Eric Cantona


“Everything in life can be found in football. My idea of Art is that it’s all about obeying natural impulse. Without spontaneity, football would be nothing” (Eric Cantona)

Few footballers can ever have looked so isolated or alone. With his team-mates irately surrounding the referee and his manager looking stoically on in disbelief, in the few moments before anyone from the United bench caught up with him, Eric Cantona stood on the touchline at Selhurst Park alone – not just shocked himself but shocked at himself – before walking dejectedly towards the tunnel. 

What happened after this could of course end up darkening not only United’s championship chances this season but Cantona’s long-term prospects in English football and the hearts of legions of Man United supporters across the country. 

Once he had (finally) gone, led away by Peter Schmeichel, there were a few half-hearted chants of “Oooh-ah/Ooh-ah Cantona” as the United fans, like the players, tried to make the best of things. 

Later as we filed out of the ground, in the rain, somehow the sound of “Ooh-eh/Ooh-eh/David May” didn’t quite have the same ring to it, or effect.

It’s hard to explain the difference between Manchester United’s love for Cantona and, say, Blackburn’s love of Alan Shearer or Liverpool’s for Ian Rush.

It obviously has something to do with ‘genius’ and the emotional investment that goes with the personal traumas that geniuses bring. But ever since the days of George Best, although players like John Barnes, Glenn Hoddle, and Matt le Tissier might deserve the accolade not even Paul Gascoigne has inspired a team to win two league titles or do the double.

Fans of other teams can try and deny it but Cantona has also made United the most exciting side the country has seen for years.

Now neutrals are insisting we have to have one extreme of Eric without the other: The Thinker without The Thug, the Rimbaud without the Rambo. But there’s no chance of that. 

For every back-heel flick that creates a goal there will always be one aimed at an opponent’s face.

At times like this, amidst all the clamour for Cantona’s head, what most football fans should remember is that they would kill to have a player like Cantona or Best in their team. Football (lest we forget) is about excitement; part of Cantona’s trouble is his extreme talent has marked him out so greatly.  

The only other time I’ve seen such feelings of emotion and genuine love for a player (amongst fans and team-mates alike) was in Naples for Diego Maradona – someone else who, amidst all his difficulties in dealing with the rest of his life, also still managed to inspire a team to new heights of success and passion from the fans.

It was notable that amongst all the xenophobic delight at Maradona’s fall from grace at the ‘94 World Cup the people of Napoli and Argentina, as well as the players who played with him, were united in their support for him. Maradona’s talent for self-destruction became a personal tragedy for them too, 

United fans have seen the warmth that players like Ryan Giggs and Paul Ince feel for Eric Cantona. It was part of the reason why to their great credit, after he had been sent off, they started to play the way they did. Giggs in particular ran his heart out in a way he has often found difficult in far easier circumstances.

But the rest of football is evidently still struggling to deal with outsiders like Cantona who – like Maradona and Best – despite the support of the players and staff at the club, remains a genuine maverick, as enigmatic and unpredictable as a McEnroe or Alex Higgins.

In the past when Cantona has been sent off, Ferguson or his assistant manager Brian Kidd have always been there with him (for him), leading him away with an arm round his shoulder. The fact that this didn’t happen this time makes you wonder if even Alex Ferguson is now becoming baffled and defeated by the enigmatic star (his favourite).

Mind you, United should know what to do by now. When the club failed to protect and support George Best, they let him walk away from the club (in January 1974), and essentially from (serious) football.

All the sanctimonious ex-players crying for more extreme disciplinary measures be taken against Cantona have no idea what it’s like to have his skill and conveniently forget standard punishments don’t have any effect on un-standard players. 

(This is after all the man who, whilst playing in France, once punched his own goalkeeper and who was sent off for throwing the ball at a referee and then appeared before a disciplinary committee purely so that he could insult them one by one.)

It’s no coincidence that whilst Stan Collymore was trading blows with Frank Sinclair and Mark Bosnich was flattening Jurgen Klinsmann, only Cantona found himself being sent off.

And for what ? Kicking out at someone who had been niggling, pulling, and climbing all over him all night. It’s hard to imagine that Alan Shearer, an equally aggressive player, wouldn’t have done the same (or worse).

Cantona had had a bad game against Palace. A combination of the muddy pitch, dismal refereeing decisions (against both teams) and the fact that United had never got going. The red card was a result of the same sort of frustration that plagued Best and Maradona.

At the moment, it looks as if mavericks/outsiders like Cantona have no hope of being fully embraced by English football (with his poetry and painting and French cat-walks.)

Banish Alex Higgins and John McEnroe from snooker or tennis and what are we left with ? Steve Davis and Pete Sampras. Throw out players like Cantona (if we ever get any more) and what will we be left with ? Iain Dowies, Kevin Campbells, and other well-meaning cart-horses.

United are, understandably, resigned to a lengthy ban. (No-one’s going to argue he didn’t completely lose Le Plot.) 

There is something magnificent about self-destruction on a scale of Best’s or Maradona’s or Cantona’s but that doesn’t mean everyone else should just sit by and let it – or speed it up by ‘cracking down’ on him when it happens. 

Football and Manchester United have already let one legendary genius feel he had to walk away while he was only 27. I only hope they – and we – don’t lose another one with Eric ‘ooh-ah’ Cantona.