The introduction of the Premier League turned English football into a sporting behemoth during the nineties, the division since evolving into a cosmopolitan collection of some of world football’s finest footballers.
Few of those footballers have had such a transformative influence on the division and their club as a certain Eric Cantona, the forward proving the catalyst behind a golden era of domestic dominance for Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson.
The charismatic and cock-sure Cantona swaggered into his new surroundings after signing from rivals Leeds, taking centre stage in a rebranded top flight with his trademark upturned collar and shackling the responsibility of ushering in a new dawn at Old Trafford.
There are few players who are held in quite the illustrious esteem in the red half of Manchester, a player affectionately nicknamed ‘The King’ and one of the Premier League’s great Golazo Merchants:
Cantona was born in Marseille and from a young age developed a fascination for football, his fixation on the game becoming ever deeper after watching his local side in the notoriously feverish atmosphere of the Stade Vélodrome alongside his father.
His youth career initially began as a goalkeeper – the playing position of his father in his own amateur days – but the boredom of limited involvement saw the young Cantona given an opportunity in a forward role, one he relished and where he soon began to star.
Cantona scored with increased regularity for youth side Caillolais and was soon picked up by Auxerre, moving across France and away from his family to begin his journey to sporting superstardom, initially playing in the youth team before establishing himself at professional level.
Even in the formative years of his career the hallmarks of Cantona’s game were abundantly evident, a swaggering self-confidence, fantastic footwork and an often volatile temperament.
It was that tempestuous nature that saw the forward bounce round a succession of clubs in his homeland, leaving Auxerre for boyhood side Marseille and later Nimes, in addition to loan spells at both Bordeaux and Montpellier.
His talent was undeniable, but his attitude and inability to settle – alongside controversies including fighting with teammates and labelling France manager Henri Michel as “one of the most incompetent managers in world football” – raised questions.
Seeking fresh impetus and a new challenge, he moved to English football with a transfer to Leeds United.
He joined midway through what proved to be a title-winning season for Leeds in the final pre-Premier League campaign, the 24-year-old swiftly showcasing his talents with a series of vital goals despite limited starts, scoring against Luton, Wimbledon and Chelsea during the run-in.
Cantona scored a hat-trick in Leeds’ thrilling 4-3 victory over Liverpool in the Community Shield before netting the first ever Premier League treble just a couple of weeks later, but despite his status as a fans’ favourite at Elland Road, manager Howard Wilkinson was not fully convinced by the enigmatic star.
Legend has it that a chance phone call between the two clubs regarding Leeds’ interest in Denis Irwin led to Sir Alex Ferguson – somewhat optimistically – chancing an enquiry into Cantona’s availability to solve his side’s concerning lack of goals.
To his amazement, the Yorkshire side were prepared to do business with their fierce rivals and Cantona completed a £1.2m move to Old Trafford, a transfer that would rewrite the course of English football forever.
It was a bold move, but one that would pay dividends for United and Ferguson, the Scot’s gut instinct on the player’s transformative abilities overriding the potential baggage the colourful Cantona may bring.
United were eighth at the time of his arrival and some way adrift in the title race, only for Cantona to act as the catalyst for a second half of the season resurgence that saw the Red Devils lose just two games to be crowned as champions for the first time in 26 years.
League leaders Norwich were beaten in his first game before Cantona scored in four consecutive fixtures, with past players speaking of how the Frenchman shouldered responsibility, his aura inspiring those around him and raising the standards.
For Ferguson, it was the case of signing the perfect player at the perfect time.
“If ever there was one player, anywhere in the world, that was made for Manchester United, it was Cantona. He swaggered in, stuck his chest out, raised his head and surveyed everything as though he were asking: ‘I’m Cantona. How big are you?”
– Sir Alex Ferguson
That title success was drought-breaking for the club as they embarked on a new era of sustained success in the newly formed Premier League, Cantona’s first full season seeing the forward stand out as the division’s finest player.
United began the defence of their crown by winning 13 of their first 15 fixtures of the new season, with Cantona once more at the heart of their success, including scoring this spectacular effort to secure a 1-0 victory over Arsenal at Old Trafford.
Despite a disappointing league campaign the previous season, Arsenal had become the first side in history to win the domestic cup double and headed into the new campaign seeking honours once more, the Gunners strength built upon a resolute defence.
It took a moment of magic for Cantona to break through a stubborn rearguard and seal three vital points for the champions, firing home this fierce effort from distance to break the deadlock.
🗣 "Oohh, a real cracker from Cantona!"
The King netted this spectacular effort v Arsenal in 1993. pic.twitter.com/AUG8VYRzw1
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) April 27, 2018
Cantona’s set-piece special was part of a haul of 25 goals in all competitions as United retained the title and became just the fourth club to win the domestic double, with the forward scoring twice in the Red Devils’ FA Cup final victory over Chelsea at Wembley.
His best effort in cup competition, however, came in a fifth round clash at divisional rivals Wimbledon, this piece of pure instinct the highlight of a 3-0 win at Selhurst Park.
