It seems historically appropriate that the reign of a French king should eventually be followed by the arrival of a president. Unlike a certain Louis XVI, though, the king in question left his Manchester United kingdom with his head held high (and still on his shoulders). Four years after Eric Cantona brought an abrupt end to his influential Old Trafford career, another Frenchman, Laurent Blanc, has been elected to steer the club through this all-important season.
Not that anyone should be fooled. Despite their respective nicknames, "King" Eric and "President" Laurent cannot be the real rulers in the red half of Manchester. As his swift banishment of the apparently disloyal Jaap Stam demonstrated, Sir Alex Ferguson is the force to be reckoned with. On the pitch, however, United have lacked leadership, particularly in defence, which for all Stam's undoubted class has rarely looked as solid since the departure of the experienced and vocal Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister.
It is hoped that Blanc, à la Cantona, will have a similar talismanic effect on the team. "He has great experience," said Ferguson of the world and European champion, "and he can organise players, which is something we have needed with our young defenders. His presence alongside Mikaël Silvestre, the Nevilles and Wes Brown will be vital to them and the team. I've no doubt he will improve us."
Stam, some might argue, was suitably qualified to fulfil that role, although he started the season poorly. But once he had written his book, in which he teases a number of United's players and records Ferguson's original "illegal" approach to sign him, the Dutchman was suddenly in danger of following the Paul Ince route out of Manchester. Ferguson stresses that Blanc, who has been handed Stam's No 6 shirt, is the ideal leader – one who will not be undermined by his advancing years. The Frenchman, for his part, rates United more highly than his previous employers, Internazionale, and says he is looking forward to being part of a club who have a veritable chance and desire of winning every competition they enter.
Apart from a mutual admiration for each other, Blanc and Ferguson also share one cherished dream. As both enter the twilight of their respective careers, they are desperate to get their hands on the most coveted club trophy of all. Three times Blanc was a member of teams who qualified for the Champions' League (Auxerre, Barcelona and Marseille), but on each occasion he left during the summer and missed out on Europe's premier event. As for Ferguson, recapturing the prize which he last won in 1999 remains the priority, not least because the grand finale will be played in his home city of Glasgow.
Sir Alex has made no secret of the fact that the Champions' League is the main target. Nor has he ever hidden his admiration for Blanc. "I've tried to sign him on three or four different occasions over the last 10 years," Ferguson said. "He's a player I've always admired." Whatever he says, though, you suspect that the Scot had never really envisaged signing Blanc as a direct replacement for his senior centre-back. The 35-year-old Frenchman would have been a more than useful addition to the squad, especially for the big European matches, but there must be some doubt about his ability to deal with the rigours of the Premiership on a weekly basis.
Even the player admits England will be a major culture shock. "English football is very particular," Blanc said after putting pen to paper on a 10-month deal. "Not all the teams play the old-fashioned kick-and-rush any more, and yet the style remains unique. I know I will be a little taken aback in my first match [against Everton's Duncan Ferguson on Saturday] and that it will take me a while to get used to the more physical side of the English game. But I am not afraid of the challenge. It is my responsibility to settle in and immerse myself in the English way."
Blanc needs no reminding that he turns 36 on 19 November, but, like the recently departed Teddy Sheringham, he compensates for his lack of leg speed with a lightning quick mental agility. "I've never been the type to dash around," he said, "but I've always learned to compensate in other ways. I believe that anticipation and good judgement are just as, if not more, important than speed and brute force. Timing," added Blanc, who just happens to be an avid collector of watches from the 1950s and 1960s, "is everything."
Having made his mark in France, Italy and Spain, Blanc always felt that he was versatile enough to adapt to the demands of the Premiership. So too did his friends Eric and Fabien – Cantona and Barthez – who encouraged him to join the growing French contingent at Old Trafford. Cantona, who played with Blanc for Montpellier, Nimes and France, has long advocated that "Lolo" is the perfect United player. Barthez, one of Blanc's best friends from their time with Les Bleus, helped smooth the deal. Acting as a chaperone and chauffeur throughout Friday, the colourful custodian played an important part in persuading Blanc to become a red.
"The fact that Fabien is here influenced my decision," admitted Blanc, before correcting the United translator who had asked whether he and Barthez were "copines". "We are copins, not copines," he joked, "but we do have a special relationship and I am looking forward to playing in front of him again." Aside from resuming his defensive partnership with the keeper, Blanc will also be expected to plant the obligatory kiss on the Barthez cranium before every match.
In fact, should Blanc tighten up United's leaky defence and guide the team to European glory next May, he can expect a warm embrace from Sir Alex. Even the club's notoriously demanding fans could be ready for a new French leader. The king may well be dead, but long live the president?Reuse content