Eric Cantona and the most important kick in Manchester United’s history

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If you were to ask Manchester United fans what was the most important kick in the club’s history, most would give the same answer.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s injury time toe-poke against Bayern Munich in 1999. The striker’s touch won the club their first European Cup in 31 years, in the most dramatic circumstances imaginable.

However, Solskjaer’s finish never happens if Teddy Sheringham doesn’t turn in Ryan Giggs scuffed right foot shot minutes earlier. United would have already been eliminated if it weren’t for Roy Keane’s goal against Juventus. The Treble could have been shot down in flames if Patrick Vieira’s misplaced pass, in the FA Cup semi-final replay, lands anywhere other than the feet of Giggs.

The winger would not have went on his famous mazy run if Peter Schmeichel fails to save Dennis Bergkamp’s last-minute penalty. One of the most successful seasons in football history hinged on numerous moments, so much so it’s difficult to pinpoint the most pivotal.

What’s in no doubt though is none of it would have been possible without Eric Cantona.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 26/5/1999

The Frenchman had retired two years previously, but was Manchester United’s most important player during the 1990s. The key that unlocked defences and titles, Cantona was the final piece in Alex Ferguson’s first great team and the catalyst for the all-conquering team of ’99.

When he signed from Leeds United in 1992, Ferguson said Cantona was: ‘the perfect player, in the perfect club, at the perfect moment’. However, their utopia was almost destroyed on this night 20 years ago, a night that, in many ways, would be the making of the club’s future successes.

To fully understand the context of the evening, one needs to get a sense of the type of team United were. The reigning Premiership and FA Cup holders were aggressive, arrogant and, at times, nasty.

United were not only capable of matching their opponents physically, they relished the prospect. The only comparable team is perhaps Don Revie’s Leeds team of John Giles, Billy Bremner and Norman ‘Bite yer legs’ Hunter. United were also the best football team in the country, albeit, in January ’95, one in patchy form.

PALACE V MAN U

While this doesn’t explain Cantona’s Kung-Fu kick on Matthew Simmons, the 20-year-old who rushed 11 rows to the front of the stand to abuse the Frenchman, it does go some way to explaining how Cantona ended up leaping into the stands.

On January 25th 1995, Crystal Palace hosted United at Selhurst Park. A tight, tetchy first-half had seen strugglers Palace frustrate and contain United.

Defender Richard Shaw had spent the entire first-half kicking Cantona, much to the annoyance of the Frenchman and his manager, whose protests were ignored by referee Alan Wilkie. Three minutes into the second-half Cantona snapped, petulantly kicking his opponent and received a red card, his second of the season and fifth since arriving in England.

‘There’s the morning headline,’ Jon Champion said as Cantona turned down his collar and began walking towards the dressing room, past his impassive manager and alongside the baying crowd. The commentator had no idea what was about to happen would fuel months of morning headlines.

When the camera returned to Cantona, he frees himself from Norman Davies, the United kitman, hurdles the advertising hoarding, connects with a kick to Simmons’ chest, stumbles and throws two punches before both men are restrained. It was all over in seconds, but the story was just beginning.

By the time Cantona played again, on September 30th, he’d received and successfully appealed against a prison sentence. He’d fled and handed in a transfer request, lost the captaincy of the French national team, as United surrendered the league title to Blackburn Rovers and the FA Cup to Everton. All the while media hysteria took hold. Cantona’s act of hooliganism, against a hooligan, gave some license to turn him into an embodiment of all the game’s ills.

PALACE V MAN U

1995 was a bad time for English football. Less than a month after Cantona’s kick, England supporters rioted at Lansdowne Road. George Graham was sacked as Arsenal manager after it was discovered he’d accepted illegal payments in transfer deals. Yet, according to FA Chairman Graham Kelly, Cantona’s incident was ‘a stain on our game’.

Cantona’s act was a moment of madness, but some of the recrimination was drenched in xenophobia.

In 2015, foreign players dominate the English top-flight. Twenty years ago, a skilful, foreign player was a rare, and widely distrusted, novelty. English football was gradually emerging from the exile of the late ’80s, Sky Sports’ money was only beginning its osmosis and the game still creeping towards the product it would become.

