Let me begin by getting this off my chest, I’m a Liverpool fan and I don’t detest Eric Cantona. I actually quite like the man. I know I shouldn’t. After all, he helped herald in an era of domination for the club I hate more than any other, and all at my expense as a Liverpool fan. He won four league titles in five years with Manchester United. He even spent a year at Leeds, where he won the league title. Playing for those two clubs should be reason enough to loathe the man, regardless of how nice a person he might have been. A glance at his disciplinary record however, reveals the Frenchmen to be a rather unsavoury character. As you’ll no doubt observe from reading on, Cantona could be a nasty piece of work, yet still I find it hard not to like him.
This is Eric Cantona, so it’s difficult to be brief when listing the occasions when his temper got the better of him. Let’s do this chronologically. In 1987, while at his first club Auxerre, he punched his goalkeeper Bruno Martini in the face. Martini sported a black eye for a few days after, but he and the club forgave Eric. A year later Cantona was dropped from the French national side. In response to his exclusion he called the manager a “bag of shit” in a televised interview. This resulted in a one year ban from international football. During a friendly match for Marseille in January 1989, he reacted furiously when he was substituted by kicking the ball into the crowd and throwing his jersey at his manager. When he was playing for Montpellier, Cantona got into an argument with a team mate and flung his football boots at the poor bloke’s face. In 1991 while playing a match with Nimes, Cantona grew frustrated due to referee’s performance and ended up throwing the ball at the official. The French Football Federation (FFF) ordered Cantona to appear before them at a disciplinary hearing over this incident. In a Bart Simpson versus Principal Skinner type exchange, the FFF gave Cantona a one month ban, only for the striker to then insult each member of the FFF disciplinary committee individually and have his ban extended to three months for his efforts. Following this decision, Cantona announced his retirement from football.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. The man who makes Joey Barton look like a mild-mannered altar boy, was persuaded by two of his peers within French football, Michel Platini and Gerrard Houillier, to move to England to restart his career. Just one month after announcing his retirement Cantona signed for Leeds United. He actually managed to behave himself at Leeds. He spent 18 months at the Yorkshire club, winning the league title and picking up the Charity Shield, which Leeds won against Liverpool in Wembley in which Cantona scored a hat-trick.
But enough about the football, such trivial nonsense can be saved for later, back to the rap sheet. In regards to controversy, Cantona’s time at Leeds passed by peacefully. However, when he returned to Elland Road in 1993 as a Manchester United player he finally made the back pages of the English tabloids for the wrong reasons. The home fans subjected Cantona to torrents of abuse during the match, he retaliated by spitting at a Leeds fan. This was probably the least controversial of all Cantona’s indiscretions. In contrast, the next incident became possibly the most controversial moment in Premier League history.
On the 25th of January 1995, Cantona was sent off in a game against Crystal Palace. As he made his way towards the tunnel for an early bath, he was on the end of a tirade of abuse from a Palace fan, Matthew Simmons, who was jeering and waving a clenched fist. Cantona launched himself into the crowd, aiming a quite impressive martial arts type kick at the fan. Pretty much everyone was stunned, even the match day stewards who couldn’t separate the two men quickly enough allowing Cantona an extra second or two to aim a few punches at Simmons.
“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.” In a press conference arranged to deal with the tabloids who had been calling for a lifetime ban, the above quote was Cantona’s only response to the press before he stood up and left the room. The tabloids, very much out for his blood, passed off the comment as nonsense although it is clear Cantona was referring to the constant media attention directed towards him.
Manchester United banned Cantona for four months. The FA increased this ban to eight months of football. FIFA enforced this suspension as a worldwide ban, meaning Cantona could not play international football until the ban was lifted which resulted in him being stripped of the French captaincy.
Initially I said I liked Cantona, yet I’ve dedicated the past part of 800 words to his bad behaviour. He was the leading force in a Manchester United team that won four league titles and two FA Cups, yet even as a Liverpool fan I still like him. He’s committed more crimes than other footballers I can’t stomach, such as Roy Keane and Joey Barton, yet I can overlook Cantona’s dark side and not theirs.
My first point of defence will be Matthew Simmons, the Palace fan on the end of that kick. Reportedly, Simmons shouted racial slurs at Cantona, which obviously prompted the kick. I find it hard to be too disgusted if openly racist abuse in a public place beamed all over the world by television cameras to a viewing audience consisting of millions of children is greeted by a kick to the face. “F*ck off back to France, you French w*nker” just shouldn’t be tolerated. Maybe some of the children seated near Matthew Simmons learned a valuable lesson that day, about racism and violence. Both should always go punished, as both Simmons and Cantona found out. It was later revealed that Simmons had attacked a foreign worker in a petrol station with a spanner, in an attempted robbery. As well as this, he attended a National Front (racist whites only group in the UK) rally. Charming fellow, eh? Stuff political correctness, well done Eric.
As for all the other incidents, there is no defending Cantona. All one can say, is at least it makes for highly amusing reading thirteen years on after the man retired.
Finally, and more briefly than a player of his calibre deserves, there’s the football. Cantona was a genius on the pitch. He played with a grace that surprised many considering his physical stature. He could be eloquent one moment, and as hard as nails the next. His goalscoring record was good but not always spectacular. He only broke the 20 goal mark once when he scored 25 goals in the 1993-94 season for United. In total, over the course of five years at the club he scored 82 times.
He brought more important things to the team than just goals and assists though. He brought an arrogance that spread throughout the United team, a positive arrogance, that he and they were above the others. An arrogance that turned into belief. A belief that brought trophies to Old Trafford. United fans have a banner that reads “Not Arrogant, Just Better.” Perhaps that’s true, but when they signed Eric Cantona they hadn’t been the best for a long time. They had a talented team, a talented manager and Eric’s arrogance. Cantona brought the first success to a team that have won eleven league titles and the Champions League twice since he first arrived at the club. Even though he was only there for four of those league titles, his influence and self-belief are still felt around Old Trafford today, and that’s hard not to admire.