Eric Cantona at 55: Man Utd hero's infamous press conference, 8-month ban and spit at fan

As one of football's most eccentric characters celebrates his 55th birthday, Mirror Sport looks over the highs and lows of his fascinati...

As one of football's most eccentric characters celebrates his 55th birthday, Mirror Sport looks over the highs and lows of his fascinating life


Outside of football, Eric Cantona will always be recognised as the talented Frenchman who mired his reputation with a disgraceful assault on a fan.

That controversial incident is not forgotten by football fans, but it is merely a single piece of a complex puzzle about one of the game’s most misunderstood characters.

Even some 26 years after launching himself into the crowd with a karate-style kick on Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons, he claims not to have any regrets when reflecting on the incident that saw him banned from football for eight months.

On the contrary, Cantona insists his career highlight is “when I kicked the hooligan”.


That moment when the red mist had truly descended would cost Cantona dearly — and United too. He was suspended from playing for eight months by The Football Association and during that time, the Red Devils struggled on the pitch.

Indeed, it was the managerial legend Brian Clough who delivered the most scathing assessment of Cantona’s actions: “I’d have cut his balls off,” he said, bluntly.

On his way to a court appearance for the assault charge, his team-mate Paul Ince claimed he told Cantona his shirt wasn’t buttoned up properly. Cantona issued a dismissal of his concerns, telling Ince: “I am Cantona. I can go as I want.”

He received a two-week prison sentence, which was later reduced to community service.

What followed was a truly bizarre press conference where the player sat in front of the media, sipped from his cup of water and in between those spoke so slowly as to fully annunciate his words.

"When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.” That was it. He dropped the proverbial microphone and strode out.


It was a performance worthy of an A-list film actor. Perhaps that was Cantona’s true identity all along: an actor posing as a footballer, rather than the other way around.

But despite the attention that came with his long line of memorable quotes and actions, it must be remembered that this footballer hailing from Marseille was one of the finest to grace the Premier League.

After signing from Leeds for £1million in the 1991/92 season, Cantona quickly became a cult hero at Elland Road, netting a hat-trick against Liverpool the following season and helped the Yorkshire outfit to the Division One title, the final season before it became the Premier League.

His status with the fans quickly turned sour when he signed for rivals United in 1992/93 and on his return to his former club, he was fined £1,000 for spitting at a fan.

But Cantona would have the last laugh, helping Sir Alex Ferguson’s side to their first league title in 26 years, thus playing a key part in kicking off a period of domination for years to come.


In individual terms, he truly was an artist, and his solo goal against Sunderland remains one of the most cherished in Premier League history.

First, he beat two opposition players with some silky footwork, then exchanged a neat one-two with Brian McClair and for the finish, he nonchalantly chipped the goalkeeper from some 25 yards out.

And the celebration was fitting for the goal. Cantona, almost savouring what he had pulled off, slowly turned around 360 degrees on the spot, taking in the Old Trafford adoration. As it turned out, there was another motive behind his brilliantly bizarre antics.

Reenacting his celebration some years later, Cantona explained he was sending a message to Sunderland goalkeeper Lionel Perez because his compatriot had refused to shake his hand before the game.

"[I did it] So he could see me from the front, the back, the side," he said. "Then I could take all the energy of the fans.”


On his way to helping United Cantona claim another Premier League title, finishing the 1996-97 season as their top goalscorer with 19 in all competitions, he decided to hang up his boots at the end of the season at the age of 30, citing a “loss of passion” for the game.

But to him, it was only the conclusion of one chapter in a thrilling novel. He had big plans for his post-football life.

“Often there are players who have only football as a way of expressing themselves and never develop other interest,” he said.

“And when they no longer play football, they no longer do anything; they no longer exist, or rather they have the sensation of no longer existing.”

Some footballers would head into coaching, others punditry. But that would be a disappointing waste of Cantona’s natural charisma. Instead, he moved into acting and starred alongside Cate Blanchett in the film ‘Elizabeth’ in 1998.


Some 11 years later, he was the star this time, featuring in the film ‘Looking for Eric’ back in 2009 and even made his stage debut the following year, appearing in Face au Paradis, a play directed by his wife, Rachida Brakni.

But eventually, football would come calling again — only this time it wasn’t grass he would play on, but sand.

He was made captain of France’s beach soccer team and almost became an ambassador for the sport as he played from Asia’s glorious beaches to the Kronenburg Cup in Brighton. Where Cantona was, people followed.

In 2005, Cantona was installed as France’s player-coach for the inaugural Fifa Beach Soccer World Cup and guided them to glory. It remains their only title only to highlight his influence.

To this day, he may just be the only footballer to have conquered football on land and (by the) sea. His beach playing days might be over now, but Cantona remains an attractive proposition for casting directors and he is regularly seen appearing in TV adverts such as Hotels.com.


If only to encapsulate his influence on English football, Cantona was inducted into the Premier League Hall of Fame on May 18, becoming only one of 23 players to receive the award after fans were asked for their nominations. In all honesty, it would have been a huge oversight to ignore his achievements.

There simply aren’t enough words to capture the man, the myth, the legend that is Eric Cantona. With 55 years under his belt, it will be a privilege to observe what is left to come in his extraordinary life.

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