On 26 November 1992, the modern history of Manchester United was changed forever. At no other time during Sir Alex Ferguson’s illustrious, trophy-strewn career did a single signing have as much impact as the arrival of the second true king of the Stretford End, Eric Cantona.
Royalty had not been bestowed upon a player by the United faithful since Denis Law had left, and given Cantona signed from Leeds United with a somewhat troubled reputation, there was a good deal of scepticism about his arrival.
Utd fan rang me on an actual landline, said go check teletext now, guess who we have signed… never in million years guessed Cantona. #eric
— Barney @Red News (@barneyrednews) November 26, 2016
One man who was not sceptical, though, was Ferguson himself. In "Managing My Life: My Autobiography," he writes, "I was certain from what I saw in Eric’s eyes that he was desperate to come to us. I believe he already had a sense that Old Trafford was the right place for him to give expression to his talents."
Cantona’s first training session similarly impressed the manager. "As his team-mates were vanishing from the pitch at the Cliff, he approached me and asked if he could have the assistance of two players. ‘What for?’ I asked. ‘To practise,’ he replied."
Ferguson goes on to write, "I was naturally delighted to accede to Eric’s wishes and quickly provided him with two young players to deliver the ball from wide positions and a young goalkeeper so that he could spend half an hour practising volleys. Quite fantastic I would say."
"Quite fantastic," is a pretty apt description of more than just his first training session. Cantona’s approach to training and practice had a substantial impact on the thinking of United’s crop of young players at the time. A crop which included among others Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Paul Scholes, three of the finest ever to wear the shirt.
In their approach of picking up the Cantona baton and running with it, the Frenchman’s long-term role in United’s history became assured. But before any of the cultural off-pitch impact came an overwhelming impact on it.
The season before he arrived, his Leeds had pipped United to the title that really, really looked like it would be theirs. Christmas 1991 saw the Red Devils top of the league, level on points with Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds but with two games in hand and better goal difference. By the end of the season they were left bitterly disappointed as Cantona celebrated.
Short-term pain turned into long-term gain, though. Wilkinson was unable to harness the best of Cantona’s abilities, but Ferguson’s relationship with Cantona was probably his greatest man-management success in a career full of them.
Andy Cole shares an example of the special treatment doled out by manager to the star player, per Sky Sports’ Adam Bate. "We all went to a film premiere and were told to wear black ties. Eric turned up in a cream lemon suit and Nike trainers. The manager told him he looked fantastic."
One of many examples in what was not an easy task. Many had tried to get the best out of Cantona but none had ever succeeded for very long. The five years he spent at United were the equivalent of a lifetime in Cantona years. His nomadic tendencies were finally harnessed as he found somewhere to call a home.
And what spectacular years they were. During that half-decade, United and Cantona won four league titles. The one they missed out on, of course, came in the season in which he was banned in January for fly-kicking a Crystal Palace supporter at Selhurst Park.
Ferguson felt a genuine sense of injustice from the FA over the punishment. In his autobiography he suggests he and the club had been led to believe the four-month ban that had been handed to Cantona by United would be sufficient, but the authorities added added a further four months.
Perhaps that sense of injustice helped Ferguson make up his mind about whether to stick with a player who had literally jumped into the stands to attack a supporter. But more likely than that is the fact that Cantona got and warranted special treatment because of his talent.
He scored 82 goals in 184 starts and one substitute appearance for United—an excellent return considering he often played as the deeper of two strikers. He seemed to particularly enjoy a Manchester derby, scoring eight times in six starts and one substitute appearance against Manchester City, which was more than he scored against any other team.
He was less prolific against Liverpool, but one of the two goals he scored against United’s arch-rivals came during the biggest stage during his most influential spell, the FA Cup in 1996.
Back from suspension, he dominated the end of the 1995-96 season as if touched by some kind of magic.
As the Red Devils fought to overhaul Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United, Cantona stepped up. In March 1996, United won 1-0 three times and drew 1-1 once. All four of their goals—including one in a crucial 1-0 win over the Geordies at St James’ Park—were scored by their illustrious No. 7.
When the FA Cup final rolled around, it was hardly a surprise at all when he scored a late winner against Liverpool and United won 1-0.
It is important to remember that the FA Cup in 1996 held a much more prestigious status than it does now. Winning the double was considered an era-defining achievement.
When Cantona scored that goal, the Red Devils became the first team in English football history to do it for a second time. Not even the ultra-dominant Liverpool side of the 1970s and 1980s had won two league-and-cup doubles. Cantona had also been a crucial part of the first, scoring a brace of penalties in the 1994 final.
The doubles, though, were the icing on the cake. The real achievement brought about by Cantona’s arrival was the now-taken-for-granted act of United winning the league.
It had been 26 years. Twenty-six seasons of near misses or nowhere nears. Twenty-six years of seeing Liverpool sweep all before them.
Ferguson had tried so hard to rebuild the club, addressing the drinking culture, developing a winning side and overhauling the academy and scouting network. He had won the FA Cup and the League Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup, but the league still seemed an impossible dream. After throwing away the title to Leeds, it all felt like it was for nothing.
But Cantona changed that.
Without him, United might still have become good at some point. Ferguson signed Roy Keane a season later and went on to sign a plethora of stellar players who had a massive impact. But none of those were Cantona. None of those strolled in like they owned the place. None of those turned their collars up and got to work on making United the best team in the land by a country mile.
#OnThisDay in 1992, Manchester United signed Eric Cantona from Leeds. And Old Trafford was never the same again 🙌🏼 pic.twitter.com/PJ6Mapu787
— Bleacher Report UK (@br_uk) November 26, 2016
In five years Cantona packed in a series of moments so iconic they will forever grace United’s history books. Swinging on the goal supports after scoring against Liverpool on his return from suspension. That chip against Sunderland, that celebration, seared into the memories of all who witnessed it.
Even the transgressions, especially that flying kick, carry heavy iconography. Indeed Cantona himself said, "My best moment? I have a lot of good moments but the one I prefer is when I kicked the hooligan," per Samuel Lockhurst of Manchester Evening News.
While that might suit the rebel-punk aesthetic with which he will always be associated, his real gift was to bring profound happiness to people in the stands. He made believers out of United’s support and winners out of their team. He is one of the club’s greats, and every year the anniversary of his signing is a reminder of just how much he achieved.
The king is retired, long live the king.
Goals and appearance data per Website of Dreams.