03/12/2012 08:40, Report by Steve Bartram
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Cantona: The leader

Some spend their whole lives aspiring to be leaders; others, like Eric Cantona, possess an overpowering magnetism that others cannot help but follow…

When Eric Cantona arrived at Old Trafford, complete with his enfant terrible tag, the notion of handing him the captain’s armband seemed unfathomable. Four and a half years later, he retired as club captain, having led United to a fourth league title in five seasons and played a central role in the development of some of the finest young talents the club had produced.

It would be easy to assume that the simmering Frenchman underwent some kind of change during his ban for assaulting a Crystal Palace supporter. Having one’s career on ice for nine months, of course, is long enough to cool anyone down. He excelled as a coach to local youngsters during his community service, but there was no defining moment of clarity which prompted an inner evolution. He never changed; he merely assembled a band of followers with his model professionalism and natural gnosis.

It was outside Eric’s control that he returned to a far younger side than the one he had left on the field at Selhurst Park. Gone were Ince, Kanchelskis and Hughes, while the Nevilles, Beckham, Butt and Scholes were first-team regulars. For those wide-eyed youngsters, thrown in at the deep end, it was impossible not to see Cantona, past indiscretions and all, as an example to follow. A man described by Sir Alex Ferguson as: “A model pro. The best prepared footballer I have ever had.” Perhaps most persuasively for those of tender years around him, Cantona was a man who carried everything off with a swagger.

"The manager gave him this free role, letting him express himself, do his flicks and score his goals. I think that's why the lads looked up to him so much,” recalls Lee Sharpe. “They thought: 'If I can be anyone, that's who I want

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Premier League