The Legend of Eric Cantona

Following his speech at the 2019 UEFA Awards, Joel Golby remembers some more Peak Cantona moments.
09 September 2019, 12:16pm
eric cantona 2019
Background: Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo; Foreground: Mandoga Media / Alamy Stock Photo

It's about how you remember it, not how it was.

So, the memory: Eric Cantona, frozen for one perfect second mid-flight, leg extended out perfectly horizontal, Crystal Palace fan with their cheeks smashed across their face and their teeth flying out, thunder-lines coming off the impact point, Eric with his collar perfectly up, pristine and fluttering slightly in the cool wind, the background behind him – not the snarling, astonished faces of Palace fans, but something more iconic, pink and vivid and electric – and then he falls to the ground, perfectly gymnastic landing, shrugs a "don't know what you were worried about" and accepts the straight red with detached French élan.

But no, watch it back: Eric, already sent off for kicking out at Richard Shaw after a muddy high ball, reluctantly leaving the pitch; Eric, in a significant and stoic gesture, flapping his collar down to intimate the game was over. The camera cuts away, and now it's Eric in the midst of a flurry of blurry grey-brown crowd shots, limbs and pulled shirts everywhere, more a tangle than a perfect flying kung-fu; then a cut to Fergie, pre-knighthood Fergie, in a patchwork Umbro training jacket, looking like a vet's just told him he has to kill his dog.

Sometimes reasonable men must do unreasonable things. Sometimes you have to hop a bollard and fly-kick a Crystal Palace fan in the chest. And for all the emotions, there, in the swirl, you have to admit it: you wouldn't get a single 2019-era Premier League player doing that, would you? Not even Lee Cattermole did that, and Lee Cattermole was a trotting midfield enforcer whose entire vibe was "slightly too hard for juvenile detention".

And so, arguably, this – the time Eric Cantona karate kicked a Crystal Palace fan through the ribs – was the first and only time football and art have perfectly intersected.

The seagulls follow the trawler follow the sea. We forget that the 1990s-era Premier League needed immigration to really get going. Between the years '91 and '96, England, as an international unit, were broadly crap, and that's because most of the squad were balding lads called Steve who also qualified for Ireland through a distant grandma or aunt. A lot of men who just looked like they really enjoyed washing their car, for instance; those fellas you see looking at their brick-like Nokia phones as they wait for their daughters in the Oxford Street branch of Topshop.

We talk a lot about the "Best of British" here, in Britain, but we rarely flip the coin over and consider the worst, of which there is a lot. A particular essence of Britishness is embodied by grey drizzle on a Sunday afternoon; an unsatisfactory cup of tea on the sofa, pitch black outside at 5PM, in front of glamour-less television like Antiques Roadshow; an underwhelming pork-roast covered in treacle-black gravy, with peas served out of a tin. A Britain that knows a lot of things to do with mince. A Britain that thinks the best thing to do with a potato is "just boil it".

For a while, top-flight football was a lot like that. Then a swarm of foreigners pirouetted over, with long, well-conditioned hair and a working nutritional knowledge of pasta and a functioning left foot as well as a right, and suddenly there was some spice on our chips.

eric cantona 1997

Cantona in 1997. Photo: Allstar Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

So now you've got Cantona. Arguably the most Cantona moment (beyond kicking a Crystal Palace fan in the head or chest, which again we agree was a very Cantona thing to do) was That Goal Against Sunderland: Cantona, in that best-ever United kit with the grey-white collar and the black circle around the badge and the SHARP logo and the grid design down the sleeves and the faded pattern of Old Trafford.

Cantona does two players on the halfway line and lurches forward, passes off to Brian McClair and just runs through Andy Melville to take receipt of the one-two, and then a sort of half-pause – it's not a full pause, because he somehow makes the chip while moving, without losing his stride, but you almost see his shoulders shimmy as he opens up for the shot; there is an infinitesimally small moment where Cantona considers what he is about to do – and then woop, lobs it right over Lionel Perez, the most perfect chip in Premier League history, a chip that watching it back feels like you've just swallowed liquid chocolate, something so right about that chip that it completes a part of your soul.

That chip isn't even Peak Cantona, because Peak Cantona happens a second later, when he turns around, puffs his arms away from his body like he's about to lift up a sofa, turns away from the goal and the shock and the adoration, and just shrugs his arms into the air, as if to say: "Yeah, what?"

