There are legends from antiquity that speak of a figure – half human, half divine – who conquers death. The myths tell of a stranger without a home and about a man with a thousand faces who mysteriously arrives on the earth, seemingly out of nowhere, does the most incredible and wonderful things, and then – before anyone can thank him, or even ask him why – he disappears into the ether from whence he came.
His travails are enormous and the obstacles he overcomes are monumental, almost impossible. Assisted by friends he encounters along the way, he will nonetheless suffer setbacks that result in failures so abysmal that they would deter the ordinary, lesser mortals; slavery, exile, poverty, even death. At times, he is led by his enemies into self-doubt and even temptation in order that he may abandon his path. Yet he is never swayed, never deterred, never defeated.
The tale is old, and has been told many times. It is the story, inter alia, of Adonis, Attis, Osiris, of Doctor Who, and of Christ, the Green Knight, and the Buddha. Our rites of Christmas and Easter, bound to those of Solstice and Equinox, celebrate to this day these eternally dying-and-reviving gods, forever falling only to rise again.
It is argued that the legacies of these strange gods persist because they simultaneously echo and resolve the twin subconscious preoccupations of the primal human mind, regarding both fertility and our own mortality: When will the earth renew itself and give life again; and, what happens to us when we die?
For all our edifices and outward symbols of civilisation, endeavour, and progress, that Neolithic voice forever fearing and always asking those same questions can be neither silenced nor resolved. And so we tell the story anew, this time with the hero wearing a different, more recognisable face, up-to-date clothes, and as set against the backdrop of these modern times. Sometimes, so powerful is its force that the story is re-enacted in its three parts all over again.
Here is one telling of that story.
Éric Daniel Pierre Cantona arrives at Old Trafford in the cold of late November, 1992.
Manchester United have begun the season with mixed results, and, with the onset of winter, are reverting to the type of football that they displayed at the tail end of the 1991/92 season, which saw them hand the league title to their rivals across the Pennines, Leeds United. Scoring, in particular, is becoming an elusive habit and there is already talk of a yet another title challenge fade out as the club continues in its quest to return the elusive English league title to Old Trafford for the first time in over twenty-five years.
In the office of Martin Edwards, Alex Ferguson is bunkered down with his Chairman, discussing how they may resolve that very same on-field issue through the capture of a high-profile forward that can set their season alight again. Many names are discussed, with English strikers David Hirst and Matthew Le Tissier chief amongst them, but, in the end, neither is signed.
The phone on Edwards’ desk rings. It is his Leeds United counterpart, Bill Fotherby. Looking to reinforce his Championship-winning side, he enquires about the availability of United left-back, Denis Irwin. Ferguson shakes his head adamantly across the table from Edwards: Not for sale.
Then something happens. Quite what remains uncertain to this day and now appears to be lost in the mists of time. One legend has it that Ferguson became possessed by the Football Muse, took up a note pad, and wrote on it for Edwards: “Ask about Cantona”.
Another, less romantic version holds that Edwards and Ferguson simply phoned Fotherby to enquire about the Frenchman’s services and were stunned when the answer came back in the positive.
Regardless, by the time Edwards had hung up the phone, the deal that many point to as the single greatest of Ferguson’s entire reign was set in motion. Cantona is to become a Manchester United player.
It is a moment of pure footballing genius, and the transfer cannot be underestimated with regards to its impact on that team, Manchester United as a club – and as a brand – and English football at large. Ferguson’s flaws were many, but his strengths were even greater, and this one moment in time provides a telling example of his genius and of a complete understanding of the game.
For in Cantona, Ferguson saw the oft-quoted “missing piece in the Manchester United jigsaw”. A tall, brutally strong, yet subtly elegant player, Cantona possessed all the qualities that Ferguson has in the past summarised simply as “looking like a Manchester United player”.
Cantona inspired his teammates through his actions, not words, and was often the difference between victory and a defeat or draw for Leeds in their title run-in the previous season. If there was anything that Manchester United needed in that November of 1992, it was more than just another forward – they needed a talisman. And how they got one.
It was as if Cantona had proven to be the catalyst in some mad, alchemic experiment that Ferguson was conducting upon that formative Manchester United team; one which ultimately transformed each of its constituent elements into everlasting monuments of legend. The 1992/93 Manchester United team, which went on to achieve in the following season the first of Ferguson’s three FA Cup and League ‘Doubles’ in the ‘90s, is fondly remembered as perhaps the Scot’s greatest mix of experience and youth, silk and steel, and pace and power, of fantasy and hard graft at the forge.
