Tag Archives: Eric Cantona

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.

Cantona Kung Fu Anniversary Evokes Memories of Eric’s English Bow – by Rob Atkinson

Look back in anger: Eric enters the fray

Look back in anger: Eric enters the fray

One notable landmark this weekend was the 20th anniversary, yesterday, of Eric Cantona’s infamous kung-fu kick at Selhurst Park – the original and definitive case, it has been said, of the shit hitting the fan. It took me straight back, not to that martial arts debacle, but over two years earlier to February 8th, 1992 and a Leeds United match I’d attended in the hopes of seeing us make another stride towards becoming champions of England. The venue was Boundary Park, Oldham and the occasion was the day that enfant terrible Cantona made his bow in Football League, Division One. 

It was a day of significance for Leeds United and, in a broader sense, for English football as a whole.  Cantona would shine briefly and fitfully at Leeds, winning an authentic League Championship medal with United before going on to collect several pale imitations on the wrong side of the Pennines.  But on that day of his début, all of the triumphs and controversies of his English career lay unsuspected in the future.  Despite the clamorous press attention – and the spectacle of the excited French hacks and cameramen clustering around the United bench was highly unusual, to say the least – this was an inauspicious start for the mercurial Frenchman. Leeds lost 2-0 to a goal in each half from an Oldham side that usually gave us problems. We witnessed proceedings glumly from the open end behind the goal and Cantona’s introduction as a second-half sub for Steve Hodge did not greatly influence the scrappy nature of the game.

Eric the Champ

Eric the Champ

It says a lot that one of my clearest memories from that game is not of Eric’s bow, but of a lethally noisome fart released by somebody in the tightly-packed mass of Leeds fans. It was a minor masterpiece, rank and ripe – it made you think of condemned cheese stacked in a neglected pig-pen, and it also had you sincerely worrying for the perpetrator’s health. “Christ, fetch the medics!” a plaintive voice was heard to demand, drawing nods of sympathy from fellow sufferers whose eyes were watering as their nostrils tried to run away. To cause that kind of stench on an open terrace in blustery Lancastrian conditions was a notable feat. No slouch in that field of endeavour myself, I could only shake my head in awe and wonderment. I would have been rightly proud of that one.

That Cantona’s entry into English football should be marked by the memory of a fart seems somehow appropriate now. Mention his name to any Leeds fan, and their nose will wrinkle with involuntary disgust; it’s as if the ghost of that legendary flatulent outburst is still summoned by the memory of Eric’s bitter-sweet time with Leeds.

Eric was not, after all, a taste instantly acquired. Thinking back, the English press were not initially that impressed at all. They would refer to him as “Contonaah”, emphasising his relative obscurity outside of France, and I remember one radio summariser reporting on his contribution in a 1-1 draw at Everton: “He doesn’t seem to jump his height or pull his weight,” he mused, blissfully ignorant that he was referring to a man who was but one cut-price transfer away from becoming a press hack’s icon, compulsorily revered. But he was well on his way already to cult status at Elland Road – when he abruptly departed in the most horrific circumstances imaginable.

That infamous transfer has been done to death as various hacks linger lovingly over alleged details of phone calls between Elland Road and the Theatre of Hollow Myths. My own take on it is that Eric and the Pride of Devon were made for each other, but not in a particularly good way.  They naturally set about “imagifying” him as is always their wont, intent on marketing him to their credulous and glory-hungry fans as “moody and magnifique“. So we got the trademark stubble and the turned-up collar – but Eric’s behaviour also changed, markedly for the worse, accumulating a flurry of red and yellow cards in stark contrast to his time with Leeds – and culminating in that notorious “kung-fu” incident.  But even that wasn’t the worst of it, not from a Leeds United point of view.

Whilst I acknowledge the Man U truism that club and player had matching conceit and arrogance such that they belonged together, I still feel that Leeds let Eric go far too cheaply – a huge and unforgivable mistake.  Man U were desperate for a striker at the time and had done their best to prise David Hirst from Sheffield Wednesday. They’d been prepared to go to £5m for him, and it’s to Wednesday’s credit that they told Taggart where to stick his money. But really, that offer should have set the benchmark; Leeds United should have opened negotiations at £5 million and seen what happened from there. They’d have paid up, or gone elsewhere. Either would have been preferable to what actually happened, for in letting Cantona go to Man U on the cheap, Leeds provided a catalyst for the sickening era of Devonian dominance that followed. That’s a terrible, terrible thing for any club to have on its conscience.

