With his trademark pose, collar up, and uni-brow stare, Eric Cantona in the red of Manchester United became an icon of the Premier League. As the trickle of foreigners into the English game became a torrent, the incomparable Frenchman left his mark on both the sport and infamously the torso of a Crystal Palace fan.
And yet his story in England could have been very different. Had Liverpool manager Graeme Souness not expressed doubt about a harmonious dressing room, Cantona could have been a darling of the Kop instead of a King at Old Trafford.
He could also have been a fan favourite in front of another Kop at Hillsborough when, as a Nimes player, he spent two days trying to impress at Sheffield Wednesday. France coach Michel Platini had offered the forward’s services to then manager Trevor Francis.
Cantona was already dubbed ‘Mad Eric’ and ‘Le Brat’ by the press following a two-month suspension in France for throwing a ball at the referee. At the subsequent hearing, his choice language earned him time off in his homeland. The painter’s son walked up to each member of the French FA’s disciplinary panel and called them an idiot He also threatened to prematurely retire from the game.
And so, without a word of English, Cantona ended up in the Steel City. Bad weather at the time meant Wednesday had been training indoors so one of the first glimpses fans would get of him in club colours came in a friendly against American professional indoor football team Baltimore Blast at Sheffield Arena in the 6-a-side Transatlantic Challenge.
Cantona also played a 90-minute game on astro-turf in which he scored a hat-trick including a 30-yard free-kick but the legend subsequently grew that he never took to proper grass while at Wednesday. Manager Francis had asked the trialist to stay for another week, but he refused and was soon on his way to Elland Road to sign for Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds United.
In later years Francis claimed he was never really serious about signing the Frenchman and that he was merely doing a favour for his former agent in offering Cantona a shop window in England. The manager later revealed at the end of the trial he was asked if he was going to sign the player to which he replied “Well, I don’t think so. We would like him to stay for a few more days training for him to enjoy himself and for us to have a little look at him.”
Francis reckoned Cantona’s people took this as an insult, but whether it was lost in translation or something more, he was on his way to Leeds and a First Division title by the end of the 1992 season.
It was a messy end in Sheffield; he was accused of walking out on the club who’d been trying to sign him. And in true Cantona style, his time at Leeds also ended acrimoniously, when, dropped from the team, he refused to report for training and handed in a transfer request in November of ‘92.
His subsequent move to fierce rivals Manchester United was met with fury from Leeds fans but the reign of King Eric at Old Trafford had begun. For the footballer who would turn actor, it became the role he’d been born to play.
Published in Issue 6 of Póg Mo Goal Magazine is available at www.pogmogoal.bigcartel.com
Illustration by Killian Walsh, a Creative Director of Grandson, and a lifelong Dundalk FC Fan. www.grandson.ie