United rocked by Cantona's abdication

A career that spanned triumph to darkness: Glenn Moore reviews the love affair between player and club that ended yesterday as surprisingly as it began

He finished as he began, on his own terms. When Eric Cantona headed for English football in January 1992 his first act was to tell Trevor Francis, then manager at Sheffield Wednesday, that he did not do trials. He signed, instead, for Leeds.

Yesterday, a week almost to the minute that he had lifted the Premiership trophy at Old Trafford, he brought down the curtain. It was his fifth championship in just over five years in England. Talk about retiring at the top.

In between there were moments of great triumph and times of deep darkness. There was much marvellous football and many memorable images. There were also elements of the bizarre, none more so than his last act as a professional footballer on Tuesday when he spent six hours playing football on Hackney Marshes with a group of Sunday park players.

That was for a Nike advertisement, an indication of the impact Cantona has made. The English football landscape in 1997 is unrecognisable from that in 1992 and Cantona has much to do with that.

He was one of the first arrivals in the modern wave of foreign players and his success paved the way for many others. His play, his enigmatic personality and his leap into the Selhurst Park crowd brought the game to a wider audience which, in turn, has brought greater rewards for clubs and players.

None have ridden the current waves of popularity and prosperity more than Manchester United. On and off the pitch they are dominant. Given Alex Ferguson's drive and ability they may have got there anyway but Cantona, as Ferguson admitted on his 10th anniversary, hastened and consolidated their supremacy.

Having initially set back their long-running championship quest, by providing the late season impetus Leeds needed to edge them aside in the 1992 run- in, Cantona inspired United to four titles, and two FA Cups, in five seasons. The only year they missed out was in 1995 when he was banned.

"He was born to play for United," Ferguson has said. Talking of the United legend, and the special aura of Old Trafford, he added: "Some players, with respected and established reputations, are cowed and broken by the size and expectations. Not Eric. He swaggered in, stuck his chest out, raised his head and surveyed everything as if to ask: `I'm Cantona, how big are you? Are you big enough for me?'"

Ferguson has also long been aware that, regardless of contracts, he has never been able to count on Cantona staying. Four years ago he wrote: "I handle it by switching off and not expecting anything at all beyond the next 24 hours."

That time ran out on Wednesday. No doubt Ferguson tried hard to persuade Cantona to stay but, deep down, he may have recognised that Cantona had done the right thing; he may even be grateful.

For Cantona's influence is waning. Despite 15 goals, including a sublime one against Sunderland, and a crucial one in a fine performance away to Fenerbahce, he has not been the force of old. When he has been absent, he has not been missed. The young players, who once leaned so heavily on him, are now mature enough to stand alone.

Most telling of all is his continued failure to perform at the highest level. France discarded him years ago and, Fenerbahce apart, he has rarely done well in Europe. He missed vital chances in both legs in the Borussia Dortmund defeat, and was hustled off the ball for Dortmund's goal in Germany.

With domestic supremacy assured Europe is United's target and there is every chance that a new signing would be made later this summer whose presence would eclipse Cantona.

One cannot imagine Cantona in the reserves, or even on the bench. Coaching may have been an option but he can hardly replace Ferguson or Brian Kidd. Though he is reputedly excellent with the younger players youth coaching appears not to be the answer.

As for a transfer, after his love affair with Old Trafford any destination would be a step down. It would be lucrative but, with his acting and advertising careers developing he presumably neither needs nor wants to play just for the money.

We will hear of him again, though not necessarily in a football context. For a reclusive man he needs the adulation, the attention. When Ruud Gullit said on Saturday that he had no pictures or mementoes of his career at home because "he is not that vain" one thought of Cantona's recent purchase of Michael Browne's controversial painting.

He could reply that at least he has much to be vain about. He has given pleasure to many, not just United fans, and lit up the English game. In a sense we have had two extra years, since he could easily have left after Selhurst. Even so, the English game, for all its present glories, can ill-afford to lose both him and Juninho on the same weekend. Perhaps the departure of one will facilitate the retention of the other.

THE GOOD TIMES AND BAD TIMES OF ERIC CANTONA

1966: Born Paris, 24 May, raised in Marseille.

1983: Makes professional debut for Auxerre.

1985: Loaned to Martigues after making just 13 appearances and scoring two goals in three seasons for Auxerre.

1986: Returns to Auxerre and over the next two seasons makes 68 appearances and scores 21 goals.

1987: Receives heavy fine for punching his team's goalkeeper, giving him a black eye. Makes the first of 43 appearances for France, against West Germany.

1988: Joins Marseille for pounds 2m. Banned from French team for one year after swearing at national coach Henri Michel.

1989: Suspended indefinitely by Marseille after kicking the ball into the crowd and throwing his shirt at a referee after being substituted. Joins Bordeaux on loan, then moves to Montpellier for pounds 300,000.

1990: Banned by Montpellier for 10 days after smashing his boots into the face of team-mate Jean Claude Lemoult. Returns to Marseille.

1991: Signs for Nimes but is banned for three games after throwing the ball at a referee. At the disciplinary hearing, he walks up to each committee member and says: "Idiot". His ban is increased to two months and Cantona responds by announcing his retirement from football.

1992: Comes out of retirement for a trial with Sheffield Wednesday, but walks out after being asked to remain for a further week and joins Leeds for pounds 900,000. Helps the Elland Road side win the League title before moving to Manchester United for pounds 1.2m.

1993: Fined pounds 1,000 by the FA for spitting at a Leeds fan in his first game back at Elland Road with Manchester United, whom he then helps to the Premiership title. Sent off in United's European Cup defeat by Galatasaray in Istanbul for accusing the referee of cheating, he then scuffles with the Turkish police and is banned by Uefa for four European games.

1994: Scores two goals in the 4-0 FA Cup final over Chelsea as United complete the double. Voted PFA Player of the Year.

1995: Sent off at Crystal Palace on 25 January, he aims a kung-fu kick at fan Matthew Simmons. He is banned from all football until 30 September and fined pounds 10,000 by the FA. A two-week prison sentence for the offence is varied on appeal to 120 hours of community service. Returns to action on 1 October and scores a penalty in a 2-2 draw against Liverpool.

1996: Voted Footballer of the Year by the Football Writers' Association and scores winning goal in FA Cup final against Liverpool as United complete the Double for the second time in three seasons.

1997: Member of a championship-winning side for the fifth time in six seasons but a week later announces his retirement from professional football.

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