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.

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Enjoy watching Spain at the World Cup as you will miss them when they’re gone

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Originally published by The Guardian 13/06/2014.

Despite winning three international tournaments in a row, this Spain team are more respected than they are loved. We should savour their artistry and applaud their successes while we can

As TV becomes increasingly saturated by football coverage, there is a chance that fans might take for the granted the mortality of footballers’ professional careers and the lifespans of certain teams. Watching the game’s greatest players was a rare treat for previous generations but it is now a weekly habit for many. Each weekend we can watch Liverpool’s Luiz Suárez bewitch a defence and then switch over to see Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi score yet another hat-trick. After a while the extraordinary can seem ordinary and familiarity can breed, if not contempt, complacency.

A certain overexposure can extend to international teams, in particular world and European champions Spain. Watching Spain play, and win, in major tournaments has practically become a summer event for football fans. The upcoming World Cup in Brazil is the fifth time in the past six years they have featured in an international competition. Aiming for an unprecedented fourth consecutive title, the team, naturally, is widely respected. However, there is a sense that respect does not extend to affection or even adequate appreciation of the team’s style, the magnitude of their achievements and the road Spain took to reach such heights.

During Spain’s last major tournament, Euro 2012, the Telegraph conducted a poll on their website, asking: “Is watching Spain boring?” Of the 1,243 people who voted, 66% said they were. Spain monopolised possession as opponents entrenched themselves at the edge of their penalty box, looking to spring a counter-attack. Games could quickly reach a sense of stalemate. However, despite some nervy moments against Croatia and a penalty shoot-out victory over Portugal, Spain still progressed comfortably to the final to face Italy.

The Azzurri were the only team to score against them, in the opening group game, a 1-1 draw, and with in-from players such as Andrea Pirlo and Mario Ballotelli, combined with a strong defence, an upset appeared possible. Spain won 4-0. The final score may have been slightly skewed as Italy suffered injuries, but Spain were truly imperious in clinching an historic third successive international crown.

Midfielder Xavi recently acknowledged the popular labelling of his team as boring, saying: “It’s true that we were criticised for being boring at Euro 2012, yet that boring team beat Italy 4-0 in the final.”

If such a dominant victory vindicated Spain’s style and rebuked any suggestions of sterile football, last summer’s defeat to Brazil in the Confederation’s Cup final seemingly had the reverse effect. Spain were crushed 3-0 by the hosts. After the 7-0 aggregate pummelling Bayern Munich doled out to Barcelona in the Champions League, the consensus was loud in proclaiming that tiki-taka’s dominance was dead.

Spain struggled to cope with Brazil’s imposing tactics. The hosts, buoyed by a fervent crowd, played with manic aggression and intensity, repeatedly forcing their opponents into uncharacteristic errors. They suffocated Spain’s play, hunting in packs and preying on any sign of vulnerability. However, while the Spaniards were gracious in defeat and Brazil were worthy winners, the margin of victory was slimmer than the final score suggests.

Yet La Furia Roja’s aura of invincibility, built up over so many summers, had been shattered. Serial winners such as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta seemed fragile, unable to pass their way around the brute force of Brazil. The defeat could easily be construed as the beginning of the end of modern football’s greatest international team.

Carles Puyol, the former defensive stalwart, is now retired. David Villa and Fernando Torres, previous lynchpins of success, are in decline. Other key protagonists like Iker Casillas and Xabi Alonso are the wrong side of 30. Spain enter this World Cup as relative outsiders to retain their title.

The country still has an incredibly talented squad and, if fit, a more direct option in the form of striker Diego Costa. However, this is probably the last World Cup for Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas, Alonso, Torres and Villa. If Spain can progress through a tough group and overcome the world’s best on the way to final, in the process effectively managing the challenges of the climate and the logistics of travelling across the best part of a continent, will the tag of being “boring” return?

In all likelihood, the Spanish players could not care less. As Iniesta said, during Euro 2012, “Football’s so great because not everyone likes the same thing, we don’t have to all agree on everything.” However, should Spain’s brilliance override any questions of perceived boring play? And what does it say about society when people make such judgements in the face of sustained quality and success?

“I prefer to play football, not just to get the ball forward at the first opportunity. I try to wait for, or to create, the best opportunity for the right pass.” That is a quote from Spain manager Vicente del Bosque, speaking in 1981, taken from Graham Hunter’s book Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble. At the time Del Bosque was a Real Madrid midfielder, in the mould of Sergio Busquets, and nearing the end of his career. The future national team manager was explaining his playing style to the Madrid fans, for whom he had become something of a boo-boy.

