There are two types of legends at a club, ones who leave their legacy on the pitch, the others who leave their legacy off it as well. Fans always remember and reminisce about their legends from the past and why they found themselves and their future generations in an entanglement – in love with a club they won’t know how not to be. Players earn the legendary status through their impact and achievements with the club. Some have even gone on to spend and earn the legendary status by dedicating their entire careers with their boyhood club; with the likes of Gerrard at Liverpool and Totti at Roma springing to mind in an instant.
It is often seen that at certain clubs, the legends from different time periods, tend to harbour the same shirt number which they would go on to be synonymous with. Manchester United are famous for both the number 7 and number 10, with players like Best, Beckham (he has worn both 7 and 10), Ronaldo, and Eric Cantona going on to legends at the club with 7 on their backs, and Rooney, Sir Bobby Charlton and Van Nistlerooy have donned the number 10 in their time at the club.
Liverpool have had some famous number 9s in Rush, Fowler and El Nino. With Barcelona and their love affair with 10 seemingly etched in history, with arguably the greatest player of all time making the shirt his own after his stellar service for FC Barcelona, with other notable players to have donned the number 10 including Maradona and Ronaldinho among others. Real Madrid having passed on their famous number 7 from Raul to Ronaldo successfully in which he would go on to rewrite history again and again and again.
It’d be wrong to suggest that a number makes a player at the club, as it’s the player who works to make that number his own. But it would be a fair and just assumption that the designation of a number to a player at any club determines how highly they value him, and what they believe he could achieve at the club.
Eric Cantona – Distinct character yet a talented professional
Born on 24th May, 1966, not many could have predicted, if any at all, that Eric Daniel Pierre Cantona would go on to achieve so many things in life, and in different walks of life as well. As he is an actor, director, producer and a famous retired footballer as of this day, with success following him everywhere he went.
Eric started his career at Auxerre and after lighting up the first division with his performances, he earned his first national call-up in his early twenties, which was a remarkable achievement at the time. But he wouldn’t go on to record many international appearances, as he was always involved in some incident, with another bust-up or breakdown never far away. He would go on to win the under-21 European championship in ’88 and soon he secured a dream move to Marseille, a club he grew up supporting.
It is always debated aggressively whether he was a tough character to handle, as the number of incidents surrounding him in any form of being at odds with someone was as common as the regularity in which international tournaments took place, not often, but spectacular whenever around. Yes, he did have disciplinary issues, as he would always go against the usual ways and occupy a manner which would be unorthodox at the very least.
He was often involved in bust-ups with the national team, once insulting his international head coach on television. And the Crystal Palace kung-fu practice incident wasn’t the first incident where he had indulged in a different sport while repping another one, as in his early career he had tackled an opposition player which ended with a lengthy suspension.
Even after a dream transfer to Marseille, he would still find it troublesome to find his feet at the club and go on loan to Bordeaux and then to Montpellier. As he couldn’t keep his place in a side which was continuously changing managers at Marseille, he moved onto Nimes in ’91, where he wouldn’t last long either as a bust-up with the country’s disciplinarian committee led him to his first retirement, from which he, of course, would come out of after being persuaded by his friend and national team coach, Michel Platini.
After a switch to Leeds in ’92, it seemed that he had made the right move, as he would go on to win the division one title in six months’ time. But it seemed to be familiar grounds all over for him again, as by October of the very year he won his first title with Leeds, it would prove to be his last, as he seemed to have himself run out of favour with his unorthodox behaviour in a country which wouldn’t have it any other way but theirs.
In a peculiar state of affairs, Manchester United, and in particular Sir Alex Ferguson offered him a lifeline, but everyone would be forgiven to assume that this was another 12-month trial period before things start to go sour again, and Cantona would be on the lookout for another club, but how horribly wrong they had been in their predictions.
Cantona and United – A love affair for the ages
After his debut for Manchester United in the derby against City, a 2-1 win for the Red Devils at Old Trafford, the mood around the club seemed to have been taken by storm as united romped to their first of thirteen Premier League titles. In his five-year stay at the club, before his premature retirement for good in ’97, United won four titles available from five.
In retrospect, this might be the transfer that many may consider would be the bedrock that Sir Alex would go on to base all of his future teams and rebuilding projects around. As the number 7s that he oversaw between ’92 and 2008, would help him win most of his trophies, they were fan favourites and characters that inspired affection and cult-like following due to their abilities and performances.
It wasn’t a match made in heaven right from the get-go, as Sir Alex was hunting for a striker but would fail to lure all his top targets, settling for Dion Dublin who endured a season-ending injury when he broke his leg on his sixth league appearance. So, when Fotherby came in for Irwin, Sir Alex and Martin Edwards got him to get a deal done for their French outcast, Eric Cantona.
His impact on the club and everyone around it was magnanimous, as United almost doubled their goal-scoring rate in their title-winning season. Indeed a character, Cantona didn’t alter his ways at United, but this time he had a manager by his side who could manage him without disrupting the squad harmony or Eric’s morale. Ferguson would be one of the few men he would respect in his time as a footballer and would look up to, like a father figure.
He once turned up in a white suit, different from what the players were supposed to wear whenever out, the players assumed that Eric was in for trouble as Ferguson was always at his players’ throats for not maintaining the code of conduct for the club. But were appalled when Ferguson complimented him for his attire. When asked, he responded something along the lines of: “When you can do what he can on the pitch, you can wear whatever you like.”
It may seem as favouritism towards him, but Ferguson was working his magic on Cantona, as not one player at United could deny his work ethic and his training at the club. How he would lift the team to turn every tide that was against them. He was to United what Normandy was to the Allies. His status among the fans was stable and secured for a lifetime, as he would go on to lift the Old Trafford roof time and time again, as the supporters chanted his name, with him on the pitch with his famous collars lifted.
The loyalty that he showed to United was reciprocated by his manager, as Ferguson stood by his player rather than alienating him. The club, the fans, the manager held his back after the kung-fu incident in January ’95.
Cantona and United – Even today
From a fan’s point of view, I personally see him as one of the most influential characters the club has ever seen after Busby and Ferguson. Players like Best, Charlton, Rooney, Ronaldo, Keane, Pallister, Ferdinand and many more have deservedly garnered the love, respect, and affection from fans of all ages. But Cantona and his mould would be the backbone upon which Sir Alex would continually construct his winning sides, as all of the different teams at United that he managed and built, every one of them had a character who had the abilities to lift everyone and get them to go overdrive when all of them felt there was nothing else that they could give. Only United fans have given him the leniency to his different but charismatic character as they saw him for what he was, and what he would go on to become.
Often overlooked for his off-the-pitch as well as on-the-pitch antics when people talk about legends of the game, but he was one of the best ever in his time as he would prove whenever he took to the pitch. He did not have the trophy cabinet a player of his calibre deserves, as he retired young from international football as well as club football, when just years after his retirement the two sides would go on to mark their names in history for their achievements in their respective competitions – France won the ’98 World Cup and 2000 European Championships, while United won the treble in ’99. A character, a disruptor, a nuisance, a legend, a talent, a Red Devil. Eric Daniel Pierre Cantona.