We now know what we didn’t at the time, that at least one Manchester United player blamed Eric Cantona for the team’s failure to win a historic Double Double in the 1994-95 season, thereby also missing out on achieving that extreme rarity, a third successive league title. The fault lay with his spectacular kung-fu kick on that wintry night at Selhurst Park in the January when he did what so many players have only dreamed of doing, flattening an obnoxiously abusive fan with one fell blow. As a close eye-witness I feared immediately that in that red-mist moment my favourite player had just blown our chances of silverware and plunged the club into turmoil. And so it proved, as I recounted in my ‘Getting a kick out of Eric Cantona (Part II. III) Memories of Chasing the Double Double in ’95‘. In a dressing room of formidable competitors and winners it would have been a surprise if none of them harboured feelings of annoyance at their talisman’s indiscipline, which led directly to his own 8 month ban, and indirectly to United ending up merely runners-up in both Premiership and FA Cup.
However, although we now know that Brian McClair had a real go at Eric in the post Cup Final banquet, following United’s 1-0 defeat by a mediocre Everton, the amazing thing is how the club somehow managed to keep such things hidden from public gaze. Part of that was undoubtedly the enormous gratitude the players still felt for how Cantona’s Gallic genius had transformed United from being chronic big-club under-achievers into all-conquering champions, bringing the title home for the first time in 26 years in 1993, followed by the first Double the next year. Nevertheless I’m glad ‘Choccy’ dished out a few home truths to Cantona that night in May 1995, even if he later regretted it and apologised. I think it needed someone to say something within ‘the family’, to tell the mercurial and moody Frenchman that he now owed something special to his team-mates and the supporters who had rallied round in his defence, at a time when the establishment and media were determined to give him and the club a good kicking.
A Summer of Discontent: The dismantling of a great team
There was a strange atmosphere round United in the summer months before the new season, with tremendous uncertainty about whether or not Cantona would ever play for United again, once his ban was up in October. Rumours abounded, including reports in August that he’d had enough of the way he’d been treated by the authorities (a view I shared) and was quitting our shores. We now know of course that it took manager Alex Ferguson hopping on a plane to France to talk to Eric in person, a master-stroke of man-management, for stroking is exactly what it was.
On top of the uncertainty over Eric’s future, United seemed inexplicably bent on ushering some of their best players towards the exit, starting with Paul Ince, who had apparently already been overheard at that same febrile Cup Final dinner boasting that he’d lined up a move to Inter Milan. There was consternation among fans when it was confirmed in June that the self-styled ‘Guv’nor’, a muscular dynamo in United’s relentless midfield,was indeed off to Italy for £7.5M. But gradually all sorts of stories began seeping out of Old Trafford, some of them even reaching my little niche in the world of television.
In terms of on-field matters, one heard that Fergie had had enough of Ince’s unwillingness to perform his designated defensive duties, as when he failed to snuff out the move that ended in Everton’s winning goal at Wembley. But beyond that there were other festering discontents. According to a producer on Channel 4′s The Word, who later joined my department in the BBC, Ince was clandestinely meeting Inter representatives at the London apartment of one of the show’s presenters, well before the end of the ’94-95 season. Word was that there was mounting tension at Old Trafford provoked by Ince repeatedly bragging to his team-mates that he was the best midfielder at the club, even better than Bryan Robson had been. That led to something of a revolt, Red Robbo still being revered by the players as a near indestructible hero even then, a year after he’d ended his glittering Captain Marvel career. It may have been these pretensions Fergie had in mind when he later hilariously dismissed the puffed-up Ince as a ‘Champagne Charlie’ a couple of years later, by which time he’d completed his journey of shame – by joining Liverpool.
The day after the Ince transfer was announced (which happened to be the day the Prime Minister John Major caught the political world on the hop by announcing his resignation from the leadership of the Conservative Partry, in a two-bit gambler’s desperate last throw intended to bounce his fractious colleagues into rallying behind his struggling leadership) there was another shock for United fans.
