Snapshots of Eric: The man who defined an era

Saturday 26 November 2022 07:00

This weekend marks 30 years since Eric Cantona joined Manchester United from across the Pennines. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Frenchman's arrival almost instantly changed everything at Old Trafford. Within months, we'd claimed our first top-flight title for 26 years.

Domestic domination ensued for the next 20 years under Sir Alex Ferguson, and Cantona was the man who kicked it off.

Instrumental in all of our first four Premier League triumphs, he then set the standards for another generation to follow. To this day, his relationship with United's fanbase is like that of no other Red, past or present.

Below, we hear from several different United voices, whose lives or careers were all touched by the genius of the man...
How would you describe King Eric? Video

How would you describe King Eric?

United supporters share their memories of the great Eric Cantona...

Contributing Editor to, lifelong United fan

“In late 1992, I was in my second year at university and was, as ever, preoccupied with events at United. It had become very clear we needed a striker, with Dion Dublin’s broken leg, suffered against Crystal Palace, leaving us short in attack.
"Four successive blanks highlighted the need to address the situation and, with no transfer windows in those days, Alex Ferguson was free to explore the market. It became a big guessing game over who would come in to provide the key to pushing for a long-awaited title.
"David Hirst and Darko Pancev were among those targeted but the answer certainly came from leftfield. I will never forget how I found out about the signing. I’d trudged to my lecture and bumped into my friend and house-mate on the way in, he’d heard the news and asked me to work out who the mystery man was.
"After several wrong stabs at the identity, the big clue was he was at Leeds. Even then, I got it wrong, enquiring if it was Lee Chapman as, with no disrespect for the big target man, my heart initially sunk. No, it was Cantona, or, firstly, ‘Mr Flicky’ as my friend had dubbed him since his arrival in England.
"A bolt of excitement and intrigue hit me. When he asked if I felt it was a good move, my instant response was he would either be a massive success or a catastrophic failure, with no middle ground. I picked up all the newspapers on the way to the lecture and read those at the back of the room, rather than listening to whatever topic was being debated.
"Mercifully, it soon became clear that Cantona was made for Manchester United and the catalyst for sparking the success we’d long been starved of. It’s a well-worn cliché but every time you saw him play in the flesh, he’d do something that was worth the admission fee – a piece of skill, flair or invention that elevated him above mere mortals.
"Eric’s signing was the news we’d all been waiting for, the turning point, and one of the most surprising and bargain transfers of all time. That evening, another of my house-mates, who was from Marseille, told me she’d actually heard the story on French radio the previous evening but had forgotten to pass it on.
"I found it quite amusing how the gravity of the situation had been missed – and how everybody seemed to know besides me – but I don’t think I’d change the way I eventually found out and that initial guessing game, knowing the big reveal was about to take place!”
Features Editor, lifelong fan
“Given the depth of his association with Manchester United, an examination of Eric Cantona’s career statistics is a jarring experience. Equidistant between Anderson and Nemanja Matic in the club’s all-time appearances chart, lagging Anthony Martial in the goalscoring equivalent, it’s easy to forget that Cantona mustered just two full, uninterrupted seasons at Old Trafford, joining midway through 1992/93 and sitting out the latter half of 1994/95 and the opening weeks of 1995/96 through suspension. 
"And yet, to anyone who witnessed the Frenchman’s elan first-hand, his name is a byword for so much of what United stands for. The reason is a case of perfect timing, with Cantona arriving at Old Trafford just as Alex Ferguson was starting the promotion of his Class of ’92 pupils. 
"As winger Ben Thornley recalled: ‘When we were growing up, the manager always used to say to us: ‘Look at Eric Cantona – just watch him.’ He told us to watch him in the dressing room, to watch what he does before he goes out to training. He was all alone, he doesn't speak, he motivates himself. Not only did we use to watch him, but people like Becks would do things that he did and that included staying out after the official training had finished.’
"The good habits inherent in Cantona were passed on first-hand during the glorious handover period of 1996’s Double triumph, when the unproven youngsters became a collective of Premier League champions and FA Cup winners, then went on to retain the title and reached the Champions League semi-finals in the Frenchman’s final season before retirement.
"One beacon of professionalism and preparation became several, with David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers joining fellow youngsters Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane in lighting the way forward for United’s dressing room for the years to come. As success sustained long after Cantona’s departure, his way was handed down to new arrivals and graduates, with his students becoming teachers to the generations that have followed.
"Even in Erik ten Hag’s dressing room, lineage can be traced from David De Gea, back through Wayne Rooney and the Class of ’92 alumni to Cantona, with the same applicable to Darren Fletcher, now the club’s technical director and a driving force for aspiration throughout United.
"So, while he may have only had a relatively fleeting time at Old Trafford, Eric’s legacy lives on not only in the terrace chants, but within the club and at the heart of its process of restoring the highest standards.”
Inside United editor Ben Ashby meets Eric Cantona in Norway.
Journalist and lifelong Red

“When he first got suspended, for three games, he came back against Man City at home. He'd managed to get himself sent off twice in two games at Arsenal and Swindon. At Swindon, a straight red for stamping on John Moncur and two silly yellows at Arsenal. In those days, you didn't serve your ban straight away. You'd play a couple of games and then you'd serve the ban.

