THE RETURN OF THE KING
THE SECOND REIGN OF MANCHESTER UNITED’S RED-BLOODED FRENCHMAN | ISSUE 1: COMEBACKS
When thinking of the greatest players, we evaluate them in a cumulative way. How many titles they won. How many records they broke. How many appearances they made. We may run our eyes over their highlight reel and marvel at their best moments. However, when charting the best players of the modern era, one man consistently features near the very top - who wouldn’t score that highly if assessed on stats alone.
He scored 73 goals in 171 league games, won three Premier League titles and two FA Cups. By no means a trophy haul to be sniffed at, but considerably less than those he sits above in the eyes of journalists and fans alike.
However when you have a season that so perfectly embodies not only your God like ability, but your worth to the team and the spectacle of the league, then that is all we need. It becomes the subconscious focal point of any discussion about the players legacy.
It is though, an incredibly rare thing. Unlike international tournaments, where many a reputation are defined, the nature and sheer number of games played over a league season means very few players can so visibly drag their team to a title.
Eric Cantona is one such player. His performances during the 1995/96 season are perhaps the closest anyone has ever come to such a feat in a single campaign.
Following his eight month ban, Cantona returned to face Liverpool at Old Trafford in October 1995. His presence was met with a French-flag-waving-fanfare from the faithful at the Theatre of Dreams and a sense of relief from his teammates, “It was like a ship having its Captain back” Nicky Butt would say years later. He was their conductor and they had missed the beat without him.
He entered the pitch that day with his collar turned up and his chest puffed out, his body language exuding self-belief. Within two minutes he had assisted Butt for the games opening goal.
Robbie Fowler did his best to ruin the homecoming, scoring twice to put Liverpool 2-1 ahead, but in the 71st minute, Cantona would take centre stage. Having picked the ball up on the halfway line, he drove towards the edge of the penalty area. Just as it seemed he might shoot, he instead slipped a pass through to the overlapping Ryan Giggs who was then bundled over in the box.
No one but Eric would be taking the penalty kick.
Suspended for two thirds of a year and having considered quitting England altogether, you wouldn’t have blamed him for leathering his spot kick. Instead, he chose to nonchalantly stroke it in to the corner, sending the keeper the wrong way. In celebration he ran to the fans behind the goal, grabbed hold of the stanchion and swung himself around on it with all the joy and exuberance of a toddler knee sliding at a wedding. Eight months of frustration washed away by the adoration of his people.
The game finished 2-2 but it wasn’t far from a fairytale return for the Frenchman. However, it was merely a teaser. What would follow in the remaining 30 fixtures was peak, archetypal Cantona. The season he would go from talisman to King.
In his absence, United had surrendered the league to Blackburn Rovers after failing to score a winner against West Ham on the final day of the 1994/95 season. They followed that by losing the FA Cup final to Everton.
Having replaced Hughes, Ince and Kanchelskis with the then merely promising ‘Class of ‘92’, United started the following season well, but found teams difficult to break down without the mercurial man from Marseille. It was Newcastle United who were leading the early running.
But come January the assault on the Toon Army’s title march began and it was Cantona leading the charge. The first battleground would be Upton Park, where United had ceded their crown the previous season.
A tight and keenly contested game was settled by a solitary goal. After Giggs and Andy Cole combined down the left wing, the Welshman fizzed the ball across the six yard box, alluding everyone but Cantona who slotted home from the most acute of angles.
United had been on a poor run. They had won just twice in their last nine and whilst Newcastle didn’t drop points that week, United were done losing ground. The West Ham win would spark an 11 match unbeaten run. Cantona would score nine goals during that period. Five of them would be match winners.
His form during that run-in spoke of a player determined to make his mark on the season in a positive way. Following his transgression at Selhurst Park the previous year, the British media had vilified the Frenchman, calling for him to be banned from the English game for good. He seriously considered quitting the Premier League, no doubt fearing he would forever be tarnished by his action and eternally seen as the ‘bad boy’ by the authorities - as had happened in his homeland.
As Cantona led a relentless pursuit, Newcastle began to feel the pressure. They lost to West Ham and dropped points against Manchester City. By the time the two met at St. James Park on March 4th, the Magpies’ lead was down to four points.
United found it hard to cope with Newcastle's attack and in truth should have been soundly beaten. However they found Peter Schmeichel in inspired form. So in the 52nd minute, when a hopeful ball was looped into the Newcastle box, it seemed destined to drop to Cantona, who struck the volley in to the ground and in to the net. The gap was now one point.
Sandwiched between this and his next match winning goal, is an often forgotten 90th minute equaliser against QPR. Another cross from the left, another far post arrival. This time a bullet of a header that not only kept United on Newcastle's tails but actually pulled them level with the Toon Army.
Next up were Arsenal. Resembling a Gaelic Action Man with his newly acquired buzz cut, Cantona was ready to lead the fight again. This time, he would show his taste for the spectacular. A headed clearance out of the Arsenal box fell to Cantona 30 yards from goal. Jumping, he cushioned the ball with his chest and strode forward two or three yards before unleashing a volley over David Seaman and in to the goal via the cross bar.
United followed their 1-0 win over Arsenal by repeating the trick against their North London counterparts Tottenham Hotspur four days later. Cantona received the ball 10 yards outside Tottenham's penalty area and drove towards the left hand side of the box, before caressing the ball back the other way, just beyond the reach of goalkeeper Ian Walker.
Rob Lee, part of the now capitulating Newcastle side, said that the players would come in from their game, having won 4-2, or drawn 3-3 such as their cavalier ‘we’ll outscore you’ approach dictated and ask how United had fared. The answer was as disheartening as it was predictable. One-nil, Cantona.
Following United's game against Coventry on April 8th, he needn’t have asked at all.
Once again, it was Cantona’s movement and ability to anticipate where the ball would drop that earned his side all three points. This time a deflected cross looped up to Andy Cole who miscontrolled the ball, sending it towards the penalty spot to a waiting Cantona who stroked it home with his right foot under Steve Ogrizovic.
They would lose their next game, but Cantona was not to be denied. United won their three remaining fixtures to win the title by four points.
That those journalists, who had hounded him following his moment of madness at Selhurst Park, gave him the Football Writers Award for Player of the Year, must have felt very satisfying for the man who only ever really wanted to be loved. The redemptive nature of his narrative that year is his career in a microcosm. A supremely gifted player, often fighting against the fallout from his more fiery and controversial character traits.
That season Cantona registered 14 goals in 30 league games and five in seven F.A Cup ties including, of course, the winner in the 1-0 victory against Liverpool in the final.
He had always been the difference for United. Without him, they were good. With him there was a sense of foreboding, of inevitability. They became a force on the march to establishing a dynasty. With King Eric, there was no question which team would rule the land. And that fact was never clearer than the 1995/96 season.
Everything about Cantona can be learned from that season. Overcoming his controversies to show not only his natural match-winning ability but his talent to galvanise his troops. A King truly at the peak of his reign.
By Greg Richardson | Tw. @RAKIS14