A back-line comprising the granite boulders from the North East in the shape of Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce and marshalled by the imposing Dane, Peter Schmeichel, arguably the greatest goalkeeper since the mythical Lev Yashin and certainly since, was augmented by a combative midfield containing the fiery upstarts in the form of a young Paul Ince and a very young Roy Keane, aided on their journeys by the legend that was Bryan Robson, the wise old warrior now into his final two seasons at Old Trafford, and who at last in 1993 got to touch Championship glory with the club he served so nobly for so long.
On the wings, Andrei Kanchelskis, Lee Sharpe, and Ryan Giggs eviscerated opponents with a most lethal combination of trickery and pace, becoming the pin-ups of an entire generation of football adolescents, and, up front, Mark Hughes – never a great goalscorer but a scorer of great goals – was rejuvenated by a perfect partnership with that creative force of nature that blew in from across the south of France via the Yorkshire dales.
That first league title of 1993 was retained in some style and added to with an FA Cup win a year later to make it a first ‘Double’ won in England since the great Tottenham Hotspur team of Bill Nicholson some 33 years previously. Cantona scored 25 goals that season, so many of which still live on in the VHS-aided memory of a burgeoning adolescent of that time: A chip into the top right corner away at Southampton, as though aiming to execute the most perfect postage stamp shot you will ever see despite it being the Dell the home of Le Tissier; a driven set piece hard to Seaman’s right past a wall containing Adams and Bould at home to Arsenal; two at Maine Road and two again at Old Trafford to continue what would become a long-standing habit of scoring against a then-and-still laughable City; a strike after a full pitch sprint wearing that iconic all black kit at Brammall Lane against the Blades; another double at home against title-challenging Aston Villa to show everyone who really was boss; the most perfect set and volley into the top corner from outside the box in the Cup against Wimbledon away in the Fifth Round, resplendent in the yellow and green halves of the Newton Heath memorial away shirt, before two carbon-copy penalties are dispatched, sang-froid, against a pre-billionaire Chelsea in the FA Cup Final to win the first of what would be three Doubles for Manchester United in the teeming rain of a May day at Wembley in 1994.
I was a boy, and Cantona was king. Halcyon times, indeed.
1995, however, was to prove somewhat of an annus horribilis Éric Cantona, and for Manchester United.
In every story ever told, there is a moment of complication, shattering the idyllic beginnings and throwing its protagonist into a period of sustained turmoil. The hero faces many demons; some borne of the iniquities and malice of men, and others – perhaps more powerful – that are only to be found within. Éric Cantona was no diffierent.
This moment in the journey of the hero is not, however, irredeemably harmful or negative, though it may superficially appear to be so. Periods of challenge and defeat in amongst these travails provide opportunities for sustained growth and great learning about oneself and of the world. It is only ever understood much later that these were merely temporary; that progress actually came in disguise whilst wearing the form of despair. When the hardship is self-inflicted, and when the battle against the voice of an inner destructive self is waged, there is eventually a greater victory resulting in a resolute fortitude and clarity.
Readers may be familiar with the story of the temptation of Christ. It is but one example amongst a litany of many that revolve around an eternal conflict between good and evil. At a literal level of interpretation, it appears more black-and-white; Christ, as the hero, endures forty days and nights of physical and mental onslaught at hands of his story’s antagonist, Satan, before eventually triumphing. Metaphorically, however, the story concerns itself more so with the constant internal struggle between impulses; the tendencies towards self-destructive behaviours via the ways of doubt, rage, greed, delusion, cruelty, sloth, pride, amongst other deadly sins.
The narrative problem in depicting these internal struggles is that they are not immediately apparent to the watching audience, and so what TS Eliot labelled in his essay “Hamlet and His Problems” in The Sacred Wood (1921) as an ‘objective correlative’ is required via which all the complexities, nuances, and significances of an inherently personalised quest may find form in the physical or visible world. We have already referred to the Christ story’s objective correlative of the battle against temptation, whilst in the Buddhist tradition, it occurs when Siddhartha renounces his life as a prince in favour of an asceticism that would eventually lead him to his moment of Enlightenment. Another, relatively more recent example comes in the form of Patrick McGoohan’s television serial, The Prisoner, in which the protagonist, known only as Number 6, eventually comes face to face with Number 1, the mysterious entity who controls The Village in which the protagonist has been trapped from the very beginning and who, of course, is merely the alter ego of Number 6 himself. For Cantona, this battle against himself was manifested for all the world to see in the form of his karate kick into the stands at Selhurst Park one night in January of 1995.
