A look back at Eric Cantona's career in English football

Eric Cantona may have stepped away from the sporting limelight at 30, a time when some are yet to even hit their peak, but he managed to fit plenty into his seemingly short career.

Eric Cantona

Source: Getty Images

"When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea."

A carefully-crafted 17-word statement from a man whose actions when on a football pitch appeared as off-the-cuff as they did ostentatious.

Eric Cantona turns 50 on May 24. Now an actor, his football career finished in 1997 with the fitting finale of lifting the Premier League trophy as captain of Manchester United.

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The Frenchman may have stepped away from the sporting limelight at 30, a time when some are yet to even hit their peak, but he managed to fit plenty into his seemingly short sojourn.

Having felt the wrath of the French Football Federation on numerous occasions for various misdemeanours - culminating in a ban for throwing a ball at a referee and swearing at those committee members who oversaw the resulting disciplinary hearings - a young Cantona had had enough.

He announced his first retirement in 1991 - only for then-France coach Michel Platini to talk him round.

Platini was obviously a fan and began touting Cantona's name to a host of English clubs, with Sheffield Wednesday offering to give him a trial.

The story goes that he was turned down by manager Trevor Francis, although the former Owls boss tells it differently.

"I was doing a favour for a former agent of mine, Dennis Roach, who took me to Italy (as a player)," Francis said in 2012.

"He was very keen to get Eric Cantona back playing. He had retired from French football and wondered if I would have a little look at him in training."

Francis said signing Cantona was 'never a consideration' - but instead he was taken in by title-chasing Leeds and their manager Howard Wilkinson.

"I had seen him playing in the under-21s for France," Wilkinson said.

#OTD 1996: It was reported that Eric Cantona wasn't selected to play for his national team in the Euro championshipshttps://t.co/DQkM4PvbOI — BBC Archive (@BBCArchive) May 19, 2016
"The next thing was Lee Chapman got what we thought was a very bad injury towards the end of the season and Eric happened to be sitting in a hotel in Sheffield where I lived.

"It was a bit of a chance signing, Chapman got injured on the Saturday and on the Friday I was talking to Eric. I had spoken to Glenn Hoddle, Gerard Houllier and Michel Platini and asked about him.

"They gave me a run-down on his past and said that he was a special talent with the occasional blemish."

A deal Wilkinson described as a 'no-brainer' was struck and Cantona played his role in delivering the final First Division title to Elland Road.

His stay would be a swift one however as Alex Ferguson had been keeping an eye on his progress, signing Cantona for what must now be seen as a paltry $2.4 million in November 1992. And Eric finally found a home.

"He illuminated Old Trafford. The place was a frenzy every time he touched the ball," Ferguson once said of one of very few men the fiery Scot would make exceptions for.

United lost only twice in the league following his arrival and won the inaugural Premier League to end a 26-year wait for a top-flight title.



A Premier League and FA Cup double followed in 1993/94, with Cantona scoring two penalties in the final - although his Gaelic temperament crept through on occasion, with United's new number seven sent off in two successive games.

The next year, however, would see Cantona make front-page news across the world.

On January 25 1995, after being sent off against Crystal Palace, Cantona jumped into the crowd after being abused as he trudged towards the dressing room - infamously launching himself with a 'kung-fu' style kick at Palace fan Matthew Simmons.

His career appeared to be in tatters - hit with a club ban until the end of the season, it was extended to eight months by the Football Association and Cantona avoided prison on appeal, instead sentenced to 120 hours of community service.

It was during this time Cantona spoke those famous words of seagulls and trawlers at a press conference.

In his absence, United would miss out on retaining both the Premier League and FA Cup - and when he returned in September 1996, Old Trafford was a different place.

Established names such as Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Ince were gone, replaced by Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers - Gary and Phil - joining Ryan Giggs as the 'Class of '92' arrived.

But they required a figure-head and a leader on the pitch as the no-longer exiled Cantona sought redemption.

He returned to set-up one goal and score the other in a 2-2 draw with Liverpool and went on a run of six goals in six games, four of which came as match-winners in 1-0 victories, to win another title before scoring the only goal of the FA Cup final.

That season would be his crescendo, the title followed again in 1997 but Cantona was not the same man and he stepped away after lifting his fifth title in six years, turning to the silver-screen and beach football as his new vocations.


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5 min read
Published 20 May 2016 at 3:00pm
By Mark Bryans
Source: PA Sport