There had never been a player like Cantona in England. A troubled reputation preceded him upon arrival on English shores. He’d spoke out against the corruption of Marseilles owner Bernard Tapie, thrown his jersey at his coach, a ball at a referee and called his former national team boss ‘a bag of shit’.

ERIC CANTONA MAN UTD

He was also a marvellous footballer, one of the most gifted of his generation and the key variable in the destination of each English league title during his time in the country.

Built like a heavyweight boxer, with the grace and balance of ballerina, Cantona’s spatial awareness, technique and power made him a formidable prospect. The nomadic striker found a home at Manchester United, a manager who would indulge his individuality and offer the perfect stage to fully express his considerable talent.

With his collar up, back straight and chest out, Cantona would stride onto the Old Trafford pitch. He was the player United fans had waited two decades for, the one to restore the club to the summit of English football, after 20 years of mediocrity, and the one they still sing about two decades later.

Cantona was voted PFA Player of the Year in 1994, so appreciation of his talent extended beyond Old Trafford. But, when things went wrong, as they did so dramatically 20 years ago today, a wider underlying distrust returned to the surface. The echo of ‘I told you so’ was deafening.

Pundits and commentators were largely in agreement; there could be no place for Cantona in English football. Mark Lawrenson, writing in the Irish Times, said ‘French arrogance’ was to blame for Cantona’s disposition. Former United player Bill Foulkes said: ‘Eric is French, they are different to us and he reacts differently’.

MAN U V WREXHAM

Cantona’s house was besieged by photographers as some media outlets commissioned psychologists to help shine a light on his seemingly troubled mind. One newspaper sent reporters to Marseilles, in an attempt to unearth details from his childhood to help explain his actions. A television crew even followed him and his family on holiday.

All the while commercial interests were exploited. Sky Sports subscriptions increased in the immediate aftermath, helped by The Sun’s coverage of the event, with Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper devoting 12 pages to the incident the following day. Meanwhile Nike planned Cantona’s return, content that their product was on the front page of every newspaper.

United, trying to preempt the Football Association, banned Cantona for the remainder of the season and fined him two weeks wages. However, the FA then extended the ban by a further six months to the last day of September. The longest suspension imposed by the FA since two players were banned for life in the 1960s for match-fixing.

Cantona also received a two-week prison sentence, before successfully appealing and carrying out the required community service. By the time of his famous ‘Seagulls’ press conference in March ’95, public opinion was beginning to turn.

Eric Cantona Manchester United 1994

In addition to the wit of the Frenchman, details about Simmons and his actions emerged. The 20 year-old sold his story to The Sun and claimed he’d confronted Cantona to say: ‘That’s an early bath for you Mr Cantona’.

Witnesses said it was more likely: ‘Fuck off back to France, you French bastard’.

Simmons lost his job, some friends and family disowned him and he couldn’t even go into a pub without being provoked. In 2007, he said he’d been ‘a bit of a cretin’ in his younger years.

United had planned to ease Cantona’s exile with a series of practice matches. However, when the FA got word of it they reminded the club that their striker was banned from all footballing activity. Cantona was furious, leaving England for France and submitting a transfer request.

Inter Milan had long wanted to sign the Frenchman, were prepared to meet United’s valuation of £5 million and could increase Cantona’s wages fivefold.

Italy was still the apex of world football at the time. Cantona had the chance to escape the British press, start over again in a new country and such a move would have been in keeping with his nomadic career path. Yet, he stayed, saying: ‘morally, it would be impossible for me to leave after what the people there have done for me’.

MAN U V LIVERPOOL

Ferguson’s initial reaction to the kung fu kick was he would have to sell Cantona. However, he almost instantly changed his mind, offering support and protection to his talisman. In his first autobiography, Roy Keane said: ‘I don’t think any other football man would have demonstrated the skill, resolve and strength that Alex Ferguson did managing the Cantona affair’. Cantona would stay and United fully reaped the benefits.

The Frenchman was incredible the following season as United overturned Newcastle’s 12-point lead and won the double. ‘There was a sense of a man inhabited by a kind of ferocious but controlled anger,’ the journalist Philippe Auclair said about Cantona’s performance. ‘A zealot bent on redressing an injustice and imposing a greater truth. Nothing would stand in his way’.