"In any case, I remember that by the time he came back, it was the start of spring. It seemed like the first sunny day we'd had for ages. We played City at home, and I think it was a 2-0 win. It was one of the last days of the Scoreboard Paddock. I think he scored both. I remember losing my watch and just talking to people I didn't know around me and saying: 'This guy is actually amazing.' This guy is totally transformative. He's like no footballer we've ever seen. 
"To me, he just sums up that whole era: the attitude that he had is just everything about that era. When people say 'he inspired the Class of '92' it's true. His legacy lived on in the years after. But it lived on in the away support as well. United fans were never particularly short of an attitude, but we kind of became entrenched in it and it was personified in him. The way that he behaved came to define the way United as a group, as a collective of away supporters, behaved for years after he left. 
"We had brilliant, brilliant times and I'm sure that a lot of the culture and the songs that are really different, the wind-up songs, come directly from feeling very different from all the other England fans [at other clubs]. I felt that really acutely. Everybody used to support England and not really question it. But because of the way that Cantona was treated – as well as what then followed with Beckham and the Nevilles, all that stuff came from the same thing, which was 'Anyone but United' – the reaction to it needed to be strong and needed to look arrogant and needed to be extremely confident. It was, and that's the culture that those of who started going away in those days came into. For me, that was all about Eric Cantona.”

Pete Boyle: My adoration for Eric


The well-known Red – and self-professed Cantona superfan – explains the United icon's huge influence on his life.

Journalist, lifelong United fan

“Never meet your heroes, so the saying goes. At the risk of gratuitous name-dropping, that was never my experience in 15 years of doing interviews at Manchester United.

"Sir Alex captivated your attention; warm, welcoming, expert in any topic and, surprisingly, full of song. Anyone expect Sinatra-esque crooning from the balcony at Carrington? Roy Keane, running behind schedule, descended the training ground stairs, teacup and saucer in hand – this primal beast of a competitor on the pitch – apologising gently, “sorry I’m late, I was doing yoga”.

"King amongst footballing-soundbite royalty, though, has to be Eric. How to be unique in an interview with the enigmatic genius who gave us the resplendent 'when the seagulls follow the trawler…' line?

"Call it a cop out, call it astutely appealing to Cantona’s fondness for the people of Manchester and those who follow United around the world, I let the fans ask the questions. The more banal the better, gold will surely follow.

"Twenty-two, fresh faced and looking about 16, I asked: “What is your favourite place in the world to visit?” After a poised pause, glint in his eye and trademark wry smile, he returns: 'In bed with a woman… have you been?'”

Inside United editor, lifelong United fan

“My own audience with Le Roi came under pretty strange circumstances: in a hotel corridor in Norway at midnight. Eric had agreed to make a public appearance in the town of Lyngdal, which had been painstakingly arranged by a huge local United fan named Jahn-eric Birkeland [such a Red that he’s converted the basement of his house into the ultimate United den – look up ‘Little Old Trafford Pub’ to see what I mean].

“United fanatics from the surrounding area and further afield in Norway – a stronghold of Reds support, of course – descended upon the picturesque and normally quiet town at the southern tip of the country, all eager to meet, greet and generally fall at the feet of Monsieur Cantona. Jahn-eric had invited Inside United to come along, an opportunity we, of course, jumped at. The initial details were a little sketchy as to exactly where and when Eric would be appearing – a suitable veil of mystery for such an enigmatic figure – and there was certainly no guarantee of actually getting close to him.

“But amazingly, the moment did come – and it was a moment that owed a tiny bit to journalistic persistence and an awful lot to Eric’s generous well of patience. The big appearance had indeed materialised, hosted at the town’s Strandhotell on the shores of a local fjord. Eric had arrived by speedboat [as you do when you’re Eric Cantona] before meeting the hordes of excited Reds, pressing the flesh and liberally signing everything they could put in front of him. Then came the main event, a sit-down dinner with Eric and his brothers Joel and Jean-Marie the guests of honour at the top table, followed by an in-depth interview on stage conducted by well-known United fan and minstrel Pete Boyle, during which the Frenchman spoke freely and at length about his time at United and the current Reds scene at the time [this was September 2019].

