On May 17, 1997, Manchester United striker Eric Cantona stunned the footballing world and announced his retirement at the age of 30. As the old saying goes, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.
Cantona had just celebrated a fourth Premier League title in five years with the Reds, lifting the trophy as captain at Old Trafford after the final game of the season against West Ham United.
“I have played professional football for 13 years, which is a long time,” Cantona said in a statement. “I now wish to do other things. I always planned to retire when I was at the top and, at Manchester United, I have reached the pinnacle of my career.
“In the last four and a half years, I have enjoyed my best football and had a wonderful time. I have had a wonderful relationship with the manager, coach, staff and players, and, not least, the fans.
“I wish Manchester United even more success in the future.”
After hearing about the King’s abdication, his teammates were left in a state of shock and a lot of United fans flocked to Old Trafford, hoping Cantona would change his mind and be lured back.
But some people had started to suggest that Cantona was no longer the force of old. h still had his moments – like the majestic chip against Sunderland – but his return of 11 league goals in 1996-97 was his lowest total since 1991-92.
While he set up Jordi Cruyff’s goal in that 2-0 win over West Ham, Cantona failed to get on the scoresheet in his farewell appearance. In fact, the striker didn’t score in the last six matches of the 1996-97 campaign – his final goal came at Blackburn Rovers in mid-April.
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) September 3, 2021
Unlike that Sunderland goal, his strike against Blackburn was a rather ordinary finish by his standards. That wouldn’t bother most players but a showman like Cantona would have wanted to bow out in style.
A bizarre press conference also would have been a fitting farewell, but he just snuck out the back door and left England before the announcement was made public. It felt like a very un-Cantona-like move.
United were busy wondering how they’d cope without their star man. Like a teenager who has just been dumped, they eventually wiped away the tears and tried to move on.
Teddy Sherringham arrived from Tottenham and had a respectable debut season, but United fans couldn’t stop thinking of the mercurial Frenchman and they weren’t the only ones. Even Sir Alex Ferguson found it hard to say goodbye.
“When we started training, I kept waiting for you to turn up as normal but I think that was in hope not realism and I knew in your eyes when we met at Mottram your time at Manchester United was over,” Ferguson wrote in a letter to him.
“Although, I still feel you should have taken your father’s and my advice and taken a holiday before making such a major decision.”
He concluded: “You are always welcome here and if you just pop in unexpectedly for a cup of tea, no fanfare, just for a chat as friends, that would mean more to me than anything. Eric, you know where I am if you need me and now that you are no longer one of my players, I hope that you know you have a friend.”
Cantona managed to keep himself busy after hanging up his boots, becoming captain of the French national beach soccer team and embarking on his acting career.
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READ: Eric Cantona: One of English football’s greatest ever bargains
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But he dusted off those boots and finally returned to Old Trafford in August 1998, forming a European XI to take on United in the Munich Memorial match.
The likes of Laurent Blanc, Paul Gascoigne, Mark Hughes, Bryan Robson and Jean-Pierre Papin were all lucky enough to play in Cantona’s team and Ferguson also named a strong United side.
Unsurprisingly, the striker received a guard of honor as he walked out in front of a sell-out crowd and the ‘ooh aah Cantona’ chant echoed around Old Trafford. United fans hadn’t been this excited since Cantona’s last comeback.
David Beckham, who inherited the No.7 shirt from Cantona, produced a brilliant cross to set up Ryan Giggs for the opening goal in the 14th minute.
Papin and Blanc scored for the visitors before Paul Scholes dinked the ball over the goalkeeper to make it 2-2 on the stroke of half-time.
Cantona then switched sides at the start of the second half and donned the famous red No.7 one final time as Beckham took the No.16. The European XI still had a Cantona on their team even though Joel Cantona, Eric’s younger brother, replaced Blanc.
The forward looked to have marked his return to Old Trafford with a goal when he headed Nicky Butt’s cross into the back of the net. But the linesman, who clearly hadn’t read the script, raised the offside flag and made himself the most unpopular figure inside the ground.
“Unbelievable, worst refereeing decision ever at Old Trafford,” Lou Macari jokingly said on commentary. “You try telling 56,000 people that it was offside. They won’t believe you.”
He added: “I’ve never seen a decision like that in a kickabout match or a friendly match. Normally they allow someone like Eric Cantona the benefit of the doubt.”
Martin Dahlin and United academy graduate Mark Wilson went on to score for the European XI but goals from Cruyff, Alex Notman, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt gave Ferguson’s side a 6-4 lead.
But the goal everyone had been waiting for didn’t come until the 80th minute. Cantona skipped past his brother, left William Prunier in a heap on the floor and dribbled around Pascal Olmeta.
While most players would have simply smashed the ball into the net, Cantona isn’t most players and he wanted to take the piss and humiliate a defender one last time.
Like a predator tormenting its prey, the striker delayed and allowed Prunier to get back on the line. He said scooped the ball over the defender and into the back of the net, much to the delight of his adoring public.
When Eric Cantona did this during the Munich Memorial Match, 1998. pic.twitter.com/48205nG5XC
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) January 14, 2021
United fans had been desperate to see one final piece of sublime skill and cockiness from the No.7, and he duly obliged.
Alongside that goal against Sunderland, this moment also sums up Cantona in all his charismatic, arrogant and inspirational glory.
King Eric couldn’t have picked a better way to ride off into the sunset.
By Nathan Egerton
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