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'It's a sad day for United': When the club waved goodbye to their King

It’s 20 years since Eric Cantona announced his retirement from football at the age of 30.

Image: Matthew Ashton/EMPICS Sport

OF COURSE, MANY had every right to think he’d change his mind.

After all, Eric Cantona always knew how to surprise.

There had been a previous retirement, of course – on 16th December, 1991 – when he was at French side Nimes.

Banned for three games after throwing a ball at a referee, he attended a disciplinary hearing, walked up to each member of the panel and called them an idiot. When he was subsequently hit with a further ban of two months, Cantona decided he’d be better off turning his back on the game for good.

But he was lured back, seduced by the potential possibilities offered by…Yorkshire.

Source: owlfan1/YouTube

Famously, Sheffield Wednesday didn’t bite after Cantona arrived for a trial. Preposterously, they played him (a French international since 1987) in an indoor 6-a-side game and wanted him to stay while they mulled over whether or not offer him a deal.

In true Cantona style, he left and went where he was wanted – Leeds.

He won a First Division title, scored a hat-trick at Wembley and had Old Trafford eating out of the palm of his hand when conjuring an acrobatic bicycle kick at the Stretford End during a league game.

Cantona

Then, he left. And, conjuring another twist, crossed the Pennines and signed for the side Leeds had pipped to the title just months previous.

The rest is history.

“He was born to play for United”, Ferguson said later.

“Some players, with respected and established reputations, are cowed and broken by the size and expectations. Not Eric. He swaggered in, stuck his chest out, raised his head and surveyed everything as if to ask: `I’m Cantona, how big are you? Are you big enough for me?’”

Four and a half years. Four league titles. Two FA Cups. One 9-month suspension after that moment of madness at Selhurst Park.

Quite an action-packed period.

And then, he was gone. With very little fanfare. Essentially, in Cantona terms, he sneaked out the back door.

On the 18th May 1997, there was another press conference with Alex Ferguson and Martin Edwards at the top table.

And it was to announce Cantona’s retirement.

“It’s a sad day for United”, a sombre Ferguson said.

He’s been a fantastic player for us in the four-and-a-half years he’s been with us. We’ve won six trophies in that period. So, obviously, it’s a sad day.”

Cantona was days away from his 31st birthday.

After his mesmeric return from suspension in October 1995 that culminated in his second league and cup double, he followed it up by captaining United to the 1996/97 title.

But something had changed in the process.

He was noticeably chubbier in his final campaign and the litany of spectacular goals were being scored by others – chiefly David Beckham. Cantona still had his moments – like the majestic chip against Sunderland or the jaw-dropping first touch against Derby – but he wasn’t the conductor of the orchestra anymore.

CantonaDerby

There was a born-captain and leader in the hungry and relentless Roy Keane while the club’s golden generation was blossoming.

The club didn’t need him in the same way anymore.

That, coupled with his own sense of a moral compass, fueled his decision to step away.

Speaking to FourFourTwo in 2008, he said,

I think I retired so young because I wanted to improve every time, to be a better player. For myself and the team. To win trophies. To have a feeling of improving. When I retired, I felt that I couldn’t improve any more. And I lost the passion at the same time. The passion comes with the motivation of improving. If you lose the passion, you lose the motivation.”

When the end came, it was slightly strange.

The perfect finale would’ve been Cantona lifting the Premier League trophy.

Five days after the final game of the league campaign at Old Trafford, Cantona led United out against Coventry in a testimonial for David Busst, the defender whose career was ended after sustaining a horror injury in a game against United the previous season.

Cantona scored twice at Highfield Road that night and then, no more.

Later, Ferguson revealed Cantona had decided to retire after United had been knocked out of the Champions League by Borussia Dortmund in the semi-finals.

He had missed chances, crucially, and Ferguson had rightfully raged in the dressing-room afterwards. It was a sorely-missed opportunity.

The following morning, Cantona spoke to his manager. As Philippe Auclair recounted in his biography of the player, Ferguson had a feeling what was coming.

“I had a bad premonition”, he said.

“I could guess what he (Cantona) was about to tell me. I had noticed several changes in his mood and his physical appearance.”

Man Untd v Not'm Forest Source: EMPICS Sports Photo Agency

This time, it was final. And Ferguson knew it. He wrote to his former player in August 1997, after the new season had got underway.

It reads like a love letter of sorts – a wistful, romantic, idealistic and revealing document which shows the affection Ferguson had for his chaotic and complex ‘catalyst’.

“When we re-started training, I kept waiting for you to turn up as normal but I think that was in hope not realism and I knew in your eyes when we met a Mottram your time at Manchester United was over. Although, I still feel you should have taken both your father’s and my advice and taken a holiday before making such a major decision.

I would like to hope that we will have a chat, a drink, or a meal together soon. I know the club has written to you about the forthcoming dinner and I hope you will manage it, but that is not the most important thing, for it is to remind you how good a player we were for Manchester United and how grateful I am for the service you gave me. I will never forget that and I hope you won’t either.

You are always welcome here and if you just pop in unexpectedly for a cup of tea, no fanfare, just for a chat as friends, that would mean more to me than anything. Eric you where I am if you need me and now that you are no longer one of my players, I hope you know you have a friend.”

Emotional and vulnerable, even Ferguson, it seemed, found it hard to say goodbye to Eric Cantona.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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