The scene was shot on the balcony of a high-rise tower block in Hulme, just south of Manchester city centre. It was the type of location the director Ken Loach had used in so many of his films, which tend to depict the class struggles in modern Britain.
Eric Bishop is a classic Loach character: a depressed, middle-aged postman whose life is unravelling. For the sake of his self-esteem, he has been encouraged to draw inspiration from someone whose confidence he wishes he could emulate.
Two of his fellow postmen, struggling with similar issues, opt for Fidel Castro and Mahatma Gandhi. Eric, who is Manchester United mad, chooses his namesake: Eric Cantona.
In Loach’s 2009 film Looking For Eric, Cantona starts appearing in Bishop’s daydreams — and not just when he’s been smoking weed. Cantona, who of course plays himself in the movie, becomes a sort of spiritual guru for Bishop, helping him piece his life together again and win back his estranged wife.
In that balcony scene, Bishop asks Cantona to pick out his “sweetest moment ever”. The late FA Cup final winner against Liverpool in 1996? No. A spectacular strike away to Wimbledon? No. Not even that other more infamous incident at Selhurst Park in January 1995, when he responded to provocation from a Crystal Palace fan by leaping into the crowd and assaulting him? Still no.
Cantona shakes his head. “It’s not a goal,” he says. “It was a pass.”
“A pass?!?” Bishop asks in wonder, but then he gets it… “My god. To Irwin? Against Spurs? YES! Beautiful!”
“I know how clever he (Denis Irwin) was,” Cantona replies. “Left, right-footed. It came in a flash. I just flicked it with the outside of my foot — surprised everyone. (Irwin) took it in (his) stride. And my heart scored.”
“Yeah, like an offering from the great god of football.”
“What if he’d missed?”
“You have to trust your team-mates, always.”
Artistic licence on Loach’s part? Apparently not. That conversation on the balcony mirrors one the film’s screenwriter Richard Laverty had with Cantona much earlier in the process.
That pass to Irwin was indeed a thing of beauty and there are plenty of United fans like Bishop who, after enduring more than a quarter of a century since the club’s previous league title, regarded that Cantona-inspired 4-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur in January 1993 as an epiphany.
The context is all-important when it comes to appreciating Cantona’s impact on that season, on United’s history and indeed on English football as a whole.
As detailed earlier in this series, in the article about a performance by Chris Waddle, the early years of the Premier League were a strange time in which English football suddenly wished to sell an exciting new product which, beneath the hype and the marketing guff, looked pretty indistinguishable from the old one.
It was not until the mid-1990s that players such as Jurgen Klinsmann, Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola were lured to the Premier League.
With the national team going from a miserable European Championship in the summer of 1992 (three games, no wins, one goal scored) to an ill-fated failure to qualify for the World Cup in the United States two years later, there wasn’t a great deal for English football to shout about.
But there was Cantona, a player who brought splashes of psychedelic colour to a world of monochrome. He wasn’t the only showman — there were others, like Ian Wright, Matt Le Tissier and indeed Waddle — but he, more than anyone, came to embody the zeitgeist of the nascent Premier League era.
Cantona had left his native France in disgrace after a series of incidents, announcing his retirement after being banned for throwing the ball at a referee and then addressing each member of the disciplinary panel in turn as an “idiot”. By the age of 25, disillusioned at Nimes, this talented but highly combustible centre-forward appeared to have reached the end of the road in French football.
He arrived in the UK in early 1992 — initially on trial at Sheffield Wednesday, then briefly but successfully at that season’s champions Leeds United — but by that November he was feeling restless once more, out of favour with manager Howard Wilkinson, who preferred the speed and trickery of Rodney Wallace alongside the aerial threat of Lee Chapman up front.
There followed a fateful telephone conversation during which Leeds chairman Bill Fotherby asked Manchester United counterpart Martin Edwards about the possibility of signing Irwin. Edwards dismissed that enquiry out of hand but responded with a speculative enquiry about Cantona.
The rest is history.
“If ever there was a player in this world who was made for Manchester United, it was Cantona,” Sir Alex Ferguson said years later. “I think he had been searching all his life for somebody who looked at him and made him feel that a place was his home. He had travelled around so many countries — there is a wee bit of the gypsy about some people — but when he came here, he knew, ‘This is my place’.”
Moreover, Cantona found a club and a team crying out for inspiration and personality.
The previous season, Manchester’s United had seemed destined to become champions of England for the first time in 25 years, rushing into a commanding lead at the top of the table. But the pressure and expectation weighed heavily in the second half of the season and they won just six out of 21 league matches between December 29 and April 27, culminating in a run of three consecutive defeats which effectively handed the league title to Leeds.
At the start of the following season, Ferguson found a picture of himself and his staff looking distraught on the bench as a chance went begging in a crucial game against Nottingham Forest. Calling it “Dante’s Inferno”, he put it on display to remind his players of the agony of the previous spring and to “make sure it never happens again”.
But even he underestimated the depth of their anguish.
By mid-November in that 1992-93 campaign, the inaugural season of the Premier League era, his United side had won just five of 15 league games and six of 20 in all competitions. In fact, they had only 12 victories from the 37 league games played since trouncing Oldham Athletic 6-3 the previous Boxing Day. (To put that in context, when Everton barely avoided relegation last season they won 11 of their 38 matches.)
The goals had dried up, too. United had scored just 14 times in those 15 Premier League fixtures. Only three of the other 21 teams in the division had less than them, and all three of them were in the bottom six. Mark Hughes scored five times over that period. Beyond that, Steve Bruce had three (two of them penalties), Ryan Giggs two and there was one each for Irwin, Andrei Kanchelskis, Dion Dublin and Brian McClair.