Del Bosque could just as easily be talking about the current Spain side’s philosophy. The team has boasted some of the most technically proficient players to have played the game, playing in a style embodied by Xavi. His prime, like that of the Spain team, is deemed to have passed, and managing his playing time effectively could be crucial in Brazil. He is still the brain of one of football’s most intelligent teams. Why would a footballer with such technical ability and who has been taught from childhood not to recklessly use the ball, play any other way?

Spain may place an imperative on ball retention, but if their opponents are unable to dispossess them, or chose not to, should the sole responsibility for the game reaching a stalemate lay with them?

Former Liverpool midfielder Graeme Souness also speaking in Hunter’s book, does not believe so: “Those who criticise Spain for their manner of winning now know nothing about football. We were hugely successful at Liverpool and we were taught, from day one, to keep the ball. Don’t try a pass through the eye of a needle; win the ball, circulate it, start again and again if you have to, but seek the right opportunity. That’s what Spain do excellently today.”

Perhaps it is over-familiarity that has made some football fans tire of Spain’s domineering style. The great international teams of the past did not experience such exposure. Between 1951 and 1956, Hungary played 59 games and only lost once: the 1954 World Cup final, in which they were defeated by West Germany. Games at the time were more open, but this Hungary team are universally adored while Spain’s dominance in the modern era is greeted indifferently by some.

Modern society is consumed by instant gratification. The church of consumerism is dominant and it promises and promotes the idea that satisfaction is just a shiny new product away. When the effect wears off, there is another product to fill the void. Everything seemingly relates to right now. This obsession can extend to making judgements based only on the current, meaning appreciation of something more nuanced and greater can be difficult. The slow-burn is deemed boring, but the gorge is thrilling.

Perhaps this skews some fans’ enjoyment and appreciation of the current Spain side. In isolation, a succession of sideways passes do, admittedly, seem boring. However, when one considers more than just a few short passes, a different picture emerges. Consider the overall philosophy of Spain, to play such technical football with a genuine love and respect for the game.

Consider the technique required, the intelligence, the timing and the countless off the ball runs. The sustained harmony of a potentially divided squad, that has transcended provincial and club divides, a once vitriolic media, an expectant Spanish public and the manoeuvrings of the Machiavellian José Mourinho. They have the mental strength and physical stamina required to come back, season after season, summer after summer and keep winning.

This could be the last summer to watch some of their greatest players in action. In that 1981 interview Del Bosque also said: “I have been around for many years and I guess the fans tire of you, but that will change back.” Perhaps people will learn to love Spain when the show finally ends.

Cult of the Individual transcends all within Football

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Originally published by These Football Times 10/06/2014.

Football is a game where the strength of the collective is meant to prevail over the fallibility of the individual. However, some of the greatest teams, their widest victories, and slimiest losses, are defined by individual participants and their performances. The saying that ‘success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan’ seemingly does not apply to international football.

Argentina’s World Cup victory in 1986 is widely regarded as the result of Maradona’s genius dragging a capable, but unspectacular, team to glory. Twenty years later France lost the final to Italy on penalties, however Zinedine Zidane’s sending off is seen as the game’s turning point. The 1998 World Cup final is remembered more for the mystery around the condition of Brazil’s prodigious forward Ronaldo, than France’s victory.

When the next month of football concludes, the summer passes and club football returns, the memories of the upcoming World Cup will, for many, start to fade and crystallise around certain key moments and performances. The narrative of football, despite being a team game, predominately centres on individual performances.

The cult of the individual is omnipresent. Players such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez are considered the leaders of their teams. The estimation of their subsequent careers will be in part formed by their country’s performance in this month’s tournament.

This is the case for Messi perhaps more than his rivals. One would imagine that the Argentina captain has more than enough goals, trophies and broken records, at club level, to be remembered as perhaps football’s greatest, regardless of his national team’s fortunes in this World Cup. However, in his homeland, it will be the World Cup that ultimately defines his career. For the rest of the world, the World Cup could confirm his place as the sport’s greatest.

Everything seems to have fallen into place for Messi to lead his country to a third World Cup title in in Brazil, unlike the tournament four years ago. In that World Cup Maradona was the Argentina manager and the dominant figure, hoarding the spotlight as he lead his side to a crushing 4-0 defeat against Germany in the quarter-finals. Messi was somewhere in the team’s tactical muddle, but not the focal point and not among the goals. Maradona departed but Argentina and Messi continued to disappoint. A year later, on home soil, they lost to neighbours Uruguay on penalties in the Copa America semi-final. Change was needed.