In the title run-in the score tended to be 1-0 to United, with Cantona getting the goal. The Frenchman’s redemption was complete with the Football Writers’ Player of the Year Award, and the winning goal against Liverpool in the FA Cup final. The rebirth of English football and the appeal of Premier League was built on such dramatic storylines.

Eric Cantona holds aloft the trophy 11/5/1996

Within a year he was gone and United were left without their talisman, however the influence of Cantona, and the legacy he helped create, carried the team through to their greatest triumph.

It’s purely hypothetical, but if Cantona doesn’t vault the advertising hoarding at Selhurst Park, such glory may not have happened.

Cantona’s actions marked the end of Ferguson’s first great team as United finished the season empty-handed, hastening the renewal of the team and the emergence of the young players, who would form the nucleus of the Treble winning side.

A petulance had crept into Cantona’s game in the months leading up to his explosion at Selhurst Park. When he returned he was a more controlled, measured and focused presence. The striker’s influence on the ‘class of ’92’ was massive. At a time when going the pub after training was still a common practice for English teams, Cantona stayed behind and trained with Beckham, Giggs and Paul Scholes.

Cantona broke the mould and was the key factor in the destination of each league title during his time in England. By the time United had a worthy foe capable of challenging their domestic dominance, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, he’d helped establish a title-winning pedigree.

During his time United developed the winning aura that would carry the club through until end of Alex Ferguson’s tenure, a winning habit, that fuelled the club in their Treble season.

If Cantona doesn’t hurdle the advertising hoardings, and then return to guide the side to two more league titles, it’s difficult to imagine United’s future dominance taking the same form.

O’NEILL AND STRACHAN: TWO CAREERS RUNNING ALONG THE SAME TRACK

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THEY WILL BE IN OPPOSING DUG-OUTS TONIGHT AT CELTIC PARK BUT THERE ARE EXTRAORDINARY PARALLELS BETWEEN THE IRISH AND SCOTTISH MANAGERS

Originally published on SportsJOE.ie

It’s March 2013 and Martin O’Neill’s distinguished managerial career has bottomed out. Sunderland, the club he supported as a boy, has fallen to 17th in the Premier League, with seven games to play, and decide to sack the Derry native. O’Neill’s 25 years in the dugout had been built on possessing supreme man-management skills, a keen eye for a player and an ability to infuse his teams with his own restless energy. Once dubbed the ‘Duracell Bunny’, due to animated touchline actions, O’Neill, in his final months at Sunderland, appeared flat.

Rewind a few years earlier, to October 2010, and the current Scotland manager is in a near identical situation. Gordon Strachan has resigned from his post as Middlesbrough manager after less than a year in the role with the club 20th in the Championship. When the Scot took charge ‘Boro were fourth, three points off the top. He leaves them in their lowest league position in over 20 years. Strachan was so embarrassed by his performance he tore up his contract, refusing compensation.

England’s North-East had become a graveyard for two successful managerial careers. The promise both men had shown at Celtic, particularly O’Neill,  looked set to be unfulfilled as the modern game seemingly surpassed them. O’Neill and Strachan were banished to the purgatory of football punditry. However, tonight’s crucial Euro 2016 qualifier between Scotland and Ireland, and return to the white hot atmosphere of Celtic Park, is perhaps the ultimate departure from sharing a TV studio with Adrian Chiles.

Both men return to the scene of some of their greatest feats in management having bounced back from failure in their last club position. Strachan and O’Neill have revived their careers in international management, and in the process presided over a mini-revival of the Scottish and Irish national teams. However, in such a tight group, one man’s career renaissance is likely to come at the other’s expense.

The slump and subsequent upturn of Strachan’s managerial career is mirrored by O’Neill’s resurgence. The Scotland manager was speaking about his counterpart last week, saying: ‘Martin is a happy eccentric and I enjoy his company’. Strachan also conceded they share similar outlook on football. ‘We use our eyes, rather than stats. Are we fatigued or not fatigued? We’re old-fashioned but there’s nothing wrong with that. Sir Alex Ferguson did the same things and it didn’t do him any harm. I’m not saying we are up there with him, I’m just saying being old-fashioned has served us OK’.

