The next few months will mark specific and special dates leading up the 20th anniversary of Eric Cantona leaving Manchester United. This flamboyant, exquisite, magnificent player was named ‘The King’ of Old Trafford. United supporters and football fans around the world marvelled at his play but during March, April and May 1997, little did anyone know we were witnessing the Frenchman’s last goal at home, away, and in Europe for The Red Devils before lifting his final Premier League trophy and leaving the club at end of 1996/97 season.
Collar up Cantona was always in the limelight on the pitch, however, away from football United’s number 7 was a deep and contemplating individual who kept his thoughts of leaving Old Trafford, after five glittering years at the club, to himself until after his final Premier League win. When it did come, the announcement shocked football, some were sad they never got to say goodbye properly to Cantona and give him the send-off he deserved for becoming a Manchester United legend.
More of a calmer figure since a few hot-headed moments in his early career and the ‘Kung fu’ kick at Selhurst park, ‘The King’ wanted to bow out at the top.
This brings us onto the first significant moment of Eric Cantona’s last three months with United, his final Champion’s league goal for the club. It was a trophy Cantona wanted to win with The Red Devils and he is one of the greatest players to not have done so, although scoring his final European goal in a 4-0 win over Porto in the quarter-finals would have made the Frenchman proud, contributing to one of the greatest European nights at Old Trafford. It wasn’t one of his best goals but one of his most important. A ricochet in the box and Cantona was on hand to put the ball into the back of the net, giving the team a supreme 2-0 lead at half time. He then went onto lead the side to a superb 4-0 victory making United one of the favourites to lift the trophy, but it wasn’t to be for King Eric, however, it did seem fitting he should score and contribute to such a fantastic match in his final season.
Cantona’s last goal at Old Trafford unfortunately came in a 3-2 defeat to Derby County but his strike was one typical of the man. He brought the ball down beautifully just inside the box, then cleanly stroked it into the net. That goal seemed insignificant at the time as United lost, however, looking back now it was a strike to savour, not only because it was such skilful play, but it was the last time ‘The King’ would celebrate hitting the back of the net in front of his adoring fans.
Cantona’s final goal for Manchester United was away to Blackburn Rovers and played a significant part in bringing the Premier League title to Old Trafford. It wasn’t his most glamorous goal, great play from Andy Cole on the right and a low cross gave ‘The King’ the chance to tuck the ball into the net which he did, giving United all three points in a crucial away match.
If anyone had so much as suggested this would be the final time we would see Eric Cantona score in the Premier League you never would have believed it. The £1.2million man ‘Illuminated Old Trafford,’ his former manager Sir Alex Ferguson said of the player that has to be considered as one of his greatest signings. With his sublime goals and delightful play, he was the inspiration behind the United team that clawed back a 12-point lead that Newcastle had held during the 1995/96 season. That season alone would propel Cantona into the United hall of fame.
There were so many highlights from the Frenchman during his five year stay at Old Trafford, one being his goal against Sunderland where he played a one-two on the half way line then moved forward to beautifully chip the goalkeeper – he rarely scored ordinary goals, this one was special as well as a thunderous volley against Arsenal in 1996 and Wimbledon in 1994. Significant goals were also his forte, the winning goal in the 89th minute against Liverpool in the 1996 FA Cup final was one of Cantona’s greatest moments in a United shirt.
A 2-0 win against West Ham United on the final day of the 1996/97 season saw Eric Cantona make his final appearance for Manchester United. Almost 20 years ago, he lifted the Premier League trophy in front of the Old Trafford fans then left the club at the top of his game.
The upturned collar, chest out, the seagulls following the trawler and of course, the magnificent skills and goals – Eric ‘The King’ Cantona was a unique, extraordinary, legend of a player who will be remembered at Old Trafford for all of the above reasons. He is one of the greatest footballers to have graced the Manchester United pitch and will always hold a special place in the hearts of Red Devil fans.
Not many ex-players can boast that their chant is still being sung by supporters 20 years since they left the club, but Eric Cantona was a special footballer and he will forever be known as a United legend as well as one of the most iconic and best players to have played in the Premier League.