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Manchester United – A story of rebellion from outcasts to seagulls

On the 18th of April 1995, Eric Cantona welcomed twelve young football hopefuls to the indoor gym at the Cliff Training Centre, Salford.

The children were aged between nine and eleven years old and came from local clubs and schools in the Salford area. The coaching programme devised by Cantona was a two-hour session, the children being taught by their hero, the art of ball control, dribbling and passing.

However, this was no ordinary programme it came with the blessing of the Greater Manchester probation service and was part of King Eric’s 120-hour community service order. The then Assistant Chief Probation Officer Liz Calderbank outlined to the British Press, who wanted ‘blood’, “the programme is football-related and considers Mr Cantona’s skills, reflecting the wishes of the Judge who made the Community Service Order.” It was also stressed that the schedule was “very demanding” and the punishment was in no way considered “a soft option” for the Manchester United employee.

On the 1 December 1992, this son of Marseille pulled on a Red Devils shirt for the first time, the stage the Estadio de Luz, home of Benfica, the game in homage to the great Eusebio who was celebrating his 50th birthday. The following Saturday United entertained their city neighbours, Cantona took his Old Trafford bow in a second-half cameo role which saw the Reds win 2-1.

Announcing his arrival, the then United Supremo Alex Ferguson wrote in his programme notes “I don’t mind him having a temper. I like my players to feel passionately and care about the game.”

Eric Cantona would stay on as a lieutenant to Ferguson for five years, amassing 185 appearances and 82 goals, winning four league titles and two doubles, a catalyst for the club’s most successful period. Alas, for all the success and champagne moments in that blood red shirt Eric Cantona’s proudest moment in his own words: “I have a lot of good moments but the one I prefer is when I kicked the Hooligan.”

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On the night of 25 January 1995, in a stadium bought from the Brighton Railway Company in 1924 and designed by the architect Archibald Leitch, the meticulous Frenchman kicked racism out of the English game in his own Gallic style. In a tempestuous winter league game, Cantona had faced a first-half kicking from Selhurst Park favourites Richard Shaw and Chris Coleman, so much so Alex Ferguson berated referee Alan Wilkie as the players headed for the tunnel at half-time. In Govan tongue ‘Why don’t you do your fxxxing job?’ came the cry from the Scot at the official.

Shaw’s continuous niggling of the Frenchman paid dividends, in the fourth minute of the second-half Cantona lashed out with a kick at the defender after a long punt from Peter Schmeichel in the Frenchman’s direction. With linesman Eddie Walsh flagging ferociously like a man possessed from the side-line, Wilkie had no hesitation in producing a red card dismissing Cantona.

As Eric strode nonchalantly off the pitch turning down the collar of his black shirt, Premier League commentator Clive Tyldesley announced to the watching public ‘There’s the morning headline!’. In front of the main stand created by Leitch housing 5,463 fans and 63 press boxes, Cantona strolled despondently towards the changing rooms with a consoling arm from United’s legendary kit man Norman Davies.

At the same time ‘The Hooligan’ charged to the front of the stand screaming foul abuse at the Manchester United employee. “Fuck off back to France you French motherfucker,” he shouted with impunity. In the face of this abuse and in the name of Newton Heath, Charlie Roberts and his rights, Cantona launched a flying kick followed by a roundhouse right at the racist hooligan.

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Manchester United footballers had in fact been standing up for their rights from the early days of British football. In December 1907 Charlie Roberts and Billy Meredith chaired the first sitting of the ‘players union’ in the Imperial Hotel, Manchester. Roberts who began his career with Bishop Auckland was a strong, skilful centre-half with a rebel spirit Cantona would have been proud of.

The former Iron Furnace worker arrived at Bank Street for a fee of £600 in 1904 and by 1908, as captain, was lifting the League Championship trophy, Manchester United’s first time to win the English First Division. Roberts then led the club to their first FA Cup success in 1909 with Sandy Turnbull scoring the only goal, followed by a second championship triumph in 1911.

The rebel Roberts had initially faced the wrath of the football authorities in 1905 for “wearing his shorts too short”, which in fact, led the Football Association to pass regulation banning footballers from wearing shorts above the knee. In true rebellious fashion Roberts continued to wear his ‘short’ shorts for the Red Devils.

The summer of 1906 had seen rivals Manchester City involved in a payments scandal which had benefited United, with Billy Meredith and Thomas Blackstock among four players who crossed the Manchester divide. Towards the end of the 1906/07 season Blackstock, in a game versus St. Helens, collapsed after heading a ball.

He sadly passed away soon after. At the inquest the coroner duly recorded “death by natural causes”, which meant Blackstock’s family received no compensation from club or the governing body. Appalled by the verdict, this led to Roberts and Meredith in situ at the Imperial Hotel that Christmas of 1907 setting up the Association Football Players Union to protect the rights of fellow workers.

Roberts trade-union activities meant an end to his international career with England as players involved in the union were banned by the English FA, even though he was captain fantastic for United on the league and cup front. One of the main gripes the players union had was the £4 maximum wage for footballers introduced by the football authorities in 1901.

In 1909 as United went on to lift the FA Cup the war between the FA and the AFPU continued with the Governing Body requesting all players to leave the union. Many left, however, the United players refused and were suspended by the club, they continued to train at the Fallowfield stadium. One day a young photographer arrived at Fallowfield to take a team photo, Roberts later outlined how he obtained a piece of wood for the famous snap: “As the boys were being arranged. I grabbed a piece of wood and wrote The Outcasts F.C. on it.”

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The Football Association finally relented in August 1909 and on their return to the pitch that September the ‘Outcasts’ of Manchester United wore AFPU armbands. However, the FA’s recognition of the union came with a caveat that the AFPU renounce all aspirations of trade-union status. As the AFPU voted overwhelmingly to leave the General Federation of Trade Unions Roberts quipped, “I know of no class of work-people who are less able to look after themselves than footballers. They are like a lot of sheep.”

Some might say Eric Cantona on that cold night in Selhurst Park was standing up for his rights and going against the herd. Although in Cantona’s case it was more seagull like, leaving the press rooms of England bemused.

Nearly twenty-five years after the incident the King of the Stretford End arrived in Manchester for a charity event, in the back halls he met a fellow artist Tony Denton from Fallowfield. Denton presented him with a painting about his famous ‘seagull’ quote, in true French flair Cantona stood shoulders back and smiled, “Merci, my fellow Red”.

Read – Eric Cantona and how he made us feel

Read Also – Playing political football over player’s wages at a time of crisis is a cheap shot to make

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