"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 to be. I want to be treated like that. I want to play like that. I want to be loved like that.’”
But Eric’s influence extended beyond his playing peers; his opinion was among the most valued at Old Trafford. Youth coach Eric Harrison, fresh from pumping six future England internationals into the Reds’ senior squad, went to the Frenchman to see how the club’s local youngsters compared to those in Cantona’s home country.
"He replied that, ability-wise, they were similar, but he thought the French boys received the ball better than our young players,” reveals Harrison. “I took that on board straight away and I acted. I introduced more juggling with the ball because it developed good ball control. Surely, if it was good enough for Cantona, it was good enough for my boys.”
Although his words carried substantial weight, Cantona was a character who opted to say little and do much, most notably in the 1995/96 season run-in, where he scored the winner in five of seven 1-0 Premier League wins and the FA Cup Final. His deeds and aura prompted Alex Ferguson to make him club captain when Steve Bruce left for Birmingham City in 1996. Not one to follow the ranting, raving model of leadership, Cantona had no considered method of motivating his team-mates. He just inspired awe in them all by being himself.