That goal put Cantona on the map of my nine-year-old mind because I remember: i. My dad being mad about it ("The arrogance! The French!"); ii. Attempts to do it in the schoolyard, when we were all far too young and weak to put the ball in the air without an 18-yard charged-up run-up, which meant instead of delicate lobs we did full toe-blasts into each other's faces, vivid red little nosebleeds just everywhere; and iii. I vividly remember the local United fan, Alex, turning up the next day in a Calvin Klein "EriC is King" T-shirt, which 2019-era Googling has told me never, ever existed.

No other footballer had managed the perfect hat-trick of rattling my dad, making an entire school year of children shout "Cant–ONA!" every time they hit a weak shot at the goalkeeper during a break-time game of cuppies, and inspired godlike-worship and close-to-religious T-shirt wear.

That's because Cantona wasn't really like other footballers – a pace car player, one of those quintessential get-the-ball-to-him-and-he-will-set-the-tone players, someone who always seems to be running at a different speed, either faster or slower, muddling or racing, but somehow the game is the one that is wrong and the player is the one who is right, 21 other players and three or so referees and thousands of watching fans versus Eric Cantona, and Eric Cantona somehow always being correct – and he has continued to not be like other players ever since, too.

What player in the league right now would retire at 31 because he basically wanted to get a bit more wine-drinking in to his lifestyle? Who else would have a post-career CV that reads: actor, beach footballer, made Alex Ferguson write a letter where you can basically hear him crying through it, social revolutionist, Nike-sponsored poet laureate? Who in the Premier League would put on a flat cap, amble onto a UEFA stage, quote Shakespeare a bit and affect the air of a town centre maniac before saying "I love football"? None of them. Every single player currently alive is primed for a weird media punditry post-career wind-down where they hide their generic sleeve tattoos behind careful tailoring and slowly explain to Jermaine Jenas that Newcastle aren't going to score if they keep hitting the post.

Eric Cantona was always the player who you passed to and thought: 'He's either going to score the goal of the century, or kill someone.' Nothing about his post-football career has indicated that we were ever dealing with an entirely sane player on the pitch.

It's hard when you support other teams to offer anything but begrudging admiration for a quality player who belongs to someone else. I always think it takes an enormous act of bravery, arguably more so than exhibited by a number of active Marines, to tell your mate that the left-back who plays for the team he supports is "actually alright".

Cantona elegantly shrugs at that concept, twirls around it and chips the keeper of it: Cantona, no matter who you supported, was undeniably fucking good. It's often been theorised that Cantona was the gruff French lynchpin between the old United sides and the surging, British-backboned, defeat-all-comers, treble-winning behemoth of 1999 (that, essentially, Cantona showed in training that it was OK to be weird, and by weird I mean "better at football than everyone else"); that Cantona changed the face of the league, forever, the rising tide that kept the boats lifting even through to today. And the fact is: he did it with such detached French braggadocio, undefeated bigger boy swagger, a tangible Older Brother Cool, that you can't help but respect it.

He did it with his head shaved down to the nub because, you feel, he simply could not be bothered with haircuts. Every other Premier League generational player – Henry, Ronaldo, Rooney, Aguero – has had that sheen of academy graduate about them, big Running Through Cones energy, the overwhelming feeling that whatever groundswell of natural talent got them halfway there was augmented by hundreds of hours in the training ground doing swerving free kicks past those metal outlines of a wall you get. Cantona always felt like he was coming to the game straight from detention.

In a world where every other post-career legend has either gone onto punditry, management or become a sort of weird living statue wheeled out at FIFA events in between selling dick pills and tweeting, Cantona bucks that trend: he just sort of shrugs around, growing his hair and beard out like an erratic solitary artist, occasionally turning up to UEFA events dressed like a farmhand to baffle everyone in attendance by saying something other than a "we gave it 110 percent"-shaped soundbite.

Post-career Cantona is further proof that Peak Cantona was a one-off, the result of a unique footballing mind, the person Joey Barton always thought he was when he had that poetry phase, and the further we get from his heyday the more you realise we'll never really have one like him again. Academies tend to train the impulse to karate-kick a Palace fan out of their kids at around the under-15 bracket. Cantona saying, "Only accidents, crimes, wars, will still kill us" while Ronaldo looks afraid of him proves that this is a shame.