What was it like to be Eric Cantona's team-mate?
Few players have made as indelible a mark on Manchester United as Eric Cantona, so his former team-mates inevitably remember him well. Here, on his 52nd birthday, we gather together some of their memories of sharing a dressing room with Le Roi…
“Leeds had visited Old Trafford two months before Eric signed for United. He hadn’t started the game, but he came on in the second half. Afterwards, the boss actually asked me and Brucey what we thought of Cantona. We both said he was a handful. Big and hard, but with a great touch. It was difficult to get the ball off him because he was such a big lad.
“Even though the manager had asked about him, it was still a shock to everybody when he signed. The day the deal was done, I got a phone call from a journalist asking if I was aware we’d just signed a new centre-forward. I wasn’t, so he told me to guess who it was. I reeled off David Hirst, Alan Shearer… I carried on for about 10 names, and I still hadn’t got it. I was snookered, I didn’t have a clue. And he said: ‘You’ve got Cantona from Leeds.’ It was a surprise in itself that we’d done business with Leeds. It was a very left-field move and I don’t think the lads were expecting it, but Eric came in full of belief and the rest is history.It’s easy to put everything on Eric’s shoulders because there’s no denying he was the catalyst of our success as a club, but the year before, that team should have beaten Leeds to the title. We had to play five games in 11 days at the end of the season, ran out of steam and they pipped us to it. No disrespect to Leeds, we just felt that we were the best team in the league and everything conspired against us. We felt hard done by, but ready to win the title. It was a team that was almost there, it was ready, but Eric added a new dimension. He provided the ammunition for the weapons we fired, if you like. At times we found it hard to break sides down, but he brought that imagination to our game. He was absolutely phenomenal for us.”
“The way he came in and trained was a real eye-opener. I think we were quite professional already, but Eric drilled that into us from day one: to always be practising. When you see a man with that much talent doing it as well, you know how important it must be to practise.
“I watched him and tried to learn from him, obviously. I tried to watch the way he passed a ball and the way he scored his goals; I was always trying to look at how he did that. He’s the kind of player you had to look up to and try to learn from. Scoring and making goals are the most important part of football, as I see it, and Eric had a real talent for doing both.
“In turn, you’d like to think we had an influence on the young lads who followed us. Me, Ryan and Gary trained the right way and we all know that if you do that then you’re going to be rewarded with performances. Hopefully that’s something the young lads picked up on as well, and they maybe took an example from us like we did from Eric.”
“In my early years at United, there was a players’ pool and each of us would get about £800 out of it at the end of the season for the work we’d done for the club's in-house magazines and videos. We were all on decent money and £800 wasn’t going to make or break us, so one time, we decided to put all the cheques into a hat and the last cheque out, whoever’s name was on it, got to keep all of the cheques.
“We all put our cheques in except a few of the younger players – I think it was Becks and Gary and Phil. They opted out. They were new on the scene and didn’t have the money to spare, but Scholesy and Nicky Butt put their cheques in. I think I was the third to last name out, so I got a run for my money, but the last cheque out was Eric Cantona's. He’d won about £16,000. He got somebody to cash the cheques, he split the money in two and he gave it to Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt because, he said, the two of them had the balls to go into the draw when they couldn’t really afford it. I just thought ‘what a gesture’. Nobody else would have done it.”
“I thought Eric was just brilliant. I used to learn so much from what he used to do. It wasn’t just me either; every player learned from him – the young lads coming through all spent a lot of time watching him in training and observing how he conducted himself. There was so much to learn from him and he was a great example for everyone, and especially those lads.
“Some people have said he was aloof, but that wasn’t the case at all. Eric was Eric. He got involved in the banter – Maysie always used to hammer him and the banter was good – and he always got involved in everything that was going on around the place. He was really good around the young boys, and the way he carried himself, we all learned a lot from that.
“He was a fabulous footballer with massive talent, a powerful man and a born winner who had this huge desire for victory. He would roam and go looking for the ball, so it was hard to pin him down to a specific role, but he could unlock a defence in an instant with a piece of skill or a pass. When you’re that good, you don’t need to be limited to one job. He could do it all. He’s always going to be the King at Old Trafford. That’s the way the fans revere him and I can’t see that changing anytime soon.”
“It’s a small world, football, so when Eric arrived at United we were all well aware of his reputation; that he was kicked out of France and barred from playing there, that he had a trial at Sheffield Wednesday and was let go, and that there were all sorts of stories about his time at Leeds. But he came in the dressing room and straight away he was one of the boys in what was quite a tight-knit unit at the time. He added to the group; he brought charisma and a sort of arrogance to the dressing room, although he played on the fact he was French and pretended not to understand too much English. It was only about 12 months down the line that we realised his wife was actually an English teacher! He picked and chose when he wanted to hear things and when he didn’t.
“To throw someone in who could potentially cause upset in the dressing room if things were not going his way was a bit of a gamble for the manager, but it paid off. I think the team realised he was good for us and I think Eric knew he could only be as good as he could be with the team around him.
“He was a great lad and a proper character. There are so many stories about Eric, but the one that sticks with me is when we all went to the town hall to see the Lord Mayor after we’d won a trophy. It was a boiling hot day, in the middle of July, and I had an olive green silk suit with a shirt and tie on. All the other lads had what the remit said – suit, shirt and tie – and the manager came over and said: ‘What are you wearing? What colour is that suit?’ I said it didn’t say on the ticket about the colour but he said: ‘Look at the other lads: black suit, grey suit, blue suit. Look at you: green!’ I replied: ‘Well, if you’re going to have a go at me, have a go at him,’ and pointed to Eric. He had no tie on, a white shirt with a black suit but a pair of red trainers on. At the Lord Mayor’s office!
“Sir Alex was going to have a go at me but turned around, looked at Eric, looked at me again, growled and walked off! That was Eric, though. He was a special case.”
“Eric was a big part of the reason Leeds pipped us to the title in 1991/92, and he had a similar impact when he came to Old Trafford later that year. Eric was the final piece in our jigsaw.
“Bringing him in was perfect timing to go along with that group of players. We had loads of pace, loads of power; Eric brought the big-game mentality.”