Eric Cantona: The Best Premier League Player of the 1990s

Eric Cantona – what a life he’s lived, eh?

Booting a fan in the face, becoming a rather mediocre actor, posting strange videos on Instagram (don’t go looking for them – trust me, you’re better off not knowing). And, in and among all that nonsense, there was a pretty sensational footballer.

Given his flourishing career as a creative genius and devastating goalscorer, you’d be surprised to know that Cantona actually started out as a goalkeeper at his local side SO Caillolais. Of course, it wasn’t long before he progressed up the pitch and became the forward that we knew and loved at Old Trafford.

Cantona’s professional career began in his native France with Auxerre. While obviously talented, his time in Ligue 1 was turbulent to say the least, riddled with a number of fights and explosive outbursts.

He spent eight and a half years in France at six different clubs: Auxerre, Martigues, Marseille, Bordeaux, Montpellier, and Nimes. It was at Marseille, his boyhood club, where he achieved the most success, winning two league titles in 1988/89 and 1990/91. Sandwiched in between these two triumphs was a loan spell at Montpellier, where he lifted the Coupe de France.

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Cantona during his time at Marseille | -/Getty Images

Cantona’s time in his homeland earned him his first cap for the national team in 1987, scoring on his full debut against West Germany. He later went on to win the 1988 Under-21 European Championships – a tournament which featured the likes of Paolo Maldini, Paul Gascoigne, and Laurent Blanc. However, his time with the French national team was brought to a halt after a foul-mouthed rant against head coach Henri Michel on live TV.

Cantona’s big mouth not only threatened to end his international career, but his footballing career entirely. In December 1991 while at Nimes, the Frenchman threw the ball at the referee in anger. He was given an initial one-month ban, but this was doubled after he exploded at the hearing committee. He later retired from the game, aged just 25.

Of course, as we all know, that wasn’t the end of Cantona’s career. Three-time Ballon d’Or winner Michel Platini convinced Cantona to continue playing. However, it was evident that his time in the French leagues was over, and he subsequently sought a move to England.

Cantona was offered to Liverpool, but manager Graeme Souness was put off by the Frenchman’s attitude (wouldn’t be the last time, eh?). He also famously went on trial at Sheffield Wednesday, but the Owls’ budget did not stretch far enough to accommodate for his wages, so it was off to Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds United he went.

His time at Elland Road was brief, but highly eventful. Cantona’s first goal in English football came against Luton Town in a 2-0 home win, and he later added to his account in resounding victories against Wimbledon and Chelsea. His goals and assists helped the Yorkshire side to the 1991/92 First Division title.

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Cantona celebrates the league title with the Leeds squad | Getty Images/Getty Images

The next season brought more success on a personal level for the Frenchman. In the 1992 Community Shield, Cantona scored a magnificent hat-trick as Leeds defeated Liverpool 4-3 in a pulsating fixture at Wembley. He began the inaugural Premier League season in similar fashion, opening his account against Middlesbrough and then following this up with a hat-trick against Tottenham Hotspur.

However, things took a turn for the worse, and Cantona found himself left out of the side, despite scoring 11 goals in 20 appearances in all competitions. Fuming at being dropped, he refused to train and submitted a transfer request on 24th November 1992. Two days later, he made the switch to bitter rivals Manchester United, having spent just under a year at Elland Road.

When he arrived, the Red Devils were sat in eighth place after 16 games. However, Cantona’s signing ensured an incredible turnaround from Alex Ferguson’s men. His first goal for the club came in a 1-1 draw with Chelsea, which began a four-game goal streak against Sheffield Wednesday, Coventry City, and Tottenham respectively.

By the end of the season, Cantona had netted nine times for Man Utd, taking his Premier League tally to 15. On top of this, he notched 16 assists, making him the league’s best playmaker. Ferguson’s side ended up winning the league title by a resounding ten points, making Cantona the first player in English football to win consecutive league titles with different clubs.

The following season saw the former Leeds man take the iconic number 7 shirt, and he did it justice with arguably his best individual season. After scoring 18 and assisting 12 in the league, Cantona was voted PFA Player of the Year. He recorded a further seven goals in all competitions, including a brace in the FA Cup final against Chelsea, taking his tally to 25 in 49. Man Utd ended the season with a Premier League and FA Cup double.

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Cantona and Ferguson with their trophies | Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The next season started very much as things had left off for the Frenchman, scoring 14 in 25. However, this would all change midway through the season when he was involved in one of the most infamous incidents in football history.

After being sent off for kicking out at Crystal Palace’s Richard Shaw, Cantona was taunted by one of the home fans. The Frenchman consequently lost his temper and launched himself kung-fu-style into the crowd.

Cantona later received an eight-month ban from football, meaning that he would miss the rest of the season, as well as the start of the next campaign. This took its toll on Manchester United, who ended up finishing one point behind Blackburn Rovers in second place. The ban, as well as the rise of Zinedine Zidane, effectively ended Cantona’s international career, and he never appeared for Les Bleus again.

His return to football came on 1st October 1995, in a home game against Liverpool. And, rather unsurprisingly, he starred, scoring and assisting once in a 2-2 draw.

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Cantona initially struggled for form, but was soon back to his best. He scored nine times in an 11-game run, as the Red Devils picked up 31 points to propel them to the top of the league – despite being 12 points behind Newcastle United at one point. They held this position for the rest of the season, winning their third league title in four years.

But it wasn’t just the league where Cantona excelled. He had scored against Sunderland, Reading, Manchester City, and Southampton as Man Utd faced Liverpool in the FA Cup final. With captain Steve Bruce sidelined through injury, Cantona took the armband. The Frenchman ended up being the hero, scoring the only goal of the game: a fantastic half-volley in the 86th minute to seal their second league and cup double.

After Bruce left Old Trafford for Birmingham City in the summer, Cantona was handed captaincy for the 1996/97 season. Despite being just 30 years old at the time, this turned out to be his final season before his retirement – and one that he would make sure was special.

By the end of the season, Cantona was once again at the top of the assist charts, creating 12 goals to go with the 11 that he had scored. This led Man Utd to their fourth league title in five years, and Cantona’s seventh in nine.

Undoubtedly the highlight of his season was his sensational goal against Sunderland. After some brilliant footwork which left two defender in the dust, Cantona played a quick one-two with Brian McClair, before expertly chipping the ball over the onrushing Lionel Perez. He celebrated in iconic fashion by standing still, looking around as if he didn’t know where he was, and raising his arms in the air.

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The last goal of his career came against Blackburn in April 1997, taking his career tally to 185. He played his final game in a 2-2 draw against West Ham United, lifting the Premier League trophy later that day. His five-year spell at Old Trafford earned him the nickname “King Eric” among Manchester United fans.

In his prime, there were few who could match the class of Eric Cantona. A genius, a maverick, and an entertainer – he’s earned his place as 90min‘s best footballer of the 90s.

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