The truly great footballers always have a picture in their heads. These elite few are blessed with an instinctive ability to know exactly where they are on the pitch in relation to the ball, their team-mates and their opponents at all times, often without anything more than a cursory glance up every few seconds.
Eric Cantona’s picture was in ultra-high definition. His famous goal against Sunderland, an exquisite chip from the edge of the area after some fabulous footwork had allowed him to escape the attention of two markers on the halfway line, was proof of that. But perhaps the greatest example of the Frenchman’s exceptional intuition was an effort that hit the bar rather than the back of the net.
The date was 11 September 1993. Cantona’s United career was only nine-and-a-half months old at this point, but he’d already made a significant impression in the northwest of England. Alex Ferguson’s men were propping up the Premier League table after two games of the 1992/93 campaign, and although the relegation zone was soon vacated, they were lodged firmly in mid-table as Bonfire Night came and went. The season was still young, but many fans were already abandoning hope of seeing their club’s protracted title drought brought to an end in its 26th year.
Then Cantona arrived. It would be erroneous to say his move from Leeds on 26 November was instantly seen as a game-changer – there was no denying the France international’s talent, but question marks lingered over his attitude – and it’s well documented that Ferguson had initially tried to buy David Hirst from Sheffield Wednesday instead. It wasn’t just United supporters who were surprised by the signing: Garry Pallister later admitted he was “stunned” when he heard the news, while Lee Sharpe summed up the thoughts of many when he dismissed the story with the words: “Yeah right – absolutely no chance… this bloke’s a total nutter.”
Yet Cantona and United went together like bread and butter, strawberries and cream, seagulls and trawler. Enfant terrible he may have been, but the former Marseille man was also a tremendously gifted footballer who Ferguson felt was made for the club. Playing as a withdrawn striker in a 4-4-2, Cantona scored four times in his first six games as United rose to the summit of the standings. He was a creator as well as a converter of chances – no one recorded more assists that season than the Frenchman’s 16 – but the numbers alone don’t do justice to the profound influence he had on his new team. As much as his quality, Cantona’s character was instrumental in what was expected to be a nerve-jangling run-in; instead, a steely United ended the season with seven successive wins, romping to the title ahead of Aston Villa and Norwich.
“Collar turned up, back straight, chest stuck out, Eric glided into the arena as if he owned the f***ing place,” said Roy Keane, no shrinking violet himself. The midfielder was referring specifically to Old Trafford, but he justifiably could have been speaking about any stadium in the country such was Cantona’s self-confidence.
Indeed, it was at an opposition ground – Stamford Bridge – where Cantona came close to scoring what would arguably have been the greatest goal of his career. United had ominously picked up where they left off the previous season, taking 16 points from the first 18 on offer to set the early pace in 1993/94. Glenn Hoddle’s Chelsea, meanwhile, were on a three-match unbeaten run having begun the season by taking just one point from nine against Blackburn, Wimbledon and Ipswich. The Blues were maddeningly inconsistent for the entirety of the campaign – the difference between Good Chelsea and Bad Chelsea was so vast that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde would have aroused little suspicion in comparison – and no one knew which version would turn up when the defending champions came to town in September.
Player-manager Hoddle deployed himself as a sweeper against United, with the hosts lined up in what was essentially a 3-4-1-2 formation with Dennis Wise behind strike duo Tony Cascarino and Gavin Peacock. BBC commentator John Motson spoke quaintly of Chelsea’s “strong European influence” in the build-up, citing the presence of two non-British or Irish players – Russian goalkeeper Dmitri Kharine and Danish defender Jakob Kjeldbjerg – in their starting line-up, before reminding viewers that in his 24 previous league appearances for United, Cantona had only been on the losing side once.
That record would become twice in 25 a couple of hours later, as Peacock’s first-half strike inflicted defeat upon the Red Devils for the first time that season. Yet far more impressive than the match-winning goal was Cantona’s not-goal – an inadequate label which nonetheless describes his moment of instinctive brilliance far better than ‘miss’.
The game was still goalless when Peacock was flagged offside with around a quarter of an hour on the clock. Pallister took the resultant free-kick quickly, chipping a pass over the top towards Keane, who’d made a storming run from midfield. Kharine raced out of his penalty area to head the ball as far away as the centre circle, where it was nodded back in the other direction by Bryan Robson.
Cantona, 40 yards out, had his back to goal when the ball fell at his feet. He let it bounce once before suddenly swivelling to hit a first-time strike towards the target, hoping it would bypass the hastily retreating Kharine on its way to the back of the net. Quite apart from the sublime technique required to accurately fire a bouncing ball goalwards without looking, the decision to take on the shot in the first place was so ballsy, so audacious, so Cantona. He who dares wins, Rodders.
Except Cantona didn’t win, at least not this time. A helpless Kharine had no chance of intercepting the missile, but his prayers were answered when the ball made contact with the ground two yards out and bounced up to hit the bar, before nestling in the Chelsea custodian’s grateful arms. Cantona, hands on head, stood in disbelief as the home fans rose to their feet to applaud a man they’d spent the previous 15 minutes booing.
“Cantona with the keeper out of his goal… oh it’s hit the bar! Fantastic! Oh! Who needs Pele?” screeched Motson, scrambling around for the right words as he desperately tried to regain his composure. “Eric Cantona nearly providing a goal that would have been etched, I would think, in Stamford Bridge history and Manchester United history too. I said the goalkeeper had just improvised; what did Cantona do?”
Chelsea took the lead soon after, Peacock pouncing after Peter Schmeichel had spilled Steve Clarke’s shot into his path. Even as he was describing the goal Motson’s mind seemed to be elsewhere, a suspicion confirmed when he rounded off his narration by noting “the ground was still recovering from what had happened at the other end.”
It’s another example of how fine the margins are in top-level sport. This defeat had no impact on Cantona or United’s success – Ferguson’s side went on to win three of the next four Premier League titles, with the Frenchman integral to each of their triumphs – but it goes without saying that his no-look, 40-yarder against Chelsea would be far better remembered had it pitched a few inches closer to goal and therefore dipped under the crossbar rather than hitting it.
Still, this was a highly instructive moment, an on-field event that perfectly encapsulated the essence of a footballer who blended attitude and artistry like few before him and even fewer since. What a player. What a picture.