Cantona: Eric's ill-fated Marseille homecoming

Sunday 27 November 2022 07:00

It has been 30 years since Eric Cantona joined Manchester United from bitter rivals Leeds, soon to be aptly nicknamed 'King Eric' by the Old Trafford faithful.

Sporting the club's famous no.7 on the back of his shirt, the Frenchman's arrival at United would be the catalyst for years of success under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson. 

A man that once was the face of bitter rivals Leeds United was now leading their fierce foes to domestic dominance. Quite a fitting narrative for a career that has had it all. 

Cantona's road to royalty has not been without its bumps, though, most notably during his turbulent time for Marseille after signing for the French club in 1988.

Cantona exclusive: The best years of my life


Catch up on our Q&A with an emotional Eric to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of his transfer to United.

Having outgrown Auxerre, Cantona was destined for something greater - and plenty of suitors were lining up to secure his signature. Despite the courting of Matra-Racing and last ditch efforts from AC Milan, it was the call of his hometown that he answered. 

While success was instantaneous upon his transfer to United, the story reads differently for his time at Marseille just four years prior. 

It would take the man in the spotlight six games before he would score his first goal for his new club, subsequently resulting in him being left out of the French national squad the following day, having being met with public criticism from then-coach Henri Michel. After declaring that he would not play for Les Blues for as long as Michel was at the helm, Cantona faced a year-long ban from the squad that a private nor public apology could prevent. 
While Marseille were pulled into an engrossing title race, Eric would face playing a supporting role as opposed to the main man this time round. Cantona was a fiery personality and though it spurred him to roaring success on the pitch, it caused ripples off it. 

"Eric has always had a very strong personality," said former Marseille teammate Bruno Germain. 

"He trained with great joy, wanted to work and always aimed to progress and develop himself. He had to, because we had an excellent team and competition was hard and fierce.

"When he arrived the club were starting to bloom and develop big ambitions - Eric's signing showed that. Everybody felt he could do something great at Marseille because he was talented, but there was a lot of pressure and expectation on him." 

Ex-Reds share Cantona memories


On the 30th anniversary of Eric signing for United, find out what Eric's team-mates thought of him.

An explosive outburst would see him sanctioned by Marseille, sending him on loan for the remainder of the 1988/89 season to Bordeaux, while his parent club won the domestic double. 

The Stade Velodrome never quite welcomed Cantona back with open arms, and he would spend the following season on loan at Montpellier. This stint wasn't plain sailing either, as tensions rose and tempers flared in his temporary dressing room. 

Successful short-term spells away from Marseille would see them eventually recall him, and reconciliation began with seven goals in 12 games. But when he was sidelined with an injury, and new manager Raymond Goethals took the reins, Cantona's eventual departure was all but fated. 
"Eric was a very respectful person, but he had no time for Goethals," Germain revealed. 

"We all felt that Eric could be explosive every single moment he was around the manager, and in the end he just did not give a damn about Goethals. He made some mistakes but it was difficult for Eric, especially at such a young age. 

"It was best for him to start again, from scratch."
Cantona's move to United sparked dominance under Sir Alex Ferguson
And that's exactly what happened when Marseille agreed a £1 million deal with newly promoted Nimes for the transfer of Cantona. 

While that move didn't quite provide him with the second chance saloon he had in mind, Leeds United would offer him a route back into football as The King embarked on a journey to England. 

But Elland Road was to be a footnote in Cantona's long, illustrious career as he would sign for United less than a year later. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history.