Dublin, a summer signing from second division Cambridge United, broke a leg in early September and would only make one more appearance, for 17 minutes the following March, all season. Ferguson tried to sign David Hirst, only for Sheffield Wednesday to reject a £4million ($4.87m) offer which would have broken the British transfer record.
From their perspective, Cantona’s move across the Pennines from Leeds was part desperation, part opportunism, part gambler’s instinct.
Ferguson had seen plenty of players cower under the intensity of the spotlight at Old Trafford. “Not Eric,” he wrote in his 1999 autobiography Managing My Life. “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?’.”
The change did not quite occur overnight. United had actually won the two games before Cantona’s arrival, beating Oldham 3-0 at home and Arsenal 1-0 away, and he made little impression during his first two appearances, victories at Old Trafford over Manchester City (as a half-time replacement for Giggs) and Norwich City (his first United start).
But Cantona soon found his rhythm.
His equaliser to earn a draw at Chelsea on December 19 was followed on Boxing Day by another away to Wednesday — in a game where his team had been 3-0 down with an hour played. Then came a 5-0 win at home to Coventry City (Cantona: one goal, two assists). By the second week of January, United were top of the table and looking like a totally different team.
“Confidence brings the freedom to express yourself,” Cantona once said. “And freedom to express yourself brings genius… euphoria… fire.”
Tottenham felt the full effect of that growing belief in their trip to Old Trafford on January 9 — the night United overtook previous leaders Norwich.
For 40 minutes, their Norwegian goalkeeper Erik Thorstvedt kept United at bay, but he was finally beaten when Cantona met Irwin’s left-wing cross with a looping header.
Incidentally, for a player who stood 6ft 2in (188cm) tall, Cantona was strangely underestimated in the air.
He never seemed terribly interested in challenging for high balls in the middle of the pitch, but it was a different story in the penalty box. He had a knack of peeling away to the far post to find space. This goal, climbing above Justin Edinburgh to catch Thorstvedt by surprise, was a perfect illustration.
There was then a moment, early in the second half, when Cantona drifted out to the right-hand side, anticipating Paul Parker’s headed clearance and producing a sublime first touch, a body swerve and a surprising turn of pace to accelerate away from three opponents. Giggs’ eventual cross was blocked, but the BBC commentator John Motson put it perfectly: “Every time he (Cantona) gets the ball, the place seems to wake up.”
From the resulting corner, which was only half-cleared, Cantona produced the masterful pass to Irwin he speaks of in Looking For Eric.
It is masterful — part stab, part chip, finding not just the elevation and the angle to beat the offside trap but the spin that made it so easy for his team-mate to bring the ball under control and take it in stride.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) October 26, 2017
“Oh, look at that pass!” shrieked Motson. “Oh, that’s brilliant! Dennis Irwin has scored, but the return ball from Cantona was one of the passes of the season. This man is playing a game of his own.”
He was. But the thing about Cantona is that, while he was a showman, he was never a soloist.
There are great players whose personality, energy and individual skill can drag a team forward, but Cantona’s was a different kind of brilliance. It inspired everyone around him. Motson again: “What more can you say about the influence of the Frenchman?”
McClair was a case in point. After that barren spell in front of goal in the early months of 1992-93, he was widely thought to be the player most at risk from Cantona’s arrival. But instead, the Scot was invigorated, adjusting to a new role alongside Paul Ince in midfield while the Frenchman forged a partnership with Hughes in attack. A minute after Irwin doubled the lead, McClair let fly from 30 yards to make it 3-0 — “and that’s what you do when your confidence is high,” Motson said.
Motson talked about the overseas players who had illuminated the English game in the late 1970s and early 1980s, citing Arnold Muhren at Ipswich Town and Osvaldo Ardiles at Tottenham. Cantona, he said, “has brought something fresh, first to Leeds and now to Manchester United. He just seems to have this continental flair for coming up with the unexpected. Even his team-mates don’t seem to know what he’s going to do next, but the crowd absolutely love it.”
Cantona played no direct involvement in what came next, but again the nature of United’s fourth goal — beautifully taken by Parker, the England full-back’s only goal in 105 league appearances for the club, after a deft touch from McClair — reflected the feeling the joie de vivre that was suddenly flowing through this team.
That match against Tottenham was watched by the great George Best, with whom Cantona exchanged an appreciative nod as their paths crossed afterwards inside Old Trafford. “If he keeps doing it, this club is going to win the title,” Best wrote in his newspaper column. “That’s how important he is to United. He has given this team a brain.”
Which sounds rather harsh on the team he was joining, given that United already had players of the intelligence of Hughes, McClair and Irwin. But before Cantona’s arrival, the whole team seemed to be lost in a fog of self-doubt.
Cantona replaced that doubt with self-assurance.
He unlocked something within those players, helping to lift whatever burden had weighed so heavily on them for so much of 1992. Cantona enabled them to play with freedom and with the confidence that would carry them not just to that first league title in 26 years but to four of the first five in the Premier League era before he abruptly retired, disappearing in a puff of smoke, at the end of the 1996-97 season when still aged just 30.
It was that swaggering confidence that made him such an alluring, captivating figure — not least to a generation of United supporters who, nearly three decades later, just like the fictitious Eric Bishop, still regard him as other-worldly.
Or, to borrow Cantona’s phrase in that scene on the balcony, “like an offering from the great god of football”.
(Photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)