By chance I was in Leeds when I heard the news, almost the worst location to hear bad tidings about United, especially then, when Leeds United could still just about hold on to delusions of parity. I was in a taxi from the station to the Metropolitan University to give a talk to media students, when it was reported on the radio that United had just sold Mark Hughes to Chelsea, for a paltry £1.5M. Disregarding the fact that I was on ‘enemy’ territory, I swore, almost involuntarily, ‘Fucking Hell! What the hell are are United doing selling our best players!’ This being ‘Leeds Scum’ heartland, my driver openly laughed at my discomposure, my southern BBC accent no doubt fuelling all his assumptions about ‘ManU’ support. I didn’t care what he thought, I was too bothered about United systematically dismantling a great team, although I have to admit being in Leeds, home of the Champions only three years before made it so much worse. After delivering a marathon 4-hour lecture all I wanted was to see the evening papers to see if it was true about ‘Sparky’, and more important, had United signed someone to replace him?
Hughes had been a mighty warrior for United, scorer of scorching volleys, a great partner to Cantona, someone you’d want in the trenches with you. The arrival of striker Andy Cole from Newcastle in January was surely a factor, but I wondered if the events of the last day of the league season in May had been the clincher. I thought Fergie had made a big mistake not putting Sparky in the attack from the start in the final game of the season, when we needed a victory at West Ham to win the Premiership. And who was it that missed a stand-full of chances? Andy Cole.
Things got even worse a month later. This time it was the sale of Andrei Kanchelskis to Everton for £5M, after all sorts of strange stories alleging gambling debts and shady dealings with threats from the Post-Soviet Mafia in Russia. The player himself kept saying in public that relations between him and the manager had broken down irretrievably, which was plausible given that he was not an automatic pick for every match, itself an oddity. It was a huge blow to see our hard-running right-winger heading off down the road to Goodison Park, with no sign of a replacement to replicate his burning pace and shoot-on-sight goal-getting, which still gets him in some people’s all time favourite starting eleven.
So, as the new season approached, with mounting anxiety about Cantona’s future and his state of mind, we’d lost three players who would merit a first choice place at every other club in the Premiership. And who was brought in to replace them? No-one.
I can very clearly remember how much piss-taking I got at work around that time, as United not only missed the Double Double in May but were now shedding top players like there was no tomorrow. Even non-fans knew all about the Cantona saga, with no-one knowing if we’d ever see King Eric again. Few in the BBC could escape my allegiance, given my liking for Ryan Giggs T-shirts and all the United memorabilia and Cantona posters adorning my office. If anyone regards all this stuff as far too bloke-ish and male-bonding and thus ‘inappropriate’ for someone in BBC senior-management I would just say that some of the best piss-takes came from the young women in my department, which I was only too glad to indulge, not wishing to be an object of fear as their boss (although not yet quite ‘the gaffer’), at a time of huge anxiety in the BBC. I remember one aspiring researcher chortling to me after United had been humiliatingly knocked out of the League Cup in the autumn by lowly York City: ‘What’s the difference between ManU and a tea-bag?’ she asked, ‘ The tea-bag stays in the cup longer!’ It’s an old one, I know, even 15 years ago, but I had to at least pretend to laugh.
In that period things were very tough at the BBC, following the imposition of a hopelessly ill-thought-out Thatcherite ‘internal market’, creating a destabilising ‘cash crisis’ and a moratorium on new programme commissions from the controllers of BBC1 and 2 . Then there were the annual ‘efficiency savings’ targets, all inevitably leading to job losses. That meant there was always tension about the place throughout the summer and autumn ,with anyone on a fixed term contract worrying about whether they’d get an extension, ‘permanent’ staff wondering if they really were. The older producers were losing sleep over mortgages and kids, younger ones fearful that their careers would be over before they’d even got a toe-hold in the industry. As a long term trade union activist myself, involved in strikes and all manner of disputes in the past, I had views on how these things should be conducted, and tried to manage my own department in as fair a manner as possible. I did everything I could to avoid redundancies, while ensuring that the process would be equitable if they did finally become inevitable, which of course they did, at precisely the same time as King Eric was due to return.I was determined to do everything I could to keep up morale, motivation and team spirit, in order to keep up the flow of good future programme ideas and ensure we didn’t ‘take our eye off the ball’ in maintaining programme quality on screen. A little piss-taking directed at the boss over his Man United obsessions was no bad thing in the circumstances. And anyway, I was learning all the time about management from the best in the business.
