My Favourite Premier Player: The French Revolutionary

In our Premier League Week we'll be celebrating 20 years of the rebranded top flight – including naming our favourite players from that era. Today, FourFourTwo staff writer Huw Davies on the seagull-invoking collar-botherer...

I should have hated Eric Cantona. For many a football fan growing up in the 1990s, Manchester United represented the enemy: relentless victors, who in my case just as relentlessly defeated my team in every meeting, regardless of how well either side played. In short, they were winners. And as a result, probably without meaning to, they seemed to convey a sense of entitlement – even arrogance.

If any footballer embodied arrogance, it was Eric Cantona. The man who didn't so much play football as imply he was gracing the field with his presence. The man who perfected the art of celebrating a sublime goal with a shrug, almost literally before Mario Balotelli was throwing his toys out of the pram. The man who told FourFourTwo in 2008: “I don't care about being superior – if I want to kick a fan, I'll do it.”

So naturally, I should have hated him. Certainly, it's hard to find yourself in the same corner as a man content to assault a football supporter on the pitch, whatever the verbal provocation. But with the ban and headlines of “The sh*t hits the fan” now mere footnotes, history has forgiven him. In the same way that only Leonard Rossiter could get away with playing Rigsby and only Barack Obama could get away with singing Al Green as President, only Cantona could get away with kicking a fan in the face. He got away with it because he is Cantona.

Of course, this aura off the pitch was a result of his wizardry on it; you couldn't be an average player and receive the adulation he did (especially as a Frenchman in a still staunchly anti-Gallic country). He swept across the pitch in gliding movements, creating space with consummate ease and shooting as naturally as if he'd booted his way out of the womb. Now he would be seen as a false 9, bringing team-mates into the game with his movement. At the time, it was hard to see him as anything other than just... brilliant.

But for all the goals among his countless on-pitch memories – that volley against Liverpool, that volley against Wimbledon, that volley against Arsenal – Cantona, like Dennis Bergkamp at Arsenal years later, was possibly even more adept at creating chances than taking them. Often out of nowhere, too: his chip to set up Denis Irwin in the 4-1 win against Tottenham in January 1993, just a month after he joined United, showed that. It doesn't take a great stretch of the imagination to think that with the likes of Rod Wallace to be on the finishing end of Cantona's creativity, Leeds United could have pushed harder for a title had Howard Wilkinson kept him at Elland Road for more than a few months.

Not that this went through the head of a boy watching Cantona on Match of the Day. A few clipreels were enough to make me put up my collar every time I played football; my excuse was that I was protecting my neck from sunburn, but nobody was fooled.

And I wasn't alone in trying to recreate his chip against Sunderland, and like everyone else, I had about as much success as I did in emulating his inimitable reaction as the ball clipped in off the post – the slow turn, taking in his surroundings.

He was impetuous, aloof and if you believe The Sun, a thug – but Cantona's class was enough to make him a hero, not a villain. Just.

There's a fantastic piece on inspired by Diego Maradona called Tainted Love. It also describes my feelings towards Eric Cantona. Tainted love – but love nonetheless.

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