Happy Birthday Cantona, Bit-Part Player for the Last Champions – by Rob Atkinson


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Eric the Last Champion

Birthday wishes today to one-time United reserve player Eric Cantona, who has attained the grand old age of 49.  Cantona joined Leeds United in 1992, just in time to qualify for a last-ever Football League Championship medal, although his involvement in the actual winning of the famous old trophy was peripheral at best.

Cantona managed to make a few appearances and score a few goals for the Last Champions.  Some of the goals were things of beauty; his effort against Chelsea at Elland Road sticks in the memory for some amazing sleight of foot which preceded a thunderous finish into the top corner.  But United were 2-0 up at the time and it is a fact that none of Cantona’s goals that season were decisive, game-changing strikes.  His major contribution towards the winning of that last-ever level-playing-field title was probably his action, in tandem with Rod Wallace, of frightening Brian Gayle into scoring a pivotal own-goal at Bramall Lane.  But the Cantona role that season was a cameo – all of the hard work had been done by the real principal players such as Strachan, Chapman, MacAllister, Speed and the rest of Wilko’s core warriors – the players he turned to late in the season after deciding that Cantona was a luxury player.

The Frenchman’s move to the Theatre of Hollow Myths was decidedly well-timed from the point of view that it coincided with an end to championships being won on merit in a competitive league.  From 1993 onwards, it would be the richest club that finished on top, so – having won one league title in the original format, Cantona had a few more bought for him in the first few years of Murdoch’s “Greed is Good” league.  In the process, the slightly brooding and insular Frenchman that Leeds fans knew was re-branded into Eric the Red by the Pride of Devon marketing machine, complete with turned-up collar, pseudo-macho stubble and the trademark strut so beloved of the insecure and needy type of fan attracted to the commercially- obsessed Man U franchise.

Cantona was a relatively brief phenomenon even at Man U.  By 1997 he was gone, taking a surprisingly early retirement and aiming for a career in films – something he was destined to be overshadowed in by another ex-United player, far more influential in Elland Road history and far better regarded in Whites folklore; one Vinnie Jones.

Ultimately, it is the Man U incarnation of Eric that will be remembered by a selective media – the chest sticking out and the collar raised as he did his best to play the part defined for him by the remorseless publicity team at the Theatre of Hollow Myths.  But we Leeds fans remember a different bloke, certainly in terms of his relationship with the crowd; one who illuminated his walk-on appearances with special goals and that Gallic touch and control; one who flickered briefly but brilliantly at the end of the successful 1992 season and the start of the next one, especially with his hat-tricks against Liverpool at Wembley and Spurs at Elland Road.  This was Eric “Ooh-Ah” Cantona, an enigma who I can still see on the balcony of Leeds Town Hall, holding the last League Championship trophy and telling us “Why I love you, I don’t know why – but I love you“.

Fickle as footballers tend to be, he walked away from the love and into the hype; he became a man and a player for the Murdoch era of money and media.  But in remembering that Cantona, the moody and petulant Kung-Fu practitioner, it’s still important to recall the more diffident and less arrogant bloke that briefly, sporadically – but still memorably – played for Leeds.

Happy Birthday, Eric – and thanks for those few, bright, pre-Murdoch memories.

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22 responses to “Happy Birthday Cantona, Bit-Part Player for the Last Champions – by Rob Atkinson

  1. His performance against Stuttgart was pretty good too……he was a truly great player and Wilko should never have sold him for so little to our bitter rivals……….The acceptance of that transfer was insane….. Batty afterwards beggared belief and I still don’t understand that one ???

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    • I remember him being at fault for at least one goal in the 0-3 away at Stuttgart.

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      • Chareose

        sorry mate but he more than made up with his performance in the home leg……you can tell I don’t hate the guy and I don’t hate alan smith either

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      • I’m right with you, I don’t hate Cantona or Smith either. But I do feel that Cantona’s conduct was unprofessional – that of a prima donna – towards the end of his time at Leeds. From that point of view, he ended up at the right club.

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    • Batty was fotherbys doing not wilkos

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  2. Of course the upturned collar, so often emulated in Devon, Essex and Sussex was (reputedly) nothing more than an attempt to cover the “Marching On Together” neck tattoo. Funny how he packed up football when the collars were removed! (All alleged of course)

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  3. Bad mistake by Wilko selling this c*** to Man U.
    Made their club tick for the next 4 years and never looked back well until this year ha ha!

    Selling Batts was even worse.heart and soul of the club and left us to rely on Speed and McCallister who in my view were not strong enough to boss the midfield.Carlton Palmer and the rest is then history!