Fergie: Management Mentor
I used to think long and hard about management, for which I had little training despite running a department with a budget of around £6-7M ( of licence fee payers’ money) and anything from sixty to a hundred staff. I can remember talking around this time to one of my producers, who happened to be a United fan, about Fergie’s book ‘A Year in the Life’ about the previous season, when we were joined by one of the older (more expensive ) producers. He said he’d heard what we were talking about and he wondered if I found myself examining the football manager’s approach for lessons in my own job. I replied that I did. Warming to my theme, I said that, like Fergie I wanted to nurture young talent in the BBC and bring people through the system inculcated with certain values. And if it’s time for someone to move on, I’d do everything I could to help them, as with Mark Hughes, who was allowed to go to Chelsea on good terms, below the price United could have demanded. As I complacently preened myself on my Alex Ferguson-style managerial principles, the grizzled veteran cut through it all with a grin, ‘So Giles, you’ll try to transfer me to another team, will you?’
Title contenders? You’ve got to be kidding!
When things at work are stressful, there’s nothing like football to help you escape, so I could hardly wait for the new season to start. And there was good news at long last, a week before kick-off in August , when it was announced that Eric Cantona would be staying. Fergie’s ‘mercy dash’ had worked. I was ecstatic and whooped with delight in the office when I heard the glad tidings, doing a little Fergie-style ‘embarrassing dad’ touchline dance. Of course Eric would still be under his ban, so wouldn’t be available until October, but he would be back, raring to go, in line to return for that most emotive of fixtures, United v Liverpool.
To put all this into sobering context, on the same day that I heard Cantona was staying at United, reports came out of former Yugoslavia of Croatian atrocities against Serbs, immediately followed by grisly accounts of mass graves being found of Bosnian Muslims massacred by Serbs.
When at last the 1995-96 season kicked off with United away to Aston Villa, I was on holiday with my family in Sicily where it was hard to get the football results. As I eventually discovered, an astonishingly youthful United got a good thumping that afternoon, losing 3-1 with only a terrific goal from David Beckham to hint at future glories.
Being abroad, I’ll never be able to tell any future grandchildren that I was there to see Match of the Day that night, when Alan Hansen came out with that most famous of all football quotes,delivered, I’m sure, with utter certitude, that ‘You can’t win anything with kids’. With hindsight it’s tempting to laugh at Hansen for this pronouncement, especially as he’s that hated thing, an ex-Liverpool player from the era of their ascendency, and a known antagonist of Ferguson’s from his days as manager of Scotland in the 1986 World Cup, when Hansen was left out of the squad for the finals. We are all made dupes by events, and in truth, I suspect there must have been untold thousands of United fans nodding agreement with him, fearful that he could very well be right. Successful though Fergie already was, this was long before you’d find fans holding back criticism , as they do now, with the phrase, ‘In Him We Trust’. Then we were asking, how could we expect to win trophies with a seriously weakened team? No Ince, no Hughes, no Kanchelskis, and for the first 10 fixtures, no King Eric.
Early season form
When the ’96-96 season is spoken of today, full of the legend of Beckham, Scholes, Butt and the Neville brothers it is always made to seem inevitable that it would all turn out well for United, but that’s not really how it felt at the time, and does no justice to Ferguson’s courage in trusting so many almost untried youngsters.Even some of the ‘older’ players were hardly veterans, Giggs being only 22, Cole 23 and Roy Keane 24.
As it happens, United did get into a good solid run in the early weeks, winning the next five league games, without necessarily looking like title contenders. The first time I began to feel genuinely convinced was when I saw Bolton dismantled on Match of the Day, a thrilling 3-0 victory starring teenage debutant Terry Cooke, a performance that brought tears to the eyes of a watching Sir Bobby Charlton, conscious like no-one else of the heritage of the Busby Babes.
