup competitions and had triumphed in European Cup Winners' Cup in 1991, the one thing lacking in the Old Trafford trophy room for two and half decades was the league title.

That difficult period of being unable to land the top prize in England was made worse by the fact that United's bitterest of rivals, Liverpool, had virtually made the league championship their own in the 1970's and 1980's.

From a personal perspective, I was 15 years old when 'King Eric' joined United and at the age where you begin to admire anti-heroes and anti-authoritarian types and that's what he was.

Right away I recognized him as a unique player who was unlike any I had ever seen at the club.

Unlike a lot of new signings, Cantona wasn't overawed by United and in fact seemed to grow in stature under Ferguson. The Frenchman pushed up his collar, puffed out his chest and played with a flair that made United a joy to watch.

With his movement, personality, and yes, flashes of brutality, he was like a matador striding across the pitch. Instead of his a red cape he wore a red shirt and his killing blows were crucial goals or brilliant assists.

Even when he didn't appear to be doing that much, you simply couldn't take your eyes off of him. The man was so damn cool and there aren't many footballers you can legitimately say that about.

United would win the league championship in 1992/1993 and follow it up with the club's first league and cup double in 1993/1994, playing some of the most exciting football seen in years.

Despite his and the club's success, his time at United wasn't without controversy as he was fined for spitting at a Leeds fan during his first visit back to Elland Road, and then banned for five matches after back to back sending off's against Swindon and Arsenal in 1994 after two brutal challenges.

The most notorious incident of his time with United, and his entire career, came in January of 1995 as he was sent off at Crystal Palace for kicking defender Richard Shaw. As he made his way to the tunnel, Palace fan Matthew Simmons ran to the front of the stand to yell racist abuse at the United number seven. Brushing off such abuse was not in Eric's character and he launched a flying 'kung-fu' kick into Simmons chest and followed that up with a few punches.

The English Football Association subsequently banned Cantona for eight months, while FIFA extended his ban to include international football. He was stripped of the French captaincy and would never represent his country again.

With Inter Milan and other big clubs trying to pry Cantona away from English football during his ban, Ferguson convinced him to stay at Old Trafford and his faith would be richly rewarded.

Returning against Liverpool in October of 1995, he scored the equalizer on his return to English football and after shaking off the rust of not playing for two thirds of a year, he inspired to a ten-match winning run and eventually overhauling league leaders Newcastle to win another Premier League crown.

In the FA Cup, his form was equally impressive as he led United to another Final and scored a late winner against Liverpool. As he climbed the famous 39 steps at the old Wembley and then lifted the FA Cup aloft, he began the first player born outside of the British Isles to accept the cup as captain.

Installed as the permanent captain in the following season, after Steve Bruce's departure to Birmingham City, Cantona again led United to the title and helped them to the Semi-Final of the Champions League where they would come up short against eventual champions Borussia Dortmund.

Despite being only 30 years old, Cantona decided to end his career on a high and promptly retired at the end of the 1996/1997 season.

Over the years several reasons have been given for Cantona's early retirement, with it suggested that he didn't think the club was doing enough to compete in Europe, that age was catching up to him and he wasn't as sharp, or that he was growing frustrated with the hyper commercialization of Manchester United.

The man himself has since said though that although he's had second thoughts about retiring so young, he was ready to move on with his life and was tired of going to bed early, training religiously and not being able to drink and socialize the way non-footballers can.

Although it came as a disappointment to United fans when he did retire, with four titles and two FA Cup's in five glorious seasons, along with some magical moments, Cantona is a true legend at club and people still sing his name.

While older Reds fans will chatter their teeth about Bobby Charlton or George Best being the greatest United players ever, or younger fans will point out the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo, my favourite player will always be King Eric. His impact on the club can't be measured by stats alone. He was a maverick who finally found a suitable home and helped kick start two decades of success for Manchester United.


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