Why Eric quitting was the biggest of shocks
Eric Cantona was always an enigmatic figure and there had been warnings in the past but his retirement from football, aged just 30, in 1997 came as a complete and utter shock.
No wonder fans flocked to Old Trafford in the wake of the news, showing their disbelief, as he had got his hands on another Premier League trophy a week earlier, after the final game of the season against West Ham United.
It is worth reiterating that he won the title in each of his seasons with the Reds (and at Leeds) bar the one (1994/95) when he was suspended after his altercation with a fan at Crystal Palace. Hence, his influence on the team was colossal, even if there were always some hoping to criticise or spot a chink in his armour, which was probably inevitable given the forward's arrogant, almost aloof persona, which fitted his regal status of 'The King' perfectly.
The Frenchman had not scored in the last six matches of the campaign – his final goal came at Blackburn Rovers in mid-April – but there was no concrete evidence his form was permanently on the wane. There still looked to be plenty left in the tank for a wonderfully gifted footballer but he had taken our Champions League exit, at the semi-final stage, hard.
For all his and United's dominance domestically, it was argued he had to do it on the biggest European stage to in order to cement his status as a true great. Alex Ferguson's team were good enough to deliver on this stage but would have to wait another two years before conquering the continent. And, admittedly, Eric was not at his brilliant best against Borussia Dortmund at Old Trafford, as United missed a host of chances and bowed out after 1-0 losses in both legs. That almost meant the season ended on a low, despite the league having been secured.
That defeat was a blow to all Reds fans but that was nothing compared to the horror of hearing the Cantona news which, I remember, came on a Sunday.
At the time, I was working for ClubCall and had to update the official United line that day as the regular reporter, Peter Smith, was away. After covering the main story, I opted to move things forward later in the day and provided an update to suggest the club may already have found the replacement for the iconic no.7. My view was he was already on the books as Paul Scholes was capable of stepping into the great man's shoes.
I was wrong, of course. Scholes would end up moving deeper rather than operating in a similar position to Eric, with Tottenham's Teddy Sheringham brought to Manchester to cover the exit of the one player everybody felt was irreplaceable.
As was often the case, the comments from the man himself were short and to the point, as he issued a statement.
"I have played professional football for 13 years, which is a long time," it read. "I now wish to do other things. I always planned to retire when I was at the top and, at Manchester United, I have reached the pinnacle of my career.
“In the last four-and-a-half years, I have enjoyed my best football and had a wonderful time. I have had a marvellous relationship with the manager, coach, staff and players, and, not least, the fans.
“I wish Manchester United even more success in the future."
As he left centre stage at Old Trafford to pursue an acting career instead, it was obvious he would leave a huge hole at United.
Sir Alex, two years before his knighthood, was clearly upset but pragmatic at the same time, and displayed the correct attitude in the circumstances.
"In the past, I sensed I could persuade him to stay but, this time, he was unequivocal," explained the boss. "He has been a marvellous servant to us. He is certainly one of the greatest-ever United players. I think we will find a player of his calibre again because that's what happens in football. Great players emerge all the time."
Denis Irwin argued there was no doubt his team-mate had maintained his high standards throughout another title-winning term.
"Some critics felt Eric didn't have a great season but he was still the second-highest scorer in the league and set up loads of goals for the players."
Criticising Cantona was sacrilege for United supporters anyway. The King's abdication was a sad day indeed.The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.
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