Twenty Years Ago: Cantona's Redemption

There are lots of frighteningly long standing Premier League anniversaries these days, and next month marks twenty years since the start of one of its most redemptive stories.

The 1995/96 season is a famous one in Premier League history. A league and cup double for Manchester United, delivered in no small part by the Class of 92. The emergence of Beckham, Scholes, Butt and the two Nevilles, joining another young gun in Ryan Giggs, was the defining narrative of the season – an unlikely success that heralded a new and celebrated era of English football.

But in that story there’s an important supporting player – Eric Cantona.

Who else but Eric Cantona could start the season banned following a violent assault on an opposition fan and end it as the Football Writers’ Play of the Season? Who else?

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Ferguson’s side had suffered without its talisman. Cantona rightly spent eight months on the sidelines following an attack on a Crystal Palace fan, and returned a calmer man. In hindsight, after that time out, the fire was gone – and two years later, so was King Eric.

For that season though, he found his rhythm – playing like a man who was determined to achieve the highest possible level of performance, to distill his profession to its purest form, to make an art, a craft, of his trade.

Cantona’s first game back was the first game of October, against Liverpool. He scored one and assisted the other as United drew 2-2 at Old Trafford. It was typical of the man, it took him two minutes to find Nicky Butt with a pinpoint cross, and his goal came from a penalty – it was beat by beat to the script.

The efficiency with which this new Cantona was conducting himself was evident in the series of 1-0 victories which carried United back from a 12 point deficit to Newcastle at Christmas. Time and again he was the difference, as Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle stuttered in the league.

Cantona was United’s only goalscorer on eight occasions that season, including scoring every league goal in March – just four goals, but they brought United ten points. The first of those games was a 1-0 win against Newcastle at St James’ Park – it was also the first of six consecutive games the Frenchman scored in.

And of course there was one other 1-0 victory of note that season. King Eric closed off his season as he had begun it, against Liverpool, but this time at Wembley. With the score 0-0, and just five minutes of the ninety remaining, he was there again, as he had been so often before.

Watching it back now, all these years later, what is striking about the goal – a volley from the edge of the area – is the sheer complexity of motion. The ball is dropping awkwardly, half punched away and deflected, Cantona is backpeddling. He moves like a boxer, on his toes, shifting his weight, calculating the trajectory, head down watching the ball. The only moment in the whole motion where his foot is firmly planted is the exact moment he connects with the ball. Torso contorted, point of connection perfect. He hits across the ball, curving it through a tunnel of defenders, flailing limbs unable to reach it, and into the net. Cantona kept hopping backward, like a prize fighter dancing around the ring.

It was balletic. A moment of sheer beauty. From the same foot that a year earlier had connected with the chest of a fan and sent his career spinning.

Sport allows for that kind of redemption, but football less so; team sports are less inclined to allow such individual indulgences.

The incident at Selhurst Park was just as typical of the man as his volley at Wembley – he was then, and remains now, a complex character. He walked away from the game too young, claiming that – for him – all the enjoyment had been sucked from it. The kick itself was startling, an uncontrolled expression of aggression in a usually contained arena. The fourth wall between player and fan is so rarely broken, it is alarming to see even now.

What we saw with the kick, with the ban, with the seagulls and the trawler, and with the comeback, was more than anything else…human. A flawed man who attempted to harness his flaws and return to work, back straight and collar-popped – that was what was compelling about it.

With football twenty years more sanitised and segregated, a similar story now would have far fewer rough edges, and far less ups and downs. We’re all the worse for it.

Featured image – All rights reserved by houcmant dominique

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