Thursday, 24 December 2009

When the seagulls follow the trawler: Cantona at United

For all the stars who've graced the Manchester United shirt, Eric Cantona stands alone as the most iconic and charismatic.

Collar up, arched back, straight arms.
Far from the Best, Cantona rather underperformed in the Champions League, never figured for his country when they won the trophies - and only really turned it on in the Premier League and FA Cup.

But his impact domestically was total. Hughes was committed, Keane courageous, Giggs robotically consistent, Rooney talismanic, Ronaldo mercurial. But it's Eric The King who framed the era of Sir Alex Ferguson with his unique brand of swagger, raffishness et victoire.

We'll never see his like again, on or off the field, encapsulated in eleven seconds by that extraordinary news conference painted a pretty picture on his verbal easel.

"When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea".

Ironic that sublime eloquence should be borne of extreme violence. Cantona's Kung Fu kick at Selhurst Park on racist fan, Matthew Simmons was shocking and he was severely punished for it.

With aloof demeanour, arched back and turned up collars, Cantona steered United to the league the year Kevin Keegan's Newcastle should've won it - then to the Double with a goal of spectacular technique against The Spice Boys of Liverpool, white suits and all.

Cup winning strike at Wembley
Two goals spring to mind. The Newcastle-slaying volley at St. James' Park which handed United advantage in the title race and a fantastic chip against Sunderland, where Eric turned to acclaim the adulation from all four corners of Old Trafford by puffing out his shoulders like a tinpot dictator!

Cantona was so disillusioned by his nine-month world football ban that he had to be talked out of quitting for good by Fergie.

The United boss roamed Parisian alleyways on the back of a moped searching for his errant genius. He found him, talked him down and Cantona returned to Old Trafford scoring against Liverpool.

But before United's greatest triumphs - the 1999 treble - Cantona had gone for good, and it was the right decision. In his autobiography, Managing My Life, Sir Alex describes "the thickening process" in Eric's body. The first signs of a middle-age spread. Cantona's motivation had gone. Beach Football and Movie Stardom beckoned.

I watched him a summer later playing Professional Beach Football in Hyde Park. You have to be fit to play on sand - and he really was. There was probably a Championship season left in him. Full, potty crowds would have rolled up to see him - but the stage just wouldn't have been big enough. Cantona quit at the top, a permanent United legend.

That other famous strike in a United shirt.
Cantona opposed the Malcolm Glazer takeover claiming he'd never return even as manager while the Glazers were in charge. But in July 2008 the Sunday Express reported Cantona's second thoughts. A close friend revealed: “Eric does fancy helping out with coaching at a club like Manchester United. He's been enjoying himself in films and being involved in beach soccer but has always wanted to help produce a team in his style and knows that Sir Alex would encourage him".

Despite his vow that he'd never return while the Glazers remained in control of United it appears his stance has mellowed.

United are too big a behemoth to take a chance on Cantona as United's next manager. But don't write off a return to Old Trafford for a man who has a relationship with his fans like few others.

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