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Stick Ceefax on…..

11/26/2017

I’d only just got home from work and was making a brew when the phone started ringing. The phone in our shared house very rarely rang for me but I picked it up anyway curious as to what could possibly be so urgent or important at six on a damp November Thursday evening. It turned out it was both.

“United have signed Cantona”. It was my mate George dispensing with the usual pleasantries and cutting straight to the action.

“Yer wot?”

“Stick Ceefax on if you don’t believe me…..United have signed Cantona”

I put the phone down and scurried into the living room, switched the telly on, fumbled with the remote and selected page 300 on Ceefax. And there it was, the sporting headline news of the day; Eric Cantona was indeed heading across the Pennines.

“Fucking hell, you’re right” I said picking up the phone again trying to make sense of what I’d just read.

To say it was a shock was a huge understatement. Dion Dublin’s broken leg had left us short up front but only a week before a bid in excess of three million for Sheffield Wednesday’s David Hirst was turned down. Now here we were seemingly snapping up the Gallic George Best for barely a third of that. But already I was getting giddy at the prospect of what Eric could bring to a side that had narrowly and cruelly missed out on the league title only six months before. Could this be the final piece in our title winning jigsaw? I was doing accountancy exams at the time and was gazing at profit and loss accounts and balance sheets that evening but the only asset on my mind was the one we’d just snaffled from Leeds for little over a million pounds.

The following morning I popped into a newsagents on my way into work and had a glance at some of the papers to see what the “experts” made of it. Not many of them seemed to rate Eric’s prospects at United and one particular comment that stuck in my mind was the laughable Emlyn Hughes labelling him as “a flashy foreigner”. Meanwhile over in Yorkshire the sheep appeared to be getting restless with some Leeds United season ticket holders threatening to boycott Elland Road in disgust at Howard Wilkinson’s sale of their most gifted player to the club that they despised more than any other. Hahahaha. Schadenfreude indeed.

Back then I had absolutely no idea that almost exactly a quarter of a century on I’d be stood on a terrace at Gainsborough Trinity singing the name of a footballer who completely transformed my United watching life. The rest of that 1992-93 season from late November through to us finally, finally winning the league the following May was an utterly joyous, barely believable, experience; a marked contrast to the first few months of that season.

Eric made his debut on the first weekend in December coming on as a sub in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford as United beat city 2-1 and the following week he scored his first goal for United, equalising on a sopping wet afternoon at Stamford Bridge. Whilst all around him players struggled in the conditions Eric seemed to glide across the puddles as he orchestrated play – he was magnificent in only his first full appearance in a red shirt. I tubed it across London afterwards to watch Morrissey at Alexandra Palace, looking like a drowned rat but buzzing off seeing Eric bag his first United goal.

He scored another late equaliser on Boxing Day at Hillsborough as an electrifying second half saw us recover from three goals down to draw 3-3. It was a scrappy one but already he had developed a knack of scoring crucial goals. I missed his towering far post header that put United in front against Spurs as I’d gone early for a half-time piss but the header that sticks in my mind the most was the one at Maine Road a few weeks later; Sharpey’s cross from the left and there was Eric leaping unchallenged to plant the ball powerfully past Coton. One all. A small group of us behind enemy lines on the Kippax, with our forged city membership cards, were outwardly serene but inwardly doing cartwheels.

Better was to come in early April as a breathtaking first half display by United at title rivals Norwich saw us three up after twenty minutes. The football was sublime that night, with Eric pulling the strings, and when he scored the third (“and here is Cantona….and that’s three”) I was daring to believe that we might, just might, go on to win the league. I’d thrown a sickie that afternoon to make the journey to Norfolk but got spotted in the crowd by my boss watching the match on the telly. Having floated into work the following morning I was invited into his office for a chat.

My personal highlight from that wonderful second half of 92-93 was the chipped pass for Denis Irwin to score against Middlesbrough – viewed from about a third of the way up K Stand and almost in line with the right hand post it truly was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on a football field. A work of art as good as anything in the Musee D’Orsay. The next few seasons brought so many more Eric highlights but that 92-93 season remains my favourite ever football season.

I’ve never met the King (I’ve always had that thing about preferring not to meet your heroes lest they disappoint) so the nearest I’ve been to hearing him speak in real life was at a packed London Palladium on a Friday night in February this year. This wasn’t your typical West End audience mind – it was full of excitable United fans, many in the middle of a four day bender starting with a Thursday night in Saint Etienne and finishing with the League Cup final at Wembley the following Sunday. A lively atmosphere was stoked by a big screen showing some of his finest moments in a red shirt before the great man was introduced on stage.

An Evening With Eric Cantona lasted barely an hour and a quarter but it was fascinating listening to the bloke and the breadth of topics (films, art, music, politics etc) with which he was comfortable talking. But there was plenty of football too; favourite matches and goals, his team mates, the fans, playing under Fergie, THAT kick (“I wished I’d kicked him harder”) and the infamous quote about trawlers and seagulls.

For those of us too young to remember George Best and Duncan Edwards Eric was the greatest we’d ever seen. And still is. He had it all; skill, flair, technique, balance, power and he was hard as nails too. Simply winning wasn’t enough he always had to do it with style – in so many respects he was perfect for United. And off the pitch he was that rarest of creatures – a cerebral footballer as happy talking about Albert Camus and the films of Ken Loach as he was about scoring goals. His arrival at the club, twenty five years ago today, marked the start of the most glorious period in our history. Let’s, once again, drink a drink a drink to Eric the King.

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