Suddenly, one sensed a mood of optimism about all that youthful talent at Old Trafford. Maybe Fergie was onto something letting all those big names go. I was delighted to see Cooke, having been impressed with him in the FA Youth Cup Final at White Hart Lane in May. But such are the vagaries of football, he was not one of the kids who went on to make it. You really never can tell. He only made 8 first team appearences, 6 as substitute.
As if to underline just how callow this young team could be, straight after the Bolton triumph came that embarrassing ‘tea bag’ 0-3 home defeat by York City, which must have got the Hansens of this world guffawing with laughter. That humiliation was followed by a poor 0-0 draw with Sheffield Wednesday.
Next up were Rotor Volgorad in the UEFA Cup 2nd leg at Old Trafford, the last time United would have to cope without Cantona, whose imminent return was already filling the back pages.
When the kids took on the Russians, it was almost as if they needed to prove they were worthy of the King on his return, that they had what it takes even without his inspirational magic. I watched the match live on Sky Sport in my office, after a gruelling day digesting the news that the BBC’s cash crisis had taken a turn for the worse. Astonishingly, a hitherto undetected overspend of £77M had been discovered in network television, which meant the last flickering hopes of avoiding redundancies in my department had been snuffed out.
Desperate for distraction, I was pleased to see that Fergie was keeping faith with the kids, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and David Beckham all starting plus another promising youth, John O’Kane, with Scholes and Cooke coming on as subs. It was thus a bit of a let-down when the Russians took an all-too-easy two goal lead in the first half. Then, in one of the most enthralling matches I can recall, for the whole of the rest of the game United poured forward in wave after wave of attacks. They hit post and bar, had shots cleared off the line, had a clear penalty denied, all with time ticking away, but never giving up. Scholes pulled one back, and then, caution thrown to the Old Trafford night sky, big Peter Schmeichel left his goal to join the attack and powered home a vein-bulging header to equalise in the dying moments, preserving the United record of never being beaten in Europe at home. Sadly, 2-2 wasn’t quite enough, as Volgograd went through on ‘away goals’.
The kids played with fearless passion and skill that night, firing in 30 shots,18 on target. Despite the huge disappointment of defeat, I felt curiously elated. It had been such a good game, and the kids were so brilliant I almost didn’t mind who won. Almost. Next time they’d have Eric back, then we’d really see what they could do.
After the game I quickly phoned home to see how my daughter had enjoyed her first ballet lesson. She wasn’t very forthcoming. Kids, eh. Still, when I got home she rushed out to show me her new leotard. Any excuse to be up late. I hoped Choccy – dubbed the kids’ teacher by the fans – had all his brood safely tucked up in bed by now.
Wanna ticket, mate?
Mainly my job was an impediment to seeing United. Occasionally it was a big advantage. Back in 1993 I was series producer for Open Space, a documentary strand on BBC2 and we’d made a perhaps prescient film challenging the growing commercialisation of football and consequent alienation of ordinary supporters.It was made on behalf of all fans but by chance it was presented by a United supporter, Robert Cookson, which turned out to be a stroke of luck. Out of the blue he phoned to offer me a ticket for the United v Liverpool match on Sunday, meaning I’d get to see the King’s return, one of the most-sought-after gigs of the year. I’d always liked Rob, now I could have kissed him, albeit down the phone. No tongues, of course.
The King’s return: Manchester United v Liverpool, Sunday 1 October 1995
I got the train up to Manchester and was met by Rob and his mate Steve plus a couple of Norwegians in thick fisherman sweaters. After the obligatory pint near the ground we went in, almost missing the 4.00 pm kick off. I had a borrowed season-ticket in the South Stand, in line with the penalty spot at one end, which was to feature dramatically in due course. The stand opposite was nearly empty for major reconstruction, reducing the number of Liverpool fans present, but not the buzz all round Old Trafford . There was a nervously frenzied atmosphere among the massed ranks of United supporters, unlike anything I can remember, a kind of religious ecstacy for the long awaited Second Coming.The stands were awash with Cantona banners, French Tricolors, balloons, painted faces,and fans in red No.7 shirts named ‘God’ or ‘Dieu’, collars up. The Ooh-Aah chants rolled incessantly round the arena, reaching an extraordinary crescendo as the teams came out, a moment of pure theatre, part celebrity culture, part media hype, and overwhelmingly the build-up of love and expectation created by supporters who invested this remarkable French footballer with almost supernatural powers.
