“We learn from everything,” mused Eric Cantona, the day before the 1996 FA Cup final. “A bad thing can be turned into a good thing. It's very difficult at the time, but if we think about the future then we use it.”
Slouched in a faintly regal chair in United’s Waltham Abbey base, the Frenchman was locked in discussion with Des Lynam. Then the moustachioed face of BBC Sport, Lynam had proffered that Cantona’s nine-month ban for fighting with Crystal Palace supporter Matthew Simmons had actually evolved into a positive experience for the Frenchman.
Lynam already had a swaying pile of evidence to support his claim. A day later came the most compelling exhibit of all, as Cantona captained United’s fledgling team to an unforgettable Double with victory over Liverpool at Wembley. Having scored the Reds’ stunning late winner, the Frenchman subsequently walked away from a potential flashpoint when an opposing supporter spat on him as he ascended to collect the day’s spoils.
There was no refuting that Eric had changed, and the signs had been glaring ever since United’s win at Upton Park on January 22, 1996 – almost exactly a year since the incident at Selhurst Park. Though he returned from his suspension with a goal and an assist against Liverpool six weeks into the 1995/96 season, Cantona had to feel his way back into regular involvement; his first fifteen Premier League outings yielded just four goals, of which only a pair came in open play.
United faced West Ham on a freezing cold Monday evening, twelve points adrift of a Newcastle side who were little more than a black and white speck on the horizon. Without a win at Upton Park since 1989, during which time the struggling Hammers had twice derailed United’s title bids, the omens were hardly stacked in the visitors’ favour.
In an ominous start to proceedings, the Hammers rattled the woodwork within three minutes as Tony Cottee pounced on a Steve Bruce error to thud a shot