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Eric Cantona: 10 Reasons He Could Be the All-Time Greatest Premier League Player

Terry CarrollContributor IIIJanuary 18, 2017

Eric Cantona: 10 Reasons He Could Be the All-Time Greatest Premier League Player

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    There will never be another Paul Scholes; nor another Eric Cantona. He was a one-off. He is one of a few contenders for the greatest Premier League player of all-time. 

    Everybody will have their own opinion and their own favourites. Naturally, I would pick a United player. With 19 Premier League titles and the likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Peter Schmeichel, Paul Scholes and Edwin Van der Sar, there is no shortage of candidates.

    On the final slide, I list the best 10. When you've considered the arguments put forward here, you can make your own mind up.

    For the time being, the selected candidate is Eric Cantona.

Great Technical Skill

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    It is arguable that Eric Cantona was technically better skilled than Lionel Messi.

    We are in awe of the little Catalan who can mesmerise us with his dribbling and prolific goal scoring.

    I am of the opinion that Ryan Giggs would have been bracketed with Messi if he had been allowed to play the same free role that Messi does, with service from arguably one of the greatest footballing teams ever.

    But Messi cannot head the ball like Cantona, nor did he have the height and power. Cantona could do everything with a ball that Messi can, but he also helped his team out in midfield and defence.

    We like to remember Cristiano Ronaldo for his tricks, but again, Cantona could do anything he could as well, and he had a similar physical presence.

    Ronaldo popularised the "lollipop," but if you watch this clip in full, you'll see the pass with one foot behind another (which some people thought Ronaldo invented); keepy-uppies, tricks, flicks, chips, lobs, belters and superb headed goals.

    Eric Cantona had it all; in the Premiership era, nobody did it better.

Awesome Presence

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    Eric is a big man. 

    Mark Hughes was as tough a striker as they come, but Cantona towers over Hughes. He is four inches taller, and you can see from his legs not only how physically strong he was, but also that his body is longer in proportion.

    This gave him not only great strength, but proportionally a lower centre of gravity, helping enable his ball skill.

    Like Ronaldo, when Eric headed a ball, he went through anyone in his way; he could bullet it, loop it or place it.

    He could also tackle hard. Positionally, with his strength, he could have played anywhere from "old-fashioned centre forward" through No. 10 to central midfield. He probably would have made a fair fist of centre-back as well.

    In a way, he was hard to categorise, but like Ronaldo, my feeling is that his best position was No. 9. He made Torres or Carroll look shabby in comparison. 

Goalscorer

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    Everyone wows about Cristiano Ronaldo's goal-scoring ability, but how quickly have we forgotten Eric Cantona. 

    Just one look at the above clips show his complete repertoire; Ronaldo, Giggs, Rooney, all rolled into one.

    So then you might say that Ronaldo has been more prolific. 

    For United, Ronaldo scored 118 goals in 292 appearances—a ratio of 0.40; whereas Cantona scored 82 in 185—a ratio of 0.44.

    'Ah, but Ronaldo was a winger...' Well, of sorts. Nominally, he was a winger who increasingly came inside to score and wasn't always on the wing when needed. But Cristiano did hardly any tackling back.

    Eric was in the "engine room," making and scoring goals, winning tackles, intercepting, breaking up play and starting attacks.

    As I said, how many more goals would he have scored if he'd been able to roam freely like Messi...?

Like Messi?

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    Cantona could do anything that Messi does on this video. The difference was the calibre of the team he was playing in.

    Not taking anything away from a United team that won nine major trophies and four Premier League titles in the five seasons that Cantona was there, this Barcelona team has great technical skill, plays to feet and is arguably the best in history.

    Accordingly, Messi has the luxury of being able to play where he wants in the opponent's half and is therefore very difficult to mark. Cantona had to keep the discipline of his position.

    In any case, Eric was a far better header of the ball than Messi ever will be. Imagine him playing alongside Messi.

    In some ways, he was very like Messi, especially in his ability to create an opening or a goal out of nothing at all. He did, however, probably score more goals than Messi from outside the box.

Strutting His Stuff

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    The starting shot and the way Cantona celebrates the fourth goal on this clip sums up so much about Cantona's style and the way he carried himself.

    Barrel-chested, very upright, shoulders back, he could at times look arrogant. He certainly never objected to the thoroughly deserved adulation that came his way. 

    He was the King of Old Trafford. The fans loved what he did, and especially the way he did it. 

    He made everything look ridiculously easy—even the Kung Fu drop kick on a Crystal Palace fan...

    He played with flair, walked like a peacock and bemused us all with his lyrical quotations, off-hand remarks and laid-back approach to football in particular and life in general.

    On the field of play he could be mesmerising. Like Cristiano Ronaldo, every time he got the ball, you expected something to happen—indeed he expected something to happen—and it often did.

    Football at Old Trafford was never dull when Eric played, and nor were his press conferences.

    And then he retired to be a film actor and director! Nobody expected that!

    Even if you weren't a United supporter, you had to like him. It was a love-hate relationship. You never took your eyes off him, because he did things others didn't; he made things happen, but you probably saw him as arrogant in the extreme.

    He had a manner that suggested that, but was probably an intensely private man, and a big kid really, with all the sweeties in the shop there for his taking.

He Rose to the Big Occasion

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    The 1996 FA Cup Final was made for King Eric. In the absence of Steve Bruce, he captained the side. His 86th minute strike from the edge of the box won the match.

    He became the first foreign player ever to lift the FA Cup as captain. In doing so, United also won the League and Cup Double for only the second time in their entire history.

Inspirational Leader

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    He may not have been captain very often, but he always led from the front—literally. 

    He could take a game by the scruff of the neck and win it on his own. He could lift the crowd and then the team with some of the things he did.