Twenty-three years on, that dominance seems finally to be at an end.  Cantona actually lasted only four years or so in England, departing the scene with some proper silver and plenty of fools’ gold. He has since made a career of sorts in films and adverts, having considerably less impact than United’s other footballer-turned-movie star, Vinnie Jones. It all seems such a terribly long time ago now, and for far too much of the period in between the game was in thrall to a choleric Glaswegian who bullied his way, aided initially by his talismanic Eric le Dieu, to far too much success for the liking of any real football fan. Strange to think, it all started on that blustery and smelly afternoon in Oldham, when we were all innocently wondering if this new foreign star could salvage a point for us, and maybe even help us win the last proper League Championship. At least, in the final analysis of that last pre-Murdoch season, it all came right in the end.

The verdict of history on the Cantona move from Leeds, to what is now seen as his spiritual home, has to be that it was the ultimate betrayal of supporters by their club. Leeds United and the men behind the deal were derelict in their duty towards passionately involved fans, both for sanctioning the move in the first place and for failing to extort a far higher price from a club desperately searching for some devil up front. It was a crass piece of business that showed a want of empathy with fans, a lack of the vision that separates devotees from mere functionaries and businessmen.

A few years later, United refused to sell Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to a rival English club and held out for a six-fold profit in Spanish doubloons into the bargain. That was more like it, surely. Had Leeds United chosen to up the ante when Man U came a-calling at the Champions’ door, it’s doubtful that the path of history would have been altered much, if at all. But at least we might have salvaged some precious self-respect from the whole sorry situation – and we’d have been better-placed to laugh at the beginning of the end that night when Eric sailed studs-first into the crowd. Just imagine – if he’d done that whilst at Leeds…

Simeone’s Tantrum Must Have Been Real-ly Sweet for Beckham – by Rob Atkinson

Mr. Angry "Cholo" Simeone

Mr. Angry “Cholo” Simeone

Atlético Madrid 1, Real Madrid 4 (aet) – Champions League Final 2014

David Beckham must have permitted himself the slightest of malicious smiles in the wake of his former club Real Madrid’s Champions League triumph over city rivals Atlético, who were coached by Beckham’s World Cup ’98 nemesis Diego Simeone. Those of a certain age will readily remember how the wily Argentinian fouled Beckham, who petulantly kicked out at his antagonist instead of getting up and getting on with it.

Beckham was foolish, but Simeone had exploited the situation to his best advantage, admitting later that he feigned injury from the kick in order to get the England player sent off.  That’s exactly what happened, and the gallant ten men of England ended up going out on penalties in a familiar hard luck story. The unfortunate if misguided Beckham was vilified at home for his immature reaction to Simeone’s deliberate provocation, something he took years to live down.  Surely he must have harboured some resentment ever since?

If he has, then that resentment might just have had the edge taken off it at the end of the Champions League Final in Lisbon at the weekend.  Leading 1-0 deep into stoppage time, Simeone’s Atlético team were cruelly pegged back by an equaliser in the 93rd minute.  In extra time, Real’s class told as they ran out 4-1 winners – all of which proved a touch too much for the temperamental Simeone, who completely lost it on the touchline and appeared to be trying to get at the referee or others on the pitch who had offended his sensibilities.

For Beckham, it must have felt like the ultimate pay-off.  He’d had quite a bit of his own back for the disaster of ’98 by scoring a penalty against Argentina to defeat them 1-0 in the group stages of the 2002 World Cup, which would prove to be Simeone’s last appearance on that exalted stage. But to see one of his former clubs in Real inflict such a hammer-blow on his old enemy must have been a moment of great satisfaction – human nature being what it is.

Simeone, who has had great success this season as his team won la Liga, consigning Real to the ignominy of third spot, felt this reverse as a bitter blow to which he clearly reacted bitterly.  It’s almost certain that he will face UEFA sanctions for his unseemly display as Atlético’s defeat was confirmed – and the way in which the baser end of his nature was revealed will long be remembered by those who were queuing up to praise him in advance of the Lisbon final.