Being ‘old-fashioned’ is just one of the similarities between the men. From managing Celtic to playing at World Cups, winning European titles as players with provincial clubs to working with Roy Keane, Strachan and O’Neill have treaded similar footballing paths along the road to tonight’s game. The two men also played under two of football’s greatest managers and most influential characters, Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson. O’Neill spent 10 years at Nottingham Forest, six of those under the guidance of Clough, winning a league title and two European Cups. While Strachan also played for Ferguson for six years at Aberdeen, part of the side which broke up the Old Firm duopoly and won the European Cup Winners’ Cup against Real Madrid in 1983.

Martin O'Neill waves goodbye to Celtic fans after 2005 Scottish Cup Final

Martin O’Neill waves goodbye to Celtic fans after 2005 Scottish Cup Final.

O’Neill and Strachan also had, at times, strained relationships with their autocratic managers. O’Neill has spoken about how Clough would never praise his performances and the two men differed over what the Derry native’s best position was. O’Neill saw himself as a central midfielder, while Clough used him primarily on the right wing. Duncan Hamilton, author of Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, a memoir of Clough’s time at Forest, wrote: ‘Cloughie could never get the better of Martin O’Neill. When he was in the mood, Martin was as articulate as the great Irish novelist, James Joyce. That had Cloughie totally bamboozled.’

Strachan had a similarly complicated relationship with Ferguson, albeit their differences were more personal. The former Manchester United manager said in his 1999 autobiography that he ‘decided this man could not be trusted an inch’. Their troubled relationship continued when Ferguson followed his former player south. According to Strachan, his manager ‘took up from where he had left off with me at Aberdeen, I remember telling him, “Listen, you spoke to me like that nine years ago. It might have worked well then but it is not going to work now”. But the screaming and shouting did not cease, it just got worse and more personal’.

While Strachan played until he was 40, O’Neill was forced to retire from a knee injury in 1985, aged 32. The Derry native moved into management and, due to his work with Leicester City between 1995 and 2000, earned a reputation as one of the game’s most promising managers. O’Neill got Leicester promoted to the Premier League, won two League Cups, and established the club as an ever present in the top flight during his tenure. O’Neill then took charge of a beleaguered Celtic, who had finished 21 points off Rangers the season before his arrival.

However, he soon re-energised the club, winning his first Old Firm derby 6-2 and completing a domestic treble in his first season. Celtic would win three league titles, three Scottish Cups and a Scottish League Cup. The club also reached the 2003 Uefa Cup final, where they suffered a heart-breaking defeat to Jose Mourinho’s Porto. When O’Neill stepped away from his position in 2005 he was the most successful, and perhaps most loved, Celtic manager since Jock Stein.

Strachan succeeded O’Neill at Celtic in 2005. While not as successful as O’Neill in English club management, the Scot had experienced relative success with Southampton. In his three years with the club, Strachan secured their Premier League survival and guided them to the 2003 FA Cup final, before resigning in 2004. Strachan was never as popular as his predecessor at Celtic Park, but was arguably as successful, as Celtic won three league titles, two Scottish League Cups and a Scottish Cup. Strachan also achieved a feat his much vaunted predecessor could not when leading Celtic to the knock-out stages of the Champions League.

When both men returned to English club management they found the game had changed. O’Neill took charge of Aston Villa in 2006 and was optimistic he could revive the club’s fortunes. ‘I am well aware of the history of this football club’, he said. ‘Trying to restore it to its days of former glory seems a long way away – but why not try? It is nearly 25 years since they won the European Cup but that is the dream’. However O’Neill found there was a glass ceiling for Premier League clubs outside the Champions League.

Roy Keane's unveiled as a Celtic player alongside manager Gordon Strachan

Roy Keane’s unveiled as a Celtic player alongside manager Gordon Strachan.

Villa invested heavily but failed to better three successive sixth-place finishes. O’Neill resigned the day before the opening of the 2010-11 season, in dispute with Randy Lerner, the Villa owner, over allocation of transfer funds. Despite the club entering a downward spiral since O’Neill’s departure, Villa fans were left with a bitter taste towards the Derry native. O’Neill had spent over £120 million in his four years in charge, signing players on big wages, but was unable to crack the Premier League’s top four.