Surfing on a sea of adrenaline, Cantona created the first goal with his second touch, in the second minute of the match. Released down the left by Andy Cole he burst free and whipped over a low cross that the onrushing Nicky Butt nimbly, almost nonchalantly flicked up and volleyed home past the keeper: 1-0! Old trafford erupted in an explosion of joy, all the pent-up frustrations of the missing months of ‘Le genius’ at last given a triumphant outlet. Was this the beginning of King Eric’s redemption?
Unfortunately the sheer speed of his impact on the game seemed to take the urgency out of United. Suddenly it was Liverpool, undoubted title contenders in those days, who were smoothing the ball around, keeeping possession, beginning to run United’s inexperienced kids ragged, especially Philip Neville, who was only 18 and out of position, it felt, at left back, partnering older brother Gary on the right. At first the Scousers’ shots were from far out, easily beaten down, and Lee Sharpe missed a sitter for United from Cantona’s perfectly timed pass. But then came two stunning shots in quick succession from Liverpool’s Robbie Fowler, both fired with power and precision with no back-lift, classic striker’s goals. Suddenly all our fantasies seemed to be unravelling, United were trailing 2-1, and looking disorganised and deflated. But Cantona kept his flicks flying, the weighted passes skimming, the nod-ons opening up gaps in the Liverpool defence, and slowly the team began to respond. The urgency returned, the movements became more confident and suddenly Cantona had burst throught again, laying off a perfect ball to Ryan Giggs on his left. Then , crash, down went Giggsy in the box, the referee pointed to the spot, and up steps the man of the moment, Eric Cantona.
The goalmouth below me was bathed in glowing late-afternoon sunlight, the perfect setting for the exquisitely placed penalty kick that Eric confidently rifled into the net. The crowd went mad as he leapt up onto the pole holding up the side netting and spun round it ecstatically like a very unlikely pole-dancer.The photos of that moment became almost as iconic in Eric’s career as the infamous kung-fu leap, a moment that flashed into my mind even as he leaped. For one nervous moment I thought he was jumping into the crowd in celebration, something not beyond such a master of the symbolic moment.
With Eric’s goal the old enemy had been thwarted and in the closing stages it was all United. A win would have been perfect, but a creditable 2-2 draw would do, especially with Alan Hansen no doubt watching. This line-up had never played together before, including all the ‘Win Nothing Kids’, put together en masse for the first time with the returning, half fit Frenchman. Here was our first real glimpse of the future.Kids alone, no chance.Kids plus Cantona, just maybe.
When United Eyes Are Smiling
After the match Rob and Steve took me to O’Shea’s Irish pub in Central Manchester, evidently a regular haunt of Dennis Irwin and Roy Keane. No sign of them but there were lots of happy United fans as the dark, wood-panelled bar began to fill up and a stage was set up for live music.An amazing group of peroxide-blonde Irish women came tottering in on high-heels with tight mini-skirts and bulging see-through blouses, all cheerfully sozzled. Someone unkindly remarked that they were reminiscent of the Fat Slags, of Viz fame. I loved the loquacious, garrulous friendliness of the place, especially when the lilting Irish music began, with its underlying hints of melancholy and loss. It was a real shame when I had to leave, as Rob took me back to the station to return to London.
I was elated to have seen Eric’s comeback, which provided a kind of symmetry with my having witnessed his last, disastrous appearance eight months before. Seeing him strut the stage with all his old grandeur it was clear he’d lost none of his old charisma.He was such an important player for United, an inspiration to his team mates, young and old, knitting together shapes and formations all over the pitch with utter control of space and angle of pass. Certain sporting heroes appear to create an alternative reality around themselves, making things seem to stop still as they take charge with all the time in the world. Eric Cantona was like that, always looming head and shoulders above everyone else, such was his majestic presence. He was truly a King. And now he was back.