At the peak of Eric Cantona’s career, his primary sportswear sponsors ran an advert with an image of his face over a St George’s cross. The caption read ” ’66 was a great year for English football. Eric was born.”
This bit of marketing genius speaks to how deeply the Frenchman is connected to the country in which he arrived at the age of 25. Initial success at Leeds United was followed by a Manchester United career in which he achieved permanent legend status. He won the league at Leeds, of course, and then 4 more league titles in Manchester, along with 2 FA Cups – doubles in 1994 and 1996 alike. And, of course, he won the heart of every United fan old enough to remember seeing him play.
But why, when he first came to England, was it to play on trial for Sheffield Wednesday? Why was the player who went on to grace the English game, who went on to win the PFA player of the year in 1994 and the Football Writers player of the year in ’96 considered with some suspicion by managers and supporters alike and dubbed “Mad Eric” and “Eric the Brat” by contemporary tabloids?
Why was his initial acquisition by Leeds perceived to be a high risk move? The answers to those questions lie in Cantona’s tumultuous career in French football. While successful and broadly well regarded at both age-group and adult levels with the national team, his club career in his homeland was full of controversy. It was punctuated with enough evidence of talent to ensure that he was part of the national team picture, but ultimately the kind of settled home that he found in Manchester, and the kind of player-manager relationship he eventually found with Sir Alex Ferguson eluded him.
He begun his career at his local club, S.O. Caillolais (Es Oh Cayolay), a well regarded youth team in Marseille (Marsay). From there he made a bold move, heading 500 miles from home at the age of 15 to the provincial Burgundy town of Auxerre (Ohx-air). Headed by legendary French manager Guy Roux (Gii Roo)– one of the rare pre-Ferguson managers who knew how to get the best out of Cantona, Auxerre were a club on the up, lifted from the doldrums of the lower leagues by Roux’s paternal discipline and faith in youth.
After a couple of years in the youth team, Cantona made his senior debut in 1983, though it was hardly a permanent breakthrough into the first-team setup.
In fact in 1985 he was sent on loan to second division Martigues. He was, broadly speaking, a success there, scoring 4 goals, more than anyone else during his spell at the club, helping them avoid relegation. However, in a moment of profound foreshadowing, he ended up in an altercation with a fan in the stands.
That didn’t stop Roux from believing in his young starlet, though, and Cantona became an integral part of the Auxerre setup. As Matt Gault wrote in These Football Times in 2015, “With Auxerre’s long-standing attacking pivot, Andrzej Szarmach, leaving the club in 1985, Cantona finally had the opportunity to cement a regular starting berth in Roux’s attacking line-up. He seized it emphatically, scoring 17 goals as Auxerre once again qualified for Europe by finishing fourth.” The player won Rookie of the Year in 1987.
“Canto” stayed in Burgundy until 1988. By this time, he was a bona-fide star, and the great and the good of French football competed for his signature. With a broad palette of options, he chose a return to his home town, playing for his boyhood idols (or at least his first love until he fell for Johan Cruyff’s mesmerising Ajax), Olympique Marseille.
It would not be a happy return. Marseille were owned by Bernard Tapie, the controversial entrepreneur whose career would be pockmarked by an array of legal issues and, ultimately, a jail sentence. Tapie and Cantona were a terrible match, and in his excellent biography of the player, “Cantona, the Rebel Who Would Be King”, journalist and author Philipe Auclair suggests the former Marseille owner is high on Cantona’s list of most hated people.
Eric didn’t make things easy for himself. Dropped from the French senior squad (an attempt to rest him, though poorly communicated), he earned himself a year’s ban from the national team for calling the manager something that is best not shared here. His outburst caused him to miss the final of the Under-21s World Cup, particularly painful given he’d been a crucial part of why France made it to that final.
Then came club controversy as he threw his shirt at the coach after being substituted in a charity match, of all things, against Torpedo Moscow. Tapie asserted he would not play for Marseille again (though he did) and Cantona began a peripatetic period of loan moves, to Bordeaux, Montpellier – where he shared a pitch with Carlos Valderama, got into a dressing room fight that led to a two-game ban, and where he also won the Coupe de France–and finally Nimes. He did well everywhere he went. He wasn’t prolific, but was nevertheless well regarded, and certainly capable of scoring important and spectacular goals.
But it ended in tears. Incensed over a decision he hurled a ball at a ref while playing for Nimes. He was banned from football for a month. Upon hearing the disciplinary panel’s decision, he walked up to each of them in turn, called them each an idiot and left, deciding then and there to retire from football. He was prepared to pay up his contract with Nimes, which would have put him in dire financial straights.
It didn’t come to that. Liverpool had been alerted to his availability, but passed. A trial at Sheffield Wednesday might have seen him move to Hillsborough, but when Cantona was only offered a week’s extension rather than a contract, he baulked. Leeds and Howard Wilkinson had no such doubts though: with a reference from Michel Platini and a recommendation from Gerard Houllier, future Liverpool manager and at the time France’s assistant manager, he move to Elland Road in November 1991 before – notoriously – joining Manchester United 13 months later.