Strachan would also find club management difficult upon returning south. Despite an overhaul of the club’s squad, the Scot presided over Middlesbrough’s slide down the Championship table before resigning. Strachan was out of work for two years before taking the Scotland job. While O’Neill, after being replaced at Sunderland by managerial ‘charlatan’ Paolo Di Canio, was linked with Premier League strugglers Crystal Palace during his time out of the game. Long gone were the days when he was being interviewed for the England job or touted as next Manchester United manager.

The move into international management has revitalised both men’s careers. Both Strachan and O’Neill took charge of sides at their lowest point, two squads bereft of confidence following the stagnant spells of Giovanni Trapattoni and Craig Levein.

Ireland were ranked 70th in the world, while Scotland’s chances of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup were long gone when Strachan took charge in January 2013. Both sides go into tonight’s game on an upward trajectory following recent performances and fancy their respective chances of securing at least a place-off place.

However, qualification for one of Ireland or Scotland is likely to be secured at the other’s expense, meaning the career renaissance of both men could culminate this evening back at Celtic Park.

Strachan and O’Neill have taken similar paths to tonight’s game, but only one may have a happy return to Paradise.

Roy’s reliance on Rooney could ruin England’s slim chances

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Originally published by Back Page Football 26/5/2014.

Wayne Rooney’s role, as in previous tournaments, could prove crucial to England’s chances at the World Cup in Brazil. England manager Roy Hodgson said last week that Rooney: ‘knows the eyes, certainly of England, if not the rest of the world, are going to be on him’.

However, this has been the case in previous World Cups and each time the Manchester United forward has failed to deliver. Would England be better served without their perceived talisman? And should Hodgson take heed the lessons from previous tournaments regarding Rooney’s likelihood to deliver on the game’s highest stage?

It could be argued that the different stages in Rooney’s career are linked to respective World Cups. In 2006 he was raw but immensely talented. ‘The White Pele’, despite carrying a metatarsal injury, was seen as the spark to ignite the so-called ‘Golden Generation’. Rooney featured in four games, failed to score and was sent off in England’s quarter final loss to Portugal.

However, the striker was largely given the benefit of the doubt. His dismissal was impetuous, and ultimately costly for his side, but he was young and not perceived to be at peak fitness during the tournament. While the memory of his performance at Euro 2004, where he scored four goals in four games, was still fresh in the public consciousness. His time to shine on the world football’s greatest stage would surely come.

Over the next four years, at club level, Rooney won three Premier Leagues, a Champion’s League title and, in the season leading up to the South Africa World Cup, had his most prolific season. Rooney, Scoring 34 goals in 44 games, became the focal point of United’s attack after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo. No longer subjugating himself for the betterment of Ronaldo, Rooney was seemingly liberated to become the player many thought, or hoped, he would become. The spectre of injury again loomed prior to the World Cup, but Rooney was fit enough to start every game.

If the Rooney of the 2006 World Cup was talented and raw, but combustible and unrefined, 2010 Rooney represented the player at his peak. Or at least it should have. Rooney again failed to score, as England impotently exited in the second round to Germany. Isolated up front, physically, and, as it would later transpire, mentally out of sorts, the forward seemed unable to carry the burden of an expectant public and a jaded team.

Which leads to the current scenario facing Hodgson and England ahead of next month’s World Cup. Which Rooney will show up? How does England extract the maximum from Rooney? And is doing such automatically related to the fortunes of the side?

The United striker appears more focused and prepared than in previous tournaments, saying: ‘I feel good. I am settled at home with my family… I feel this is the really last big one that I feel will probably get the best out of me. I feel ready, fresh and as good as I can do to go into this tournament’. A sentiment that was echoed by Hodgson: ‘He knows what a good player he is… and he’ll do everything he can to make certain he brings out his best qualities’.

