A friend of mine sent me a photo of a letter written to Eric Cantona from Alex Ferguson in 1997, 20 years ago this summer. You may have seen it, it’s an interesting insight into the minds of both men.
The general tone is one of fatherly advice and support, and it appears to be at a time when Cantona himself seemed disillusioned and solitary. It stopped just short of being a love letter. Ferguson signs the letter off with, ‘now that you are no longer one of my players, I hope you know you have a friend.’
The glaring thing about the letter is its empathetic tone, akin to the words of a headteacher to a former head boy. The compassion with which the letter to Cantona is written shows a deep respect for his former prize asset, even after the Frenchman’s departure from Old Trafford.
On reflection, perhaps this was one of Ferguson’s greatest attributes – sincerity. More often than not, despite the oft-discussed mind games and verbal sparring, Ferguson actually spoke with a refreshing sense of frankness and honesty. His players bought into the philosophy, and were then rewarded accordingly.
From many accounts of various players including David Beckham, Gary Neville, Jaap Stam, Roy Keane and many more, this was Sir Alex’s oxymoronic way. The method of push-pull, a cuddling hairdryer of a man. It’s what seems consistent across the workings of most of Europe’s elite managers – whether through fear or friendship, players simply don’t want to let their managers down.
As the cliché goes, Cantona was aloof, enigmatic and lonesome during his time at Old Trafford. Alongside this reputation, he played a significant role in the driving, relentless force of United in the mid-1990s. The version of him we remember now is almost cartoon-like – the spiky-fringed, collar-popped, kung-fu kicker. But boy, he scored some stunning goals. The pick of the bunch, brilliantly recollected in the film ‘Looking for Eric’, was his chip against Sunderland which tickled in off the far post, where he then slowly raised him arms aloft in a Nate Diaz fashion, ‘I’m not surprised, mother f*ckers’. His lack of celebration spoke volumes about his seemingly endless self-belief, something which appears to be lacking in late 1997 based on the tone of Ferguson’s note.
Shortly after leaving Old Trafford, Cantona became the captain of the French national beach soccer team. Incidentally, he has had a great deal of success both as a player and a manager of beach soccer while at the same time helping to elevate the sport’s popularity across the world. This move, however, always felt too early – a Premier League career which felt all too fleeting and short-lived.
A series of Nike adverts and films also followed, yet his love affair with United never dimmed. Cantona has been quoted on many occasions stating the fire is still burning strong. Every Christmas, as most United fans tuck into their turkey dinner, they’ll have the words to the ’12 Days of Christmas’ ringing in their ears, every gift replaced with an Eric Cantona.
Ferguson alludes to the bedding-in of Teddy Sheringham, which, as we all know, worked out well in the end. In Barcelona in 1999, Sheringham provided a goal and assist to turn the game on its head. It was a transitional period at Old Trafford and it really shows in Ferguson’s words.
Cantona embodied what made the United team in the 90s so successful – talented, brave and, ultimately, bloody stubborn. The thing which appears to bother Ferguson, even now, is the lack of European success considering the talents he had at his disposal throughout his tenure, ‘I have not won the European Cup and it does get to me at times.’ Although he eventually finished his managerial career with two Champions League trophies, it’s the one aspect of relative disappointment in what was otherwise blistering success.
It’s an intriguing insight into the mind of one of England’s greatest ever managers. In Cantona’s case, the letter only adds to his cartoon-like status as the enigmatic loner.
Chris Henderson – follow me on Twitter here