Eric Cantona is back after eight months out and with his first few touches has supplied the cross from which Butt scored. The crowd goes wild, the players besiege the scorer and yet the calmest man in the place is the mercurial Frenchman.
Five minutes prior to this scene, the teams were emerging from the tunnel to a wall of noise. The stadium was awash with tricolour flags displaying Cantona’s visage and the fans were chanting their hero’s name to the tune of ‘La Marseillaise’.
And then he appeared; last out, collar popped and ready to go to work.
It was refreshing to see him back in a red shirt. It had been a long time coming. He had been serving an eight month ban after trying out his martial arts skills on an abusive Crystal Palace fan in January of that year. The United fans didn’t lose their adoration for the Frenchman during his ban, despite his absence being a deciding factor behind the club’s failure in the league and cup at the final hurdles the previous season.
Somewhat contrary to Alan Hansen’s observations that “You never win anything with kids” after the opening day at Villa Park, United had made a relatively promising start to the 1995/96 season without ‘Le God’. But the team was young and missed a player with Cantona’s joie de vivre amongst their ranks. The fans needed him. He had been an icon during the club’s first two Premier League seasons and absence had made the heart grow fonder. The fans needed someone to idolise. He obliged.
Flash back to the game and Cantona has burst down the left and with his first few touches, controlled it and floated a beautiful ball across for Butt to slot home. Robbie Fowler attempted to spoil the party with two excellent goals but on the seventieth minute, Cantona was conducting the orchestra again and found Ryan Giggs with a well weighted pass. Giggs went down, a penalty was awarded and there was only one man who would be taking it. The Frenchman placed it to David James’s left and this time he let the emotions of the day stream out. No longer able to keep the cool demeanour he had shown during the first goal celebrations, he wheeled away to celebrate by jumping and sliding down the pole at the back of the goal. Cantona was on the scoresheet and everything seemed right again.
The game ended 2-2 but it was the impact that Cantona’s return had on the rest of the season that was truly special. After Christmas it looked like Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United would run away with the title but Cantona had other ideas. It was not uncommon in the title run-in to see his was the solitary name on the scoresheet as United went on an incredible run to topple Keegan’s side and go on to win the title. It was Cantona too who fired United to their second double in three years with a last minute winner against Liverpool in that season’s FA Cup Final. The king was back.
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