What compelled the man to commit the single most destructive act amongst many others he had already committed throughout his career, and at a moment when he was both the inspiration for his club and captain for his country? Exiled by the authorities, in his absence, Manchester United would fail to win a league title that would otherwise have made it three in a row, and a fourth consecutive honour for Cantona personally. What demon could have possessed him that night? Was it his own version of Number 1, plaguing in his worst nightmares the dreams of Number 6? Was it merely Saturn returning? 28 years of age at the time, one thing became clear; the next battle in the story of Éric Cantona, saviour of Manchester United, was not to take place on the pitch – but in his mind…
It would be eight months and four days before the eventual Return of The King.
Éric Cantona rose from the dead on Sunday, 1 October, 1995.
Come that autumn, not even two-and-a-half-years after Manchester United’s initial title triumph, and with half that team departed, only Schmeichel, Pallister, Irwin, Bruce, Keane, and Cantona remained. But they were to be joined in the ranks by what is now famously known as ‘The Class of ‘92’; Beckham, Scholes, Butt, and Neville the elder, all reunited with the already-graduated Ryan Giggs in the United first team.
Shipping off the increasingly-troublesome Ince and Kanchelskis to Inter and Everton respectively, and reluctantly relenting to Hughes’ wish for first-team football elsewhere (Chelsea, it turned out), after the purchase of frontman Andy Cole from Newcastle United in the same month as Cantona’s madness, Ferguson shaped his second great generation. At its focal point remained the returning prodigal son, and Cantona repaid the faith shown in him by leading his disciples to even greater heights.
Season 1995/1996 is the moment the story of Cantona can first be seen to transcend sport and enter the world of myth and legend. Channelling those same demons who once threatened to destroy him, Cantona’s actions rose above the level of the mere mortal footballer, and with each passing match, fans began to believe that they were witnessing one of the great redemptive tales of sport that bordered on metaphysical resurrection. For on those days, here was a player who rose higher than ever after having fallen so much further.
The examples of his derring-do are numerous: Creating a goal for Nicky Butt fifty seconds into his first match back, and scoring the equalising penalty in front of the K Stand against the old enemy; two goals to ensure a draw at home to an impressive Sheffield Wednesday on a bitterly cold and dark December afternoon, before the momentum really took shape in the new year; a smart side-footed finish from an impossible angle away to secure all three points at West Ham; followed by six games in a row in which Cantona would score, including four winners in 1-0 victories against – crucially – Newcastle, then Arsenal, then Tottenham, and Coventry to all but seal the league title. Then came the last-gasp winner against Liverpool, again, in the FA Cup Final to make it a Double Double within two years (and to rectify the wrong Double of league and cup runners up of the preceding campaign whose resolution he missed). It all seemed unbelievable at the time, almost destined. No one could make this up. Only a god could perform such miracles. Martin Tyler’s incredulous commentary spoken immediately after the last goal of the season at the Wembley showpiece seems to encapsulate the whole of that season: “You cannot write this script!” .
It is true that it was Ferguson’s faith in the ‘Class of ‘92’ that was to be repaid an infinite number of times over that year, and especially in the years to come, but the role played that season by that French wanderer without a home who found just that and all that he was looking for when he arrived at the Theatre of Dreams, his collar turned defiantly up at the world, equally cannot be denied as the greater contribution.
The ‘kids’ loved him, and numerous interviews exist of the likes of Beckham and Giggs simply fawning, freely expressing their unhindered admiration for and gratitude to a player who not only had it all but who, moreover, worked hard, long hours in perfecting every aspect of his game. Here was a man who understood that footballing greatness was a ceaseless journey, and not a moneyed destination that comes too soon to young players.
Inspired, they followed suit, and the commitment and professionalism that today’s youngsters point to when they speak in reverential tones of that now-veteran class of players who have themselves since retired from the game was directly informed by the example set all those decades ago by that most mercurial of Gallic talents at that old training ground at The Cliff, Salford, Manchester.
And then, aged 30, on the Pentecost of Whitsunday, 18 May, 1997, Éric Cantona, the player, left the footballing world and ascended to heaven, never to be seen again; his spirit having descended and living on in his disciples Paul, Philip, Nicholas, David, Gareth, and Ryan. The fans still sing his name, nineteen years after he left us, and – like any of the legendary figures of yore – before we could thank him or even ask him why, thereby enacting the last ritual in the myth of the dying-and-reviving god.