“It all ended in raucous scenes, with Boyley leading a singalong of classic United chants [they did indeed ‘drink-a-drink-a-drink’ that night] and Eric leaving the room as if a Roman emperor, being glad-handed and back-slapped all the way, practically carried aloft by his dizzy subjects. He’d already given generously of his time, had spoken at length, shaken hundreds of hands – not to mention quaffed steadily of red wine during the evening. It was late, he’d have been tired, he’d have been craving some time to himself and the haven of his hotel room. He had every right to turn me down when I asked if he would have time for some words for the magazine. He did briefly gesture as if to say ‘I’ve just done 45 minutes of interview on stage, my friend’, but after a brief word with his brothers, he acquiesced.

“While Eric extricated himself from the clamouring throng of admirers, Jean-Marie told me to make my way up to the third floor and we’d do the interview there. I duly followed my instructions and waited – and there he suddenly was, striding down the corridor towards myself and club photographer Ash Donelon. It’s when you meet Eric in person that you realise how physically imposing he is. Broad-chested, tall, strong. You quickly imagine how powerful an athlete and tough a handful for opposition players he would have been at his physical peak, never mind all the artistry he carried in his mind and in his feet.

“He was polite, generous, thoughtful and unfailingly patient in considering and answering my questions. I probably prattled, I will have waffled, I surely stumped him with my residual West Country accent. But you’d never have told by his responses – he made a passable interview out of a cobbled-together chat. And all this for the benefit of a complete stranger, well past bedtime, after an evening’s carousing. What a legend. In the moment it is simply happening, but looking back it is so surreal: sitting in a hotel corridor, backs to either wall, speaking one-to-one with the man I’d adored as a player 20-plus years earlier. Oh, and what about his supposed ‘aura’ you hear about? Yeah, it’s real.”

Eric Cantona, Sir Alex Ferguson and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in Paris.
Journalist, lifelong United fan

"As a kid, at around 10/11 years-old, I had two ambitions in life – to work for Manchester United as a sports journalist and interview Eric Cantona. Little did I know both things would be so entwined from the start. Like so many Reds, Eric has been, and will always be, my United hero. So when the official club magazine ran a journalism competition back in 1996, I was always going to enter with a match report that featured a starring role for the King.

"His comeback [from his nine-month ban after Selhurst Park] against Liverpool on 1 Oct ’95 was my submission and to my absolute delight it was the winning entry! Cue my chance [via my prize for winning] to go into the Old Trafford magazine offices in Oct ’96 and a visit to The Cliff (where I was already a regular autograph hunter!) and the rest they say is history. That was 26 years ago now and it’s safe to say I’ve been incredibly lucky to make some amazing United memories with the great man along the way.

"That first one will always be a huge highlight, but there are many others that stand out including, of course, – my first interview with Eric – the day on which he came to town for Sir Alex’s statue unveiling. Before the ceremony at OT, Eric wanted to return to one of his favourite Manchester haunts – The Cornerhouse – and that’s where we sat and chatted for around 45 minutes about his memories of life living and playing in our great city. It was a dream-come-true moment for me and incredibly surreal; I sometimes listen back to the recording and it always makes me smile.

"I’ve since had the chance to interview him a couple of times and it’s always a pinch-yourself moment. Another memorable part of that day was Eric wanting to stop off for a drink at The Bishop Blaize pub at the top of Sir Matt Busby Way before he left for his flight… I explained I’d need to get security to come with us, he shook his head and said ‘don’t worry, we’ll just go, it will be fine’… you can imagine the jaw-dropping faces of those inside the pub as he strolled in and proceeded to pose for photos and chat to the what seemed hundreds of shocked Reds in there. That’s Eric to the tee – doing the unexpected and always having time for the fans – he’s always been like that from when I first met him to now. And you can tell it’s even more special to him these days that the United faithful still hold him in such high regard and sing his name.

"Watching Eric in one of his plays in Paris and catching up in his dressing room afterwards was fascinating, but as much as he’s busy with lots of different filming projects nowadays, United is never far from his mind. He recently made a visit to Old Trafford for a filming project he’s working on and being stood pitchside with him I asked him how it felt to come back. I’m sure he won’t mind me revealing his response… ‘It’s like seeing the greatest love of your life again, but knowing you can’t be together.’ He then walked onto the pitch and stood in the centre circle looking around, clearly emotional, admiring the place he will always call home. It was a lovely moment.

"Another of those moments came in March 2019 - seeing the joy on his face and his celebrations after United came back to beat PSG in March 2019 is something I’ll never forget and the now famous photo of Eric, Sir Alex and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer all with their fists clenched toasting the victory in the Reds’ dressing room afterwards will forever be the greatest photo I’ve ever taken. And I know the framed versions of it sit proudly in the houses and offices of all three of those United legends. It’s hard to believe 30 years have gone by since Eric famously arrived at OT for little over £1 million… what has followed is a million or so incredible memories for every United fan around that will live on forever. For me personally, our legendary no.7 helped shape my career path and made dreams come true… always my hero and now a friend, thanks for everything Eric and come see us all soon for a beer at the Blaize!"