Eric Cantona brought a regal swagger to Manchester United in the 1990s, when he was the figurehead of a young and exciting team that won four Premier League titles in five years.
The Frenchman, who announced his shock retirement from football 20 years ago this month, played with both style and a shrug. United fans call him ‘King Eric,’ and like all the best players he seemed to have all the time on the world on the pitch. He was a capable of transcendent moments on the pitch – deft flicks and gorgeous chips, delivered with the mastery and precision of an artist.
But, like many great artists, there was a dark side to Cantona – a tortured aspect that plagued his career. He had plenty of troubles. On 25th January 1995, at Selhurst Park in south London, Cantona launched himself into the stands to karate kick an abusive fan after being sent off in a game against Crystal Palace. He was banned from all football for eight months, and sentenced to 120 hours of community service. At a press conference, he only added to his cult status with a cryptic quote, which he’d jotted down just moments earlier: 'When seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea,' he said.
The Art of the Game by Manchester-based artist Michael J. Browne, was inspired by Cantona’s return from that ban and his reintroduction into the United team. It is based on two paintings from the late fifteenth century: Resurrection, by Piero della Francesca, and The Triumphs of Caesar, IX by Andrea Mantegna.
Browne is a United fan, and when he spotted Cantona in a bar in the centre of Manchester during his ban he asked him to pose for the painting. The player enthusiastically agreed, using a broom as a stand-in for a flag, and agreeing to purchase the finished piece on the spot. Browne completed the painting using photographs of the other players, and it is now on display at the National Football Museum in Manchester, on loan from Cantona.
The original Resurrection shows Christ rising from the dead, while four Roman soldiers sleep in front of his team. In this pastiche (which is admittedly of questionable taste) Cantona takes centre-stage, with United colleagues Phil Neville, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville reclining in front of him from left to right.
Along with Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, that quartet made up United’s famous ‘Class of 92’ – the group of talented youngsters who came through the club’s academy and broke through into the first team in 1992. Cantona was their catalyst – the spark that helped transform them from a talented group with potential into the all-conquering side that they would become.
Behind them, overseeing it all – in a section of the painting inspired by The Triumphs of Caesar, IX – sits manager Sir Alex Ferguson, considered one of the greatest coaches in football history. The Scot had a reputation as a authoritarian coach, not afraid to use his temper to motivate his players.
After winning United’s first league title for 25 years in the 1992–1993 season, the year Cantona joined the club, Ferguson would go on to win 12 more in a 27-year spell at United – along with five FA Cups, two European Cups and four League Cups.
As in the source painting, the ruler rides a golden chariot while a figure in white robes lifts a crown onto his head. In this case it appears to be John Curtis, a defender who at the time of the painting was tipped to be the next great youth product to come through United’s academy. It didn’t work out that way, and Curtis would make just 14 appearances for the club before being sold.
For the others though, Cantona’s arrival was the beginning of an extended spell at the top. He returned to first-team action after his ban and helped United win the double of Premier League and FA Cup in his first season back – a fitting resurrection.
In 1999, a side including Beckham, Butt and the Neville brothers would win an unprecedented treble of Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup. By then, Cantona had retired. He left the game in May 1997 at the age of just 30 to embark on an acting career. But the other players depicted in The Art of the Game were inspired. They played with same verve and swagger, and would go on to even greater heights.
Amit Katwala, award-winning sports journalist and author
- One of Cantona's favourite artists is Anish Kapoor
- The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of three books he owns
- Artist Michael J. Browne was born and grew up in Moss Side, Manchester and studied at Chelsea School of Art