    He wasn't called The King for nothing.

    He was inspired by his own brilliance and an inspirational leader in every sense of the word.

    Maybe Ronaldo was mesmerising in his skill, but along with George Best, you wouldn't willingly miss a match in which the King played, simply for what he might do, sometimes conjuring magic out of nothing.

    It's those shock and awe moments we remember him for.

    Different people will have different definitions for "the greatest." Paul Scholes ranks among the greatest midfielders ever, with no explanation needed.

    But it's what Cantona did that you would talk about afterwards in the pub...

Coming Back from an 8-Month Ban

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    On 25 January 1995, Eric Cantona was sent off for kicking a Crystal Palace player. As he was leaving, he was angered by a Palace supporter, and suddenly, he was flying into the crowd with a "Kung Fu" kick and a flurry of punches.

    This was later followed by the famous quotation at a press conference that nobody really got:

    "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much."

    Upon which he walked out.

    Despite United and the FA banning him (for eight months), he was arrested, convicted of assault and sent to prison (later commuted to 120 hours of community service).

    Just over eight months later, he was back, setting up a goal and scoring himself against Liverpool. Typical Cantona.

    It was as if he had never been away. He had kept himself fit, although his form didn't fully recover for a few months.

    He could have walked away from the game or at least gone to Italy. In fact, on 8 August 1995, he had requested that his contract be terminated. Sir Alex flew to Paris and, like Wayne Rooney last season, persuaded the great man to stay.

    Ferguson almost certainly asked him to return for the fans. Recently, he admitted that the infamous attack on the Crystal Palace supporter was "a great feeling" and a memory he is happy for fans to treasure.

    How could you ever forget him?

£1.2 Million

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    Remember this guy?

    In some ways, Eric Cantona's arrival at Old Trafford was an accident.

    Leeds Chairman Bill Fotherby had called Martin Edwards to enquire about Denis Irwin, who was not for sale. Sir Alex was looking for a striker at the time, having had bids rejected for David Hirst, Matt Le Tissier and Brian Deane.

    He asked about the availability of Cantona. A few days later, the deal had been done for £1.2 million...yes, £1.2 million.

    We don't need to go into the ins and outs of why Leeds were prepared to let Eric go so cheaply, but that doesn't matter; irrespective of the price, Ferguson got a bargain. The two formed a great partnership; Sir Alex loves players with flair and a bit about them who are prepared to put the work-rate in.

    As it turned out, Cantona would have been cheap at five times the price; in 1991 and 1992, David Platt and Paul Gascoigne went to Italy for £5.5 million.

    Oh and by the way it was Brian Deane...Brian who...?

    He eventually signed for Leeds United as Cantona's replacement at £2.9 million. Not one of the Premier League's greatest players of all-time, however...

Complex Personality

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    Who'd have thought it...first an actor...and then a director...

    When we talk about complex personalities in football, we think of George Best, Paul Gascoigne, Joey Barton and others who to varying degrees have lost their way...

    The first two were definitely "artists," more than on the football pitch; Barton is an unreconstructed English literature afficionado (especially on Twitter!)

    Of course, Cantona could have lost his way after the Crystal Palace incident and probably owes a lot to Sir Alex, but in truth, he seems almost always to have known his own direction and destiny.

    His "seagulls" quote left the mass media in his wake and he has always been a private man, except in his ambitions.

    This is a man, however, who, despite never fully getting the recognition he should have from the French national coaches, will always be remembered by anyone who has watched the Premier League. 

    He was a standout—both as a footballer and as a person—a complete one-off. He may have lost his cool when he auditioned for The Karate Kid Part 5, but he turned everything round to be better still and bolder on his return.

    Eric always spoke his mind, and it is a pity that only a year after his debut for France, he was banned indefinitely for his irreverent description of the French national coach.

    The latter was sacked soon after and Michel Platini recalled Cantona, who had the misfortune to be a contemporary of Zinedine Zidane, at a time when France needed only one playmaker. His Premier League suspension didn't help, however, and after 1995, he never played for France again.

    Forty-five caps is not a fair reflection of Cantona's international competence. He did, however, score 20 goals at 0.44 a game. While his club career average is 0.37, Manchester United was the best club he played for. His goals-per-game average there matched his international average.

    Eric was gifted with great footballing skill, but like so few players, he matched art with technique. He can be favourably compared to Zinedine Zidane, especially when one considers they basically played different roles.

    However, Cantona was credible in both roles—striker and playmaker—whereas Zidane was too languid to be an out and out striker.

    So, you either think he was the greatest or not depending on whether you take the narrow view or a wider one. Here are some other possibilities.

So Who Is the Greatest?

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    These two would come close.

    Players like Zinedine Zidane think Paul Scholes is one of the greatest midfielders of all time. He and Giggs have been team-mates for almost the entire history of the Premier League.You have to be great to do that for a team that has won 12 titles and never finished out of the top three.

    Robin van Persie has just won the PFA Player of the Year and who knows how good he might have been with no injuries.

    His contemporary, Thierry Henry must come close.

    So here's a possible Top 10. You can decide the order:

    Eric Cantona

    Paul Scholes

    Ryan Giggs

    Roy Keane

    Peter Schmeichel

    Gary Neville

    Cristiano Ronaldo

    David Beckham

    Wayne Rooney

    Teddy Sheringham

    No seriously, you decide. If we're talking about the best, Shearer, Gerrard, Keane, Scholes and Giggs would be up there.

    But here we're talking about the greatest. Muhammad Ali was the greatest boxer of all-time, in my opinion, but the two Sugar Rays were the best. That's the difference.

    Some people define genius as having skills in more than one unconnected aspect. Both Ali and Cantona were geniuses in my book.

    So for the purposes of this article, I propose Eric Cantona as the greatest.

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