20 years on, footballer turned writer, David Preece, remembers the time King Eric made football history against Sunderland in 1996...
I sat and watched the physio strap up my wrist, wrapping the bandage and tape around my wrist so heavily it looked as if he’d reapplied the cast I’d worn for six weeks. My scaphoid had fractured for the second time in twelve months and this time a plate and pin was inserted to make sure it didn’t happen for a third. Three months on from the surgery, it still didn’t feel part of my own body, like a Frankenstein hand that been fitted to replace my own. Still swollen, still numb, still unable to stop a ball without wincing but on the 21st of December 1996 it was still fit enough to be sat on the bench at Old Trafford.
Milling around outside the dressing rooms, giddily taking in my surroundings, I first laid eyes on him. The rest of the United players wandered around the corridors like glorified bus drivers in their club-crested blazers and club ties. He didn’t. The door opened and out he walked. At 20 years old, the desperation to be a footballer dripped from my every pore. Every time a manager spoke, I replied with nothing but “Yes, Gaffer”. As he walked towards me, I looked up and was taken aback.
He was different, not by choice but by design. The black baseball cap he wore should have clashed with the stiffness of his club attire but it didn’t. If James Dean had worn a tie, he would have worn it like King Eric wore his. It hung around his neck in such a casual manner you’d be wrong if you said it was tied. Some managers might have taken this as rebellion, the flash of a middle finger at their authority and when some players attempted to stand out they’d be right. But this wasn’t anyone. This wasn’t any footballer. This was Eric Cantona.
As we approached one another, I could feel myself shrink, reducing in size with every step I took towards him. The walls seemed too close together to contain him, his chest puffed out as if it concealed a barrel of the Kronenbourg he now endorses, immense in his grandeur. Whether he exuded it or I projected it, it was difficult not be in awe.
I made my way out on the pitch with Lionel Perez, the keeper who had been brought in from Bordeaux under the circumstances of my injury, and he was agitated, even more so than usual. His English was limited and I took much of his Gallic temperament as a sign of his frustration at this but his temper was already at red as we walked out.
I began, as always, by volleying balls at him from six yards and halfway through I mishit one that didn’t go directly at him. “ICI! HERE! HERE!” he screamed at me, pointing to his face. “Alright, mate. Calm down.” I thought to myself.
My heart was racing, the adrenaline was pumping through my body in a cocktail of fear and excitement.
I steadied myself. The warm-up is a huge part of a goalkeeper’s preparation and I wanted to help him prepare as best I could for such a big game. The next ball I struck was well placed for him to easily catch but it beat his hands and went straight past him into the net. That was it. Off came his gloves and off he stormed back into the dressing room, muttering away to himself. I’ll be honest, I just thought "Fuck you.” and got on with my own warm-up, not giving another thought to Lionel’s irrational behaviour and took my place on the bench.
As the game began, it was clear Lionel’s mind hadn’t cleared. Scholes met a cross from Giggs which Lionel scooped into the path of the onrushing Solskjaer. Then, two minutes before the break came my sliding doors moment. Suddenly, I was Gwyneth Paltrow walking in to see her boyfriend with another woman. Scholes slipped a ball through to Nicky Butt and Lionel came flying out, clipping the expectant legs in front of him. Penalty.
My first thought was that he’d be red carded and I’d be the one facing the Eric Cantona penalty. My heart was racing, the adrenalin was pumping through my body in a cocktail of fear and excitement. I stood up in anticipation of the call and began warming up. That call never came though, as he was issued with a yellow and play continued, Cantona stroking the ball home from the spot.
The devastation felt like my body had totally crashed, momentarily I found some consolation in eavesdropping Sir Alex and Gary Pallister’s conversation, regarding his fitness and I relayed it to Peter Reid that they’d have to make a change.
The second half was a masterclass in toying with opposition then killing them off from United. Schmeichel with his sling-shot throw putting Solkskjaer through for his second and Nicky Butt heading a ball which went through Lionel as if he were a ghost. And then it started. The whole stadium launched into a rendition of the Eric Cantona “12 Days of Christmas” song. On and on it went, ringing around the stands.
It was physically spine-tingling. My skin turned cold, every hair on my body felt like an electrical conductor. I wasn’t watching what was happening on the pitch, I just listened. The only time I’ve experienced the same sensation was when playing at Celtic Park just before kick-off. It’s almost spiritual, more than football. To say it’s something special wouldn’t do it justice. Then it began, as if Cantona was listening to the crowd’s singing and decided to summon up their reward.
He drops back to the halfway line, receives a pass rolled into him. Feigning to his left, he shows the ball and his apparent intent to Sunderland’s Richard Ord as if he’s a street conman playing a game of “Find the Lady” on a foldaway table in the middle of New York’s Chinatown. Ord picks his card out of the three he’s shown but it isn’t there and from then on he’s chasing his money, drawn in twice more before Cantona is off in the distance, Ord’s money stuffed into his shirt like a pocket scarf.
Kevin Ball, the sergeant major Sunderland skipper, arrives like a heroic cavalryman, only to be left grasping desperately through the slipstream of Cantona’s scent. He doesn’t even get close enough to make contact, his chance has gone.
The momentum Cantona has created now makes him favourite against any challenge but his physique isn’t needed. Ord clambers heavy-footed back into his own stride only to be halted by Andy Melville who tentatively engages Cantona. It’s something of a gesture, an acknowledgement that he should participate yet, from the very outset, he knows his role in this play is that of a walk-on part-actor as Cantona glides past him.
Almost as if the forward-moving force is gathering too much pace, perhaps anticipating the contact from Melville that never comes, Cantona lends the ball to Brian McClair as he readies himself for the final act.
The defence in front of him begins opening as if he were Moses summoning apart the Red Sea, right full-back, Gareth Hall impossibly tries to cover both McClair and this messiah-like Frenchman. The defender is used like a pawn to be placed where he’s wanted. The ball to McClair draws him in enough to open the space for the return pass and the finish. The utterly exquisite finish.
Cantona takes a moment to check his step, allowing two things to happen; he can glance up at Lionel Perez’s ridiculously high position and then allow the ball to fall under his feet, the perfect position to dig out a chip that is so delicious and rare only trained pigs in Tuscany are familiar with its like.
It’s impossible for me to watch that clip, as I have on hundreds of occasions, without thinking, “That should be me.” as the ball sails over Lionel’s head, but it’s a jealousy that’s tainted with sympathy for my French teammate.
It was one of those games that becomes all too much for a goalkeeper. I’ve been in that position, left helpless by the magnitude of the occasion you’re engulfed in, emotions that leave your focus shot to pieces. I saw what was coming after the warm-up but I didn’t predict the full stop that Cantona was to put on that game. What happened that day was a piece of football history. A piece of brilliance. A piece of pure genius.
From where I sat, I watched him stand looking around the stadium, absorbing the awe with which every single person there looked at him. This wasn’t just a goal, it wasn’t just skill, it was a divine moment and we were all part of it.
Very few players transcend the game itself, Eric Cantona was one of those very few. He still is.