Eric Cantona vs Wimbledon, 1994. pic.twitter.com/IElLz6YZDQ
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) August 12, 2019
It proved the best goalscoring season of his career and the star’s performances were rightfully honoured with individual recognition, Cantona voted as the PFA Player of the Year by his fellow professionals following an outstanding season at Old Trafford.
United had now established themselves as the dominant force in English football with Cantona at the forefront of their success, continuing to provide moments of inspiration as the club sought further major honours.
The sublime subtly that would come to define some of Cantona’s greatest ever strikes was evident during this FA Cup clash against Sheffield United, an audacious chipped effort to seal victory at Bramall Lane and the holder’s progression.
Just weeks after this sensational strike, however, Cantona had his biggest impact upon United’s season – though this would be for all the wrong reasons.
A tense title-race with big-spending Blackburn Rovers saw Ferguson’s side desperately trying to chase down the league leaders, with a 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace providing one of Cantona’s most sensational and shameful moments as the red mist descended on the talismanic star.
Cantona had been on the receiving end of some roughhouse challenges from the home side before frustrations boiled over, the striker kicking out at Richard Shaw to receive a red card and his marching orders.
It was just the start of a moment that stunned English football.
Confronted by a goading Crystal Palace fan as he left the field, Cantona launched himself into the crowd with a kung-fu kick, before throwing limbs in the direction of the supporter, who moved swiftly to get himself out of the way of the volatile Frenchman’s feet and fists.
The temper that had long boiled in the background erupted in spectacular style, the shocking scenes seeing Cantona hit with an unprecedented eight-month ban, the absence of their inspirational figurehead seeing confidence fade from United as they surrendered the title and lost the FA Cup final to Everton.
Cantona, however, was no normal player and when he returned the following season it was in fine fashion.
He scored once and created another in a 2-2 draw with fierce rivals Liverpool, before taking charge of United’s season, his form over the second half of the campaign proving the difference as Ferguson’s side wrestled back the title.
Cantona scored the decisive goal in five separate 1-0 victories to fire the club’s championship charge, amongst them this blockbuster effort against old rivals Arsenal at Old Trafford.
Eric Cantona sealed victory over Arsenal in style on this day in 1996! pic.twitter.com/ZzmvtlMZdR
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) March 20, 2017
He emphasised his return to the big time with an FA Cup final winner against Liverpool at Wembley, his performances sealing a second domestic double in just three years and the FWA Footballer of the Year award.
Ask any followers of the red half of Manchester and they’ll likely have their own favourite Cantona moment, but perhaps no goal has transcended generations quite like this effort against Sunderland during 1996/97 campaign.
It’s a goal that encapsulates the very best of Cantona’s showman style, the Frenchman strutting around the Theatre of Dreams with trademark upturned collar and unwavering self-assurance.
The forward picks the ball up near the half-way line with two opposition players for company, before feinting and weaving past two challenges to spin away from trouble and into space.
Racing into the opposition half he exchanges passes with Brian McClair before being presented with a shooting opportunity, time seemingly standing still as he executes a pin-point chip to humiliate Sunderland goalkeeper Lionel Perez.
It remains one of the Premier League’s great moments and an iconic goal was followed by an equally iconic celebration, Cantona turning slowly on the same spot as he basked in the atmospheric adulation of the crowd, a man perfectly at home in the glare of the Old Trafford spotlight.
That season saw Cantona inspire United to a fourth league title in just five seasons before stunning the public with a shock retirement, opting to walk away from the game at just 30-years-old.
It was a moment that left the football world in shock as Manchester United’s go-to man decided to depart, a decision no one had foreseen given his continued success at the very highest level.
Cantona was, however, not a man who played by the same rule book as his contemporaries and our last offering of his breathtaking brilliance comes with this below effort of incredible piss-taking proportions.
The goal may have come in a testimonial fixture between Manchester United players and those assembled by Cantona from across the world, but it is still quite someting.
The shimmies and side-steps are balletic in their balance as Cantona toys with the opposition, the defenders falling for every feint with the grace of an eager Jack Russell desperate for a touch of an elusive ball.
After navigating four challenges he pauses almost as if he is in control of all those around him, before impudently scooping the ball over the much-maligned William Prunier, a fitting final goodbye to a ground he had lit up on repeated occasions.
15 seconds of Cantona Porn pic.twitter.com/STEn7lz9QG
— Cantona's Collar 🇾🇪 (@CantonaCollars) September 6, 2020
Cantona walked away from Manchester United regarded by many as the greatest player in the club’s history and there may be several names with more medals, more appearances and more goals, but there are few – if any – who can rival the transformative impact he had on the club.
Without Cantona, United may never have become the all-conquering juggernaught of the nineties and noughties, the strutting showman who relished his role as the Red Devils’ main man.
An unmistakeable figure in the history of the Premier League, Eric Cantona will forever be remembered as an enigmatic genius and one of the league’s greatest Golazo merchants.