It had even been suggested in that run-up to the game that a film should be made of the rise of the Madrid underdogs, with Burt Lancaster playing the part of coach “Cholo” Simeone.  Quite apart from the fact that Lancaster would find this a difficult role to play, on account of having been dead these past 20 years, it may now be felt that he wasn’t in any case an appropriate actor to portray Cholo’s complex mixture of passion, slyness and thuggery.

Vinnie & Eric

United old boys Vinnie & Eric

As to who possibly could play this demanding role – a cross between former Leeds United stars turned film actors Vinnie Jones and Eric Cantona might just be ideal, if impossible to find outside of this blog’s imagination.  It’s just a thought, after all – but apart from the errant Argie portraying himself, I just can’t think of a better candidate.

Scott Wootton Can Become the Latest to Leave Man United For “The Damned United” – and Find Success

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This week’s signing of young defender Scott Wootton has reminded us all that the transfer history between the two Uniteds of Leeds and Manchester is notable mainly for its scarcity – understandably so, considering the bitterness of the rivalry between the two clubs.  A mutual antipathy still festers among the fans on either side despite the rarity of actual meetings of the respective Reds and Whites on the field of play.  Anyone who has witnessed the poisonous atmosphere which prevails at such meetings will appreciate the difficulties which can arise for players who have sought to serve both clubs.  Accusations of betrayal are far more common than warm welcomes back when a player swaps one shirt for the other.

Revisionists who count their history from the founding of the Premier League might not appreciate that, in the comparatively few direct deals between Elland Road and Old Trafford, Leeds have come out not at all badly.  Two transfers in particular can be said to have sparked the Whites’ greatest historical successes, but the focus in more recent years has been on the move of a certain iconic Frenchman, and the kick-start that appeared to give to Man United, a club that had starved for title success for over a quarter of a century.

The fact remains, however, that Leeds can thank the management at Old Trafford for their generosity – or misjudgement – in two different eras, firstly when John Giles (pictured above) made the move to Elland Road in the sixties, sparking the Glory Years of Don Revie’s reign, a transfer later described by Revie as “robbery with violence”.  Gordon Strachan then arrived in LS11 to complete the renaissance of Leeds under Howard Wilkinson in the late 80’s and early 90’s, cementing their position as the Last Real Champions by finishing the pre-Sky era at the pinnacle of the domestic game.

Enfant terrible Eric Cantona did much to redress the balance of transfer success between the two clubs, but there are strong grounds for suspecting that Man U’s era of domination would have happened anyway, so favourable were the conditions for a global franchise in the Murdoch-funded Premier League.  Giles and Strachan, then, stand out as the two most influential transfers between the two clubs, and there are also a few memorable if slightly lesser transfers worthy of mention: Joe Jordan and Gordon McQueen left Leeds for Man U in the 70’s, but found limited success, as did Arthur Graham a few years later; while Brian Greenhoff and Danny Pugh were journeyman additions to the Leeds squad from the also-rans of the Man U gene pool.  The less said about Lee Sharpe, “Plug” Ferdinand and Alan Smith, the better.

It’s asking a lot of youngster Wootton to turn his career at Elland Road into anything like the glorious impact of a Strachan or a Giles, but there are grounds for supposing that he may have a significant contribution to make and maybe – just maybe – cause the fans of Man U to regret his departure.  Already there are wistful noises emanating from the hotbeds of support in Milton Keynes and Torquay.  One fan remarked that Wootton might have developed into “another Johnny Evans” – surely a case of being damned by faint praise. Another stated that if Wootton was to be denied his chance at Old Trafford, he might as well play for a proper club, which seems quite a generous attitude in the circumstances. Leeds fans don’t appear to hold the boy’s past against him – he seems to be regarded as a prospect rich in potential, and after all he’s made a career choice of which we can all heartily approve.

Above all, we have to respect Brian McDermott’s increasingly acute eye for a player, especially of the young, there-to-be-coached-and-improved variety.  Like it or not, Man U deal in an entirely different transfer sphere to Leeds, and it’s much more difficult for a rough diamond to be polished up for the first team there, when so many crown jewels are bought in every season.  They are bound to lose the odd star-to-be, and on this occasion we at Leeds may just be the beneficiaries of this kind of overspill.   We can certainly hope so, and hope also that this latest cross-Pennine import enjoys a long and successful career at Elland Road, returning frequently to Old Trafford to haunt those who have seen fit to let him go this week.  With our vivid memories of Gilesy and Wee Gordon, we’re certainly entitled to such a dream.