Roy Keane and Dicks. Cantona might look like a convict with his cropped hair, but he was the epitome of restraint, and while all around him were losing theirs, Cantona was in control of his emotions.”
Despite a numerical handicap, United closed out the win in relative comfort and Cantona – having suffered sustained abuse from the home support – received unanimous praise afterwards. “Eric's a saint now,” smirked Steve Bruce, while Sir Bobby Charlton concluded: “He gets a worse reception than any other United player I can recall, but he has shown how well he can handle real pressure. If we can win the league no one will deserve it more than him.”
They would prove prophetic words from the Reds’ record goalscorer. Cantona, 1-0 would become United’s signature scorecast in a run of victories over Newcastle, Arsenal, Tottenham and Coventry, at a time when Kevin Keegan’s side began haemorrhaging points. The Magpies’ run of five defeats in eight games precipitated the first part of United’s Double, the second instalment of which was wrested from Liverpool in typical fashion: Cantona, 1-0.
The following summer, on the eve of what would prove to be his final season in football, Eric looked back on an undulating campaign which had ended in another stratosphere – and there was one game which he held above all others. “The best moment was at West Ham,” Cantona reflected. “If we had lost there… after West Ham, every game was important. Newcastle was just one of the games we had to play. We had to win every one. That moment was very important.”
Both short-term and long-term, collectively and individually, Cantona was right. He departed Old Trafford having assumed a greater role than any other player in establishing a culture of success which has filtered down through subsequent sets of players. Within his own beaming half decade at the club, a dark January evening at Upton Park still burns bright.