It was the kind of moment where, if he could’ve hit the pause button, Eric Cantona might have wondered what exactly he was doing, as he clung to the stanchion behind the goal in front of Old Trafford’s K stand.
But it was the reaction of a man who’d just exorcised a demon or two; a moment in which unadulterated joy met absolute relief.
It was October 1, 1995, and Cantona had just scored from the penalty spot to earn Manchester United a 2-2 draw in his first game back from an eight-month ban, after assaulting a Crystal Palace fan during an FA Cup tie in January.
Despite only coming away with a point, Cantona’s return has to be considered a triumphant one. As he walked out from the tunnel before the game, the Old Trafford faithful chanted his name in unison. And a brilliant assist for Nicky Butt to open the scoring showed that the former Leeds United player meant business.
But a Robbie Fowler brace threatened to rain on United’s parade, with Liverpool asserting their status as genuine title contenders.
Cantona wasn’t to be denied, though. When Ryan Giggs was felled in the box with 20 minutes to play, the returning hero beat David James from 12 yards, and all was well in United’s world once again.
If the goal was Cantona’s unique form of apology to the fans, it wasn’t needed. United supporters knew the Frenchman’s aggression and temper was all part of his flawed genius; their acceptance and adoration of their enigmatic hero never wavered.
However, during his suspension, there were question marks raised as to whether the volatile forward should be allowed to represent the Red Devils again, with some members of the club’s board insisting all ties with Cantona should be severed.
But manager Alex Ferguson fought Cantona’s corner, convincing both the player and his doubters he belonged at Old Trafford and should be given another chance.
“I don’t think anybody can believe he is going to be perfect or anything like a saint,” Sir Bobby Charlton said at the time. “But we have to hope he has learned a lot from his experience. He loves to play and I don’t believe he will want to be put out of the game again.
“But who knows? He perpetrated a terrible crime as a footballer and we can’t avoid that fact.”
Any fears over Cantona’s future conduct proved unnecessary, as the former Auxerre and Marseille player helped United overcome a ten-point deficit to pip Newcastle United to the Premier League title, before sealing a second Double in three years, scoring the only goal in the 1996 FA Cup final against Liverpool at Wembley.
Cantona became an even greater influence on the team following his return from suspension. While he was out of action, Ferguson had set about making some major changes within the first-team squad. The likes of Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis were all sold, as the legendary Scottish manager put his faith in a host of young players who’d notably won the FA Youth Cup three years earlier.
Giggs was already an established star, but the likes of David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Butt, all became regulars in the senior side at the start on the 1995/96 campaign.
Cantona would famously set the standard for these rookie professionals – labelled “Fergie’s Fledglings” – to emulate. United’s No.7 would often stay behind after training to work on perfecting his already impeccable technique, and he encouraged the youngsters to follow suit.
And when regular captain Steve Bruce was ruled out of that season’s FA Cup final due to injury, Ferguson didn’t hesitate in giving the armband to Cantona. Less than 18 months after his disgraceful outburst at Selhurst Park, Cantona had come full-circle, leading his band of upstarts to a historic double, again lifting the FA Cup at Wembley.
Cantona joined the Red Devils from Leeds in November 1992. The Yorkshire side were reigning champions of England, having won the final Division One championship before the top-flight transformed into the Premier League for the 1992/93 season.
The story of Cantona’s signing famously goes that Leeds chairman Bill Fotherby phoned his United counterpart, Martin Edwards, to enquire about Denis Irwin. Ferguson was sat next to Edwards and told his chairman to pass on the message that Irwin was not for sale.
But United were on the lookout for a striker at the time, having been knocked back in their attempts to sign David Hirst, Matt Le Tissier and Brian Deane. Ever the opportunist, Ferguson asked Edwards to bring up Cantona’s name.
To the surprise of the United pair, Fotherby said that he’d be open to the idea of selling Cantona, but he’d just have to check with manager Howard Wilkinson first. Wilkinson consented to parting ways with the enigmatic Frenchman, and, within days, Cantona became a Red Devil for just £1.2million.
United had finished runners-up to their Yorkshire rivals in the previous season. Cantona’s arrival proved to be the catalyst in ending their 26-year title drought, as Ferguson’s men claimed the inaugural Premier League title, finishing ten points clear of second-placed Aston Vila.
Cantona would go on to inspire United to even greater success, as his 91 goals in five seasons drove the Red Devils to four Premier League titles and two FA Cups, before his shock retirement in 1997 at just 31 years old.
But Cantona’s contribution stretched far beyond merely putting the ball in the net. He was the ultimate big-game player, with three goals in FA Cup finals, eight in Manchester derbies and a virtually title-clinching strike away to Newcastle United in 1996.
He was also a scorer of great goals: the skillful flick and volley against Wimbledon in 1994; the FA Cup-winner against Liverpool in 1996; and the magnificent chip against Sunderland in 1997, to name but a few.
Furthermore, Cantona was a leader of men with unshakable self-confidence. The raised collar, the puffed out chest and the unmistakable swagger; every breath he took and every step he trod fed into his mystique.
Cantona, in the famous No.7 shirt, was the icon United craved in the early ’90s. He drove the Red Devils’ transformation from perennial under-achievers to English football’s dominant force. And that’s why his name is still sung proudly at Old Trafford to this day.