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.