Alejandro Sabella became manager, instantly made Messi captain and set about constructing a team that extracted the maximum from the world’s best player. There was no place for Carlos Tevez, a person rumoured not to be in Messi’s good books, and the team was set up in an attacking 4-3-3 formation. Sabella utilised his stunning striking riches to paper over the poverty of his defensive options. Messi was now the team’s captain, focal point and undisputed leader.

Argentina reaped the benefits during qualifying and, despite some stuttering performances, comfortably qualified for Brazil, with Messi scoring ten in the process. The team have a favourable draw for this month’s tournament, potentially avoiding any elite teams until the quarter-finals. While the advent of playing their games in the south of Brazil, avoiding the tropical drain of the northern climate, could prove very beneficial. Messi also turns 27 this month, entering the perceived peak years of an athlete’s career. Everything seems set up for him to lead Argentina to glory and firmly stake his place as the game’s greatest ever.

If Messi is to lead Argentina to victory it will be in his own way. He is, unlike Maradona or Ronaldo, an introvert, a style of leader that is perhaps alien to Argentinians. However, his talented teammates have bent their will to his genius. Whether it is correct to think so or not, the destiny of his country’s tournament is now at his feet. One may argue that Messi is the greatest player ever, that the need to cater to his genius must take precedent above all and for the team to flourish, Messi must flourish. There is undoubted merit in this argument. However, there is evidence to suggest placing sole emphasis on the performance of one player, no matter how great they are, can be risky. And such responsibility can be a double edged sword.

At the European Championships two years ago, Cristiano Ronaldo, after a shaky start, helped propel his country to a semi-final tie with Spain. After a scoreless 120 minutes, where Ronaldo’s threat had been effectively nullified by the Spanish defence, the game went to a penalty shootout. Portugal’s talisman chose to take the fifth, and potentially final, penalty.

However, his country did not get a fifth penalty as Spain wrapped up the contest before Ronaldo’s turn. It would be unfair to pin the sole responsibility for this loss on the Real Madrid superstar. Yet his choice, it could be argued, was one of seeking personal glory. He jeopardised his greater responsibility to make sure his team progressed, or at least got the opportunity to take the final penalty.

‘The Great Man’ theory of history became a popular ideal during the 19th century. Its proponents believed that history has been shaped by powerful, charismatic, influential men, such as Napoleon and Julius Caesar or Martin Luther. These ‘great’ men were considered to be predestined to change the world, and the history of the world was, in essence, a history of great men.

The theory would eventually become widely debunked. To consider one person to exist outside the complex vacuum of greater social, political or economic events is redundant. However it is still present within football. People still search for heroes and villains. The narrative is simplified and condensed to centre on the individual moment of magic or disaster.

In Dennis Bergkamp’s book, Stillness and Speed: My Story, written with journalist David Winner, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger says: ‘It can sometimes become detrimental if one player is so strong that the team always goes through him, because the variety of your game can suffer’. This seems like sound logic as individuals will not always save the day. The past three European Championships, and two World Cups, won by Spain and Italy, have been victories for the collective. Each side had great players, but there was no one superstar who rose above all and drove the team to glory.

However, despite Argentina’s embarrassment of attacking riches, this is exactly their game plan. Former Brazil playmaker Zico, speaking about the country’s chances for this World Cup, said: ‘Of course Messi won’t play on his own and Argentina have an impressive “collection” in the form of Ángel di María, Sergio Agüero and Ezequiel Lavezzi. But these guys seem to know its Messi’s show, that 70% or 80% of the balls have to go to him’.

Messi’s genius seemingly transcends the collective. It could be argued that the fascination with the individual within a team sport would mean that the focus would be on Messi regardless of whether he was the team’s leader or not. Perhaps it is easier to focus on individual moments, than something more complex. People have created heroes and villains for centuries and individual acts have a universal quality.

Prior to the last World Cup France captain Thierry Henry was widely vilified for his handball against Ireland in the World Cu play-off. Henry had been deemed to send Ireland out and France to South Africa. However, while there is no denying the French player cheated and the officials failed to adequately perform their roles, very few had mentioned Ireland’s role in the act.

The awful defending by Paul McShane or the fact Henry was able to take the ball down in the opposition’s box. The goalkeeper not coming for the ball or the many chances Ireland missed to finish the game before that point. That estimation may seem as cruel as Henry’s act, but the hard truth was there were numerous other factors in the result. For the handball to be effective there needed to be mistakes made before and after the act.

However that was all forgotten as the footage of Henry handling the ball, twice, played on endless loop for days and weeks. Henry was a villain and that was that. The margins in football are slim, but become tighter through the condensing of events into individual moments or acts. The middle ground shrinks further and further.

So, if Messi can lead his country to glory, on enemy soil, he will be the proud father of success. If Argentina falls short, it will be his failure. Over to you Leo.