IT’S 20 years since one of the most influential players in English football shocked fans by announcing his decision to retire from a football.
On May 17, 1997, less than one week after lifting his sixth league title in seven years, Eric Cantona decided call it a day — at the age of just 30.
The enigmatic Frenchman is most famous for receiving a eight-month ban for kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan in the middle of a game in 1995.
Keep up to date with ALL the Manchester United news, gossip, transfers and goals on our club page plus fixtures, results and live match commentary
However his real legacy is how he helped Sir Alex Ferguson transform Manchester United into the dominant force in English football.
And in doing so he played a key role in making the Premier League a global phenomenon.
Before Cantona’s arrival, many of Britain’s footballers generally sought out the nearest pubs to spend their free time.
However, the Manchester United legend was his own man, who found enjoyment in art galleries and practised yoga before matches.
He arrived at a crucial time for the evolution of English football, at the birth of the Premier League and injection of huge amounts of investment by Sky.
Cantona was extremely influential in helping to nurture the group of young academy prospects who would go on to form the core of United and England sides for the next decade.
Ferguson revealed the likes of David Beckham would copy the Frenchman and stay behind after training session to practice free-kicks.
While Gary Neville admitted one of his many driving forces in football early on was the desperate desire to impress his mercurial team-mate.
Few non-British players had, at that time, truly grabbed English football by the scruff of the neck and propelled it forward.
The impact of Cantona shouldn’t be underestimated — and it opened the door of the Premier League to many overseas stars.
Flair players such as Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola soon followed and became stars.
Eric Cantona confidently walks out in front of a hostile Galatasaray crowd in the Champions LeagueCantona started the transition to the cosmopolitan league it is today, which is home to many of the best players around.
He also brought an element of personality to English football.
Even some of Cantona’s strops or tantrums had an element of class.
Most famous, was the explanation for his kick on a Palace supporter in 1995.
When quizzed about the incident, he replied simply: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.”
Cantona had actually retired from football in December 1991, at the age of 25 after being suspended from football for one month — a ban which was then doubled after he called each member of the disciplinary committee an idiot — for throwing the ball at a referee.
France legend Michel Platini tried to persuade Sheffield Wednesday to offer him a trial — only for manager Trevor Francis to say no.
Fresh from winning two French league titles in three years with Marseille but no longer wanting to play in France, Cantona then moved to Leeds — and added another championship in 1992.
However, in the Premier League’s maiden campaign, he found regular game time hard to come by and was often kept out of the team by Lee Chapman and Rod Wallace.
So, he moved to Old Trafford — for £1.2million.
Cantona was instrumental as United ended a 26-year title drought, and the Frenchman claimed a third championship in three years with three different clubs.
His performances saw him finish third in the Ballon d’Or standings in 1993 — behind Roberto Baggio and Bergkamp.
In 1993-94, Cantona was the spearhead of Fergie’s first great team as United claimed their first-ever league and FA Cup double in their history — scoring twice in a 4-0 victory over Chelsea at Wembley.
And he was named PFA Player of the Year.
Cantona’s absence was felt in the second-half of the 1994-95 season.
He had been given an eight-month ban following the infamous kung-fu kick as United conceded the title to Blackburn.
When he returned in October that year, a group of youngsters had been promoted in place of departed stalwarts Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis in the side.
And Cantona relished the responsibility netting several winners in 1-0 victories as the Red Devils clawed back a 12-point deficit to overhaul early pace-setters Newcastle.
And injury to Steve Bruce meant he was handed the captain’s armband as his goal four minutes from time sealed FA Cup glory against Liverpool — and saw United become the first team in English football history to win the Double twice.
He was named the Football Writers’ Player of the Year in 1996.
After becoming the dominant force in English football, it was European success that captain Cantona now craved.
Under his leadership, United reached the Champions League semi-finals in 1997 where they lost 2-0 on aggregate to Borussia Dortmund.
Two 1-0 victories were enough to send the Germans through.
Cantona took full responsibility for his inability to lead United to the pinnacle of club football.
And, despite skippering United to a fourth Premier League title in five years, he retired at the end of the season, despite Sir Alex’s desperate attempts to convince him to change his mind.
After the announcement, Sir Alex said: “It is a sad day for United.
“I know Eric was particularly disappointed after the Dortmund game.
“We were all disappointed. He wasn’t the only one in that boat but you wondered how he was ever going to get over it.
“We were all gutted. We all felt we should have been in the final. That was the general mood around the club, and not just with Eric.
“When he came to see me on Wednesday I got the impression that his position was unequivocal.
“I knew deep down that, no matter the things I was saying to him, he wasn’t.”
Cantona may have spent just six years in English football, but his influence helped make the Premier League the world’s favourite league.