Rooney’s former United teammate, Paul Scholes said last week that: ‘to get the very best from Wayne in Rio, the manager needs to tell him: ‘Don’t bother running back. Stay centre-forward. That’s your job in my team’. However, that has not been Rooney’s role in the team. And when Rooney has played as the lone striker, particularly in 2010, he has cut a frustrated, forlorn figure, starved of service and lacking the tactical discipline to ‘stay centre-forward’.

The blistering form of Daniel Sturridge, for the majority of the Premier League season, means that Hodgson is likely to deploy Rooney in the No.10 role, behind the Liverpool striker and centrally in a 4-2-3-1 formation. This is his position for United and the natural fit for his attacking skill set. When the team lose possession the player in Rooney’s position would be expected to put pressure on the opposition’s midfield schemer. However, Rooney has proven in the past to be unable to do this against top class opposition.

The basis of the breakdown in the relationship between Rooney and Sir Alex Ferguson can be linked to the player’s inability to perform this tactically disciplined role. It has been well documented that the pair fell out after Rooney was dropped from the starting line-up of last season’s Champion’s League second-round exit to Real Madrid. While it was a shock at the time, Ferguson’s choice was justified when one considers the two games that perhaps most crucially shaped his decision; the tie’s first leg and the 2011 Champion’s League final against Barcelona.

In the 2011 final Rooney was set the task of pressing and tracking Sergio Busquets, Barcelona’s deepest lying midfielder and initial instigator of their attacks. Rooney scored a wonderful goal to level the score, but never got close to the Busquets, who found his more offensively effective teammates time and time again.Barcelona won comfortably 3-1.

Ferguson, two years later, was therefore unwilling to deploy Rooney in the same role to subdue Madrid’s Xabi Alonso. With Robin Van Persie’s status as United’s lone striker firmly cemented, Rooney started the first leg, a 1-1 draw at the Bernabéu, on the right side of midfield. His job, when Madrid had possession, was to provide cover for full-back Rafael. This proved unsuccessful as the Brazilian full-back had a night to forget. Madrid players targeted United’s right side, with their equalising goal coming from a cross Rooney failed to close down.

In the second-leg Rooney was replaced by Nani, who scored before being harshly sent off, while Danny Welbeck effectively stifled Alonso, Real Madrid’s dynamo. The entire tie turned when Welbeck was moved to the wing following Nani’s dismissal, Alonso now had the freedom to operate and Madrid quickly scored twice. In the game’s aftermath it emerged that Rooney was furious at being dropped, but Ferguson made a rational decision. He had a more prolific striker in Van Persie. And felt he could not rely on Rooney to perform a tactically disciplined role, in a game against high quality opposition, who are proficient in retaining the ball. What other choice, than dropping Rooney, had Ferguson got?

Hodgson faces a similar dilemma for next month’s World Cup in Brazil. England’s first game, against Italy in the jungle of Manaus, will prove decisive. Assuming Hodgson will play Sturridge in the central striker’s position, can Rooney be trusted to disrupt the majestic Andrea Pirlo? All evidence would suggest not.Rooney’s ability, when in possession of the ball, is not in question, despite not hitting the individual heights of his one-time rival Ronaldo. However, England will undoubtedly seed possession to Italy. The country’s chance of progression could be greater improved by dropping their talisman.

Paul Scholes suggested that the England management team lack the ‘balls’ to drop Rooney. While that may be the case, it is perhaps more likely that England, and many English fans, are still bound to the idea of the player they thought Wayne Rooney was going to become when he burst onto the international stage ten years ago. Yet it has become apparent that their idealised version of Rooney as a world-class, game changing, decisive operator, in the mould of Ronaldo or Messi, will not come to fruition. The England starting eleven would be collectively stronger for his absence.

However, this will not happen. Roy Hodgson is not Sir Alex Ferguson and Rooney will once again carry the hopes of a nation into another campaign. Rationality would suggest this is adverse, but football fans tend not to deal in rationality. Rooney represents something more than just an elite footballer. He was, and for some still is, the embodiment of a nation’s hopes. ‘The White Pele’, the one to finally end the years of pain.

To fully concede defeat in him would be to admit the near misses, hard-luck stories and glorious failures were, in fact, due to a relative mediocrity at a game they invented. Rooney is still the great hope, but it’s the hope that kills you.