19 years and 365 days ago today (we’re in a leap year, I got it right, and it was the morning after) I awoke bleary eyed, with the thought of not really wanting to get up for school again, and The Pulse radio station of West Yorkshire firing out of my not so state of the art radio alarm clock.
The 8.00am news bulletin rifled through a few headlines, I was blissfully ignorant of current affairs in November 1992, and paid no attention whatsoever. Then the sports headline came up and it went something like this: “Leeds United supporters are in uproar after learning of yesterday’s transfer of Eric Cantona to rivals Manchester United”.
“WHAT?!?!” I distinctly remember saying out loud to myself, whilst sitting up rigidly in my bed and fully waking up in an instant.
I dashed to my bedroom door, and shouted down the stairs to my then match-day companion: “Mum? We’ve signed Cantona!” in a somewhat puzzled manner.
“WHAT?!?!” she replied…I couldn’t tell if she’d not heard me, or if her disbelief was the same as mine. “We’ve signed Cantona!” I repeated.
“Give over” was her reply, before switching on the TV and checking out any particular channel that might be broadcasting the news.
Being a Halifax lad, I was immersed in West Yorkshire – and many of my close friends supported Leeds United, including my best school chum Bryn Howard. It was him I was thinking of most on my dash to school that morning, I couldn’t wait to see him. He was the first in my face when Leeds won the title a few months before, and this news – although I still couldn’t quite comprehend it – was a small bit of revenge for that moment six months before.
I got to the tennis court about 8.45 where the early-to-school guys were playing football. Bryn was – as always – in goal. He saw me coming, left his goal and wandered over to me…a bemused smile on his face, and in his purple and luminous yellow ski jacket, he knew what was coming.
“Ooh-ah-Cantona…!” I started to chant. The first time in my life I’d ever chanted it, and the first time I’d heard it without it pissing me right off!
“I can’t believe it” Bryn said, and I kind of agreed. Although I was happy to have got one over one my mate, we had one of many civilised and in-depth football chats that we me and Bryn were able to have over the years.
That moment I heard the news on The Pulse, and the first time I chanted Le Dieu’s name to Bryn lingers long in the mind…and they were just the first of many, many great memories of Eric Cantona, who would have such an impression on me and my fellow reds for the next four and a half years.
The signing of Eric Cantona is one of those JFK moments for many reds, you remember where you were when you heard the news.
You’ll read many stories today about how he changed the team ethos, was the ‘final piece of the jigsaw’, assaulted a fan, got sent off in Galatasaray, scored THAT goal against Sunderland, sent a keeper the wrong way twice from the penalty spot in a cup final, and went on to skipper the United side, succeeding Steve Bruce in his final season in a red shirt. All of which are relevant, spot on, and part of the United story.
But there was a lot more to remember about Eric Cantona in and amongst all that. His four and a half years with the club saw us witness a lot more than just the headlines. My favourite memories are the ones we remember..but only if you’re reminded…
I was there when he grabbed his first goal for United, away at Chelsea on a dark, wet Saturday afternoon on December 19th 1992. We’d just gone 1-0 down to a David Lee goal, and we weren’t playing particularly well. A cross came in, Mike Phelan nodded the ball down at the far post, and Eric turned to hit the ball home, sending us home with a share of the points. That might have been the first rendition of “Twelve Cantona’s”, but I can’t be totally sure on that.
I remember the schaphoid injury that he had towards the end of that first season, and he played with a pot on his wrist. I’d copy him by putting my thumb through the cuff in my school shirt on the playground, with collar up of course.
Cantona had the arrogance we all know about…and he was so cool with it too. However, that coolness didn’t stop him wearing a silly red curly wig at Wembley when we won the FA Cup in 1994, clinching the double. He came to Old Trafford with a reputation, and the impression that he wouldn’t fit it but those were signs that he loved being at United.
Earlier that season he lobbed Dmitri Kharine (again, we’re playing Chelsea) from just inside the Chelsea half at Stamford Bridge, and he hit the bar. I remember watching it in the United end, and it seemed to float in slow motion…one of the best things I’d ever seen, and my first memory of seeing someone do something ‘instinctive’. The replays show that, as he put his hands on his head after realising the ball hadn’t gone in, a Chelsea fan in the background wearing their away shirt stood up and applauded.
He had an effect on everyone.
Andy Gray used to present “The Boot Room” on Sky Sports, where he’d analyse weekend performances with replays and that ‘drawing on the screen’ thing, breaking down periods of play. It was a tepid programme, and Andy Gray’s limited knowledge was masked by his matter-of-fact way of giving his opinion, making him look like the biggest football expert in this solar system. One week Eric Cantona was in the studio with him, and Andy Gray was left speechless on a number of occasions – as were a lot of us – when he stole the show, disagreeing with a number of Gray’s points, putting him to rights with better tactical nouse and making the host of the show a mere passenger. He demonstrated a knowledge of the game that, for me, was the start of a huge interest in football being more than just defenders tackling, midfielders passing, wingers crossing and forwards scoring. This was the first time I realised that positional play, player integration, holding midfielders…all sorts of stuff like that were a key part of a game. And patience too. I’d love Eric to talk to our fans on the same subject again today.
And did you forget about the time he first quit United? At the end of the 1994/95 season. He’d been suspended by the club for attacking Matthew Simmonds, but the FA saw fit to extend that slightly, and then subsequently make a song and dance about the reds setting up a practice match behind closed doors for him, to help keep his fitness up. The FA cited that his ban now included him being banned from “all footballing activity”, a statement rightly ridiculed then withdrawn because it meant he wouldn’t be able to have kick around in his garden with his son. The media also had it in for him at the time, but Alex Ferguson followed Eric to France where he’d escaped to, and persuaded him to change his mind and come home.
I can’t believe it’s twenty years since Eric Cantona signed for the reds. In his time with us he won four league titles and two FA Cups (it seems like SO much more) and then lost his hunger and passion for the game. You could sense this towards the end of the 1996/97 season, and when he lifted the Premier League trophy after the final game, it looked like it could be the end of his time. He’d wanted to win a European Cup, and that had been far from his grasp.
I was gutted. We were all gutted, and even though his form in that final season wasn’t up to his usual standard, we all hoped there’d be another change of mind. This time it wasn’t to be. He was only 30 years old.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I’m sure he’d have been doing a great job for us at the age of 32 when we did the treble. Whether we’d have done it with him in the side who knows…would we have had Teddy Sheringham? or Dwight Yorke? It may not have panned out like it did had he stayed…but I remember just after winning it wishing that Cantona had stuck around. But although he wasn’t there in a shirt that night, he certainly was the most important player that Alex Ferguson had signed for United, and he did his bit in taking the club towards the level they needed to be at to finally become European Champions again.
Twenty years ago today we signed a legend, and it’s a worthwhile anniversary date in any United fans minds.
To our saviour from afar…happy anniversary.
For football conversation (not lectures please!) and other incoherent babble and banter, follow me on Twitter: @stevecrab