Eric Cantona carries Manchester United in March 1996

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 17, 2018

Over time, formerly great players often get reduced to single moments. The sum total of Johan Cruyff’s career, for some, is encapsulated within that one iconic image in which he stands face-to-face with a phalanx of Belgian defenders. Similarly, many Diego Maradona anecdotes – the footballing ones, at least – are limited to his second-half performance against England in the 1986 World Cup.

It’s unavoidable: greatness often invites that selective preservation and, unjustly or otherwise, it casts a shadow over other achievements which should be worth equal retrospective billing.

I want to talk about this:

That’s Eric Cantona, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over Arsenal in March 1996.

Cantona remains a vivid symbol of Manchester United’s early-to-mid 1990s rise, and the memory of what he did and who he was won’t begin to fade for many years. However, when Cantona is mentioned now, it’s typically with reference to two or three famous goals. His spiralling chip over Lionel Perez at Old Trafford, the cup final-winner against Liverpool at Wembley, and the back-post volley at St James’ Park have all remained on heavy rotation, but often to the exclusion of the one above.

Television doesn’t really matter; those who treasure that Manchester United season will remember the game against Arsenal and Cantona’s part in it regardless of how often it reappears. However, as time passes the need for a billboard moment sharpens; what tools exist to illustrate Cantona accurately? If a father was taking his young son to his first game and wanted to explain the origin of the chants which still echo around Old Trafford, which goal could he use to draw the Frenchman’s myriad worth?

It should be this one.

Cantona was an oddity. He’s often described in gentle terms and with velvety adjectives but, physically, he was a brute. Early behavioural issues aside, he was physically imposing for his time and could hardly have been described as a finesse player. And yet, undeniably, there was often a great delicacy to his play. Perhaps that’s why, beyond its cinematic qualities (the perfect camera angle, the gently rising ball), the Sunderland goal is still afforded such status? Within its context, it was just another goal in a rout of a poor, defenceless side, but in isolation it shows Cantona at his technical best.

“That’s what he could do…”

Fair enough.

But elevating that moment above all others probably ignores the other aspect of his worth: Cantona delivered when it mattered the most. Between January and May 1996, United would win seven of their league games by a 1-0 scoreline. In five of those matches, Cantona was their goal-scorer. That attests to his literal worth, of course, but also to the emotional role he played in that title-winning season. As the pressure intensified and the goals got more precious, his shoulders got broader. In March of 1996, the club collected ten Premier League points from four games and he was the only United player to score in any of them.

The archetypal Cantona moment has to incorporate that. It has to recognise his situational greatness as well as his talent and, when instructed by those twin requirements, the dial falls on that Arsenal goal.

In front of the first crowd of over 50,000 that season, United battered Arsenal. Bruce Rioch would reflect that his side’s goal had led a “charmed life” and that the game had never been close, and the hosts squandered a series of first-half chances, hitting the post twice and being denied by several fine saves from David Seaman. Twenty minutes into the second-half, however, Cantona chested down an erratic Andy Linighan clearance, before thundering a shot over and beyond an exposed Seaman.

The result might have been neater than it was: had United scored a second that night, they would have overtaken ailing Newcastle United for the first time. As it was, the 1-0 win took them level on points with Kevin Keegan’s team but behind on goal-difference. Nevertheless, the impossible had happened – the ten-point gap had gone and the violent momentum swing made the Premier League’s outcome seem a virtual inevitability.

Those crucial seconds within that game were Cantona. In May, he would score his famous cup final goal and add some decoration to a wonderful personal season, but that occasion – with its white suits and terrible, terrible football – felt like it counted for less. United were champions by then, indisputably the best team in the country and Liverpool, in spite of their talent, were notoriously weak-stomached on big occasions. Conversely, at the time of his Arsenal goal, Cantona was physically shifting the season’s tectonic plates and altering the league’s landscape.

That he did so with an otherworldly intervention – a piece of balletic brilliance – made it near perfect. Cantona had grace, a nose for the dramatic, and unwavering self-belief at critical moments and that goal – and the conditions it helped to create – were the true manifestation of who he was as a player.

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