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    • Not long before, Man U had offered £5m for the Wendies’ David Hirst – and got knocked back. We should have held out for that kind of money, at the very least.

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  4. Very noble of you rob to wish him happy birthday ,, I too can still see him on the balcony at Leeds town hall like juliet to all our romeo’s ,, but unlike a shakespearian ending in turned out to be more like Judas… Oh well , thanks for a brilliant day out in the charity shield Eric , I hope you’re seagulls are well fed on you’re 30 pieces of silver – MOT

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  5. Eric was, and still is an enigmatic maverick. His style of play was more suited to the scum – he didn’t have that ‘grafter’ in his game that we Leeds fans love.
    I did hear via an ex-employee of the scums’ sponsors at that time, that his penchant for ‘playing away’ had a lot to do with his hasty departure from Leeds – allegedly!

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  6. Was there other reasons behind the Cantona transfer. There were alsorts of rumours at the time. This transfer was the writing on the wall that Howard mlght be starting to loose the plot.Selling him for so little and to manchester United he was the final cog that put Fergie on his rain of terror. I bet he couldn’t believe it when cantona only cost a million. The rest is history. MOT.

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  7. Wilko got away with selling Eric if we hadn’t won league it would have gone down as biggest cock up ever, true prima,but most genious players are,it’s what will always stop England winning a trophy people like Wilko prefer a work horse bog standard player to a Cantona

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  8. Wilko’s status is tainted by this. One major sign of a good club and one that considers it fans is never sell to your rivals, look at Liverpool with Stirling and Manu ( much respect ). I heard fotherby’s daughter was getting married and he wanted his 500k back for her, so fans feelings disregarded. Obviously even at the time Bad management all round, nothing much changes I guess let hope super leeds get some good news soon.

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  9. wetherby white

    Well-he gave us some good memories and I remember being packed into the kop when the Chelsea goal went in! The more depressing thread of the posts today is the dismantling of the world class midfield we enjoyed in those days. Wilko did a superb job at Leeds in promotion from old div 2, the last div 1 title and setting up the academy. Where it went woefully wrong was the selling of those class players. Strach went with age but Batty, Speed and Macca should never have gone. The players bought in (all from Sheffield) weren’t fit to lace the boots of those that left and the signing of Palmer was one of the most depressing signings in the clubs history. So depressing that I gave up my season ticket though the wife and kids were pleased to see a bit more of me..I think!

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  10. Ewy Ewy ohh baby he’s gotta go.
    Ewy ewy ohh baby hes gotta go.

    Cantona best player ive seen at elland rd in a long time.

    Should have been kicked out of football for that kung fu kick.
    along with the biter.
    Whats happend to the real issues redferns treatment diabolical and we talk of cantona.
    half full or half empry.

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  11. Belfast White

    Eric should have either not gone, or gone for a lot more money. Sadly rumour had it that Wilko phoned Rudolph to see if Denis Irwin was available. He was told no, but before hanging up was also asked if Kung Fu Cantona was available. Added to this was the rumour that Cantona had already read the Giggs Shoot Annual on playing away. It seemed he had tried to practice his Gallic furry browed charm on the then glamorous Mrs Chappie. Two strikers admiring the same lady is as useful to team cohesion as them chasing the same ball! Hence the speedy, low cost and even lower fan appreciated move of dispatching ‘King Eric’ down the road to the Kingdom of Manure. There he could acclimatise his ear to the Devon, East End and Hong Kong accents, and become the catalyst for too much dubious success and 98th minute winners.

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  12. Free speach

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  13. as a man u fan iam glad to hear leeds fans not hating alan smith because as I have stated before he didn’t want to come to man u but had no choice his transfer kept leeds afloat I would call this the ultimate sacrifice. cantona was vital to man utds 90s success but he always seemed to go missing when playing in Europe. I remember the 1997 semi final against Dortmund had cantona not played we would have won.i think eric knew his time was up even at 31. I will always be a fan of erics but he wouldn’t rank in my top ten man u players.will always have a soft spot for smudger and hope he returns to leeds in some capacity.i hope to see leeds back playing in the prem soon as I miss the games too many huge clubs struggling which is a worry as I know one day it could be us.

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  14. maybe I shouldn’t be reading this site but its compelling a great read and I wish we had the same passion at corporate united.you might be right maybe leeds were the last real champions.its sad to think that howard Wilkinson was the last English manager to win the league.i long for the day of muddy pitches Saturday 3pm kick offs standing and a reasonably priced day out.starting to fear I might be a closet leeds fan[only joking] but seriously great site good luck for next season.

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