Toasting The King: Fans pay tribute to Cantona
Eric Cantona didn't just light up the Old Trafford pitch, he enraptured the stands too an quickly became a fans' icon. We recently repaired to the Peveril of the Peak - one of his favourite Manchester pubs - to reminisce with five loyal subjects about the magnetism of King Eric...
Andrew Lindsay: I remember thinking that I disliked him because he was arrogant, but really I disliked him because he played for Leeds!
Pete Boyle: I'm not going to pretend that I clapped when he did that great overhead kick at Old Trafford for Leeds in September 1992. I was probably still calling him a so-and-so, but he had something. People respected what they were seeing. Maybe not everyone was standing and applauding, but people were thinking: 'Wow, he looks half-decent this lad.'
Neil Meehan: I remember him scoring goals when Leeds won the title and the Charity Shield in 1992, when he scored a hat-trick against Liverpool. It was a showpiece game and a lot bigger back then. I didn't know anything about his personality. I just knew he scored lots of goals and made the difference for Leeds.
Anthony Murphy: I always rated Cantona and I couldn't understand how he could be at a club like Leeds, with the type of team they had and the mentality of their fans. It was the wrong club.
Gemma Thompson: He was that first foreign player that really stood out. He brought excitement to the league.
REACTION TO HIS SIGNING
PB: I was absolutely stunned by it. I remember exactly where I was the day he signed and I didn't really believe it. This was before blanket coverage with Sky Sports and you heard through a phone call or Teletext, or it came on Piccadilly Radio news. Eric was an idol of the fans at Leeds.
NM: I was on the school playground and someone told me. I don't know if it was a midday signing or not, but word went round about it. And even though he was Leeds and instrumental in stopping us winning the league the year before, which I was gutted about, everyone was dead excited.
AM: No one could believe it. There wasn't excitement as much as disbelief.
PB: We were all chuffed because it had wound Leeds up. It was like stealing someone you don't like's girlfriend. Some of their fans had even released that song about him (Ooh La La's Why I Love You, I Don't Know Why, But I Love You).
GT: There was an aura about him straight away. Even on the signing pictures with Sir Alex, he just looked right in the stadium holding the scarf up. Hearing him talk, actually, not long after he signed, you could tell he also felt a warmth as soon as he arrived. It just felt like it was right. Like it was a match.
AM: There was great anticipation as he warmed up [Cantona came on as a second-half substitute for Ryan Giggs]. He had a good game but he didn't score, although United won anyway. The anticipation was greater than what he actually did on his debut.
PB: Even if he didn't score, everyone was singing about him, because he was the icon, the pin-up boy of Leeds’ team. But also, because we're all cynics, a bit of you thought: 'Why did they let him go?'
HIS INSTANT POPULARITY
PB: There'd be women with husbands going up to him in restaurants saying: "Eric, you can have my children!"
GT: One of my standout memories of when he first joined was going to the Cliff. I used to go as many times as I could. I remember Ince and Schmeichel used to get off quite quickly but he always came over and spent ages signing.
PB: Even City fans like the Gallaghers respected him when they saw him at the Hacienda or somewhere. They saw him and thought: 'Wow, that guy's got something about him.'
GT: Probably the Tottenham game in the first season, the 4-1, when he sent the pass over the top to Irwin.
AL: Against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough, a few months after he signed, on Boxing Day 1992. We were 3-0 down and he really inspired the comeback to 3-3.
NM: The season before I'd gone to the Forest game that we lost on Easter Monday, and I think we'd drawn at Luton the week before. The year after, we were losing at home to Southampton, when Giggs got two late goals. There had been a total shift in dynamic. It was the same team, but with Cantona in it. The whole mood had changed; around the ground, in the stadium.
AL: Before he signed, United had scored 18 goals in 17 league games – an average of 1.05 goals a game. In the 22 games he played in the remainder of that first season they scored 44 and that nearly doubled to two goals a game.
AM: There wasn't a cat in hell's chance that United would have won that league without Eric Cantona. We had a good side but Hughes and McClair were having a nightmare putting the ball away. As soon as he turned up, I thought it was there for the taking if Cantona did for United what he did for Leeds. He provided that je ne sais quois.
NM: Winning the title cemented it. But at my age, once the collar thing started, everyone wanted to be Cantona.
GT: I'll never forget the 1-1 draw at Maine Road in his first season, when he scored with a header from a Lee Sharpe cross. I was in the City end and there was a Blue next to me banging on about how there could be quite a period of dominance for United. He could never have foreseen what was ahead!
PB: The bit that really scares me was that Houllier recommended him to Liverpool and Graeme Souness.
AM: It could have been another 20 years of Liverpool dominance. He would have been the catalyst, like he was for United. They were on a downward slide when he came to United and he would have revitalised them straight away. He would have been amazing for Liverpool.
PB: Let's stop giving ourselves nightmares!
AM: How he used to train and its influence on the Nevilles, Scholes etc was very important.
PB: He changed a lot of our mentality because they looked up to him. They all played with him, but even now they are all still in awe of him.
AL: If Cantona gave us anything as a group of supporters, there was this swagger. I remember I was about 16 and just starting to go home and away, and we felt really different from everyone else because of those [Cantona] songs. I think it changed our attitude as supporters.
PB: Schmeichel was a great signing, Irwin was a great signing. There were loads. But Cantona was that final piece of the jigsaw, he was the catalyst, he gave us that confidence.
AL: He wasn't even here five years and I've subsequently had brilliant times watching other players bring more success. But I've never seen such a legacy – at least in terms of a team's identity.
This feature first appeared in the December edition of Inside United magazine.