Eric Cantona isn't the greatest overseas player ever to play in this country. He wasn't the quickest, the most skillful, or even the most prolific. But, his mere presence, and contribution to the Premier League in its early days, helped to shape the modern game as we know it.
As the former Leeds United and Manchester United striker celebrates his 46th birthday today, GiveMeFootball pays tribute to English football's most influential import.
Cantona arrived on English shores in January 1992 when he was offered a one-week trial with Sheffield Wednesday. However, when manager Trevor Francis said he would need a further week of training before making a decision on whether or not to sign him, the flamboyant Frenchman left the Yorkshire club in favour of a move to local rivals Leeds United.
After signing for the Elland Road outfit in a £900,000 deal from Nimes, Cantona made 15 appearances in Leeds' championship winning season, and despite only scoring three goals, was instrumental in the club's title success in the final Football League First Division campaign, before it was replaced by the Premier League as the top division in English football in 1992-93.
His flair and mercurial ability not only enabled Howard Wilkinson's team to edge out Manchester United for the league title in 1991-92, but also attracted the attention of Sir Alex Ferguson, who sought to bring him to Old Trafford before the start of the new season.
It wasn't quite as straightforward as that, but after a poor start to the campaign, United finally got their man in November 1992 in a £1.2million deal, providing Ferguson with the final piece of the jigsaw that saw United end their 26-year wait for a league championship.
Cantona was the perennial catalyst in the club's inaugural Premier League title triumph in 1992-93, and became the first player to win back-to-back English top division championships with two different teams.
The following season United retained their domestic crown, and added the FA Cup courtesy of two goals from Cantona via the penalty spot in a 4-0 victory over Chelsea. However, the Frenchman's season was also marred by moments of controversy. He was sent off as United exited the Champions League against Galatasaray, and was also dismissed in successive Premier League games against Swindon Town and Arsenal, leading to a five-match domestic ban.
1994-95 is best remembered for Cantona's infamous 'kung-fu' kick on a Crystal Palace fan in a game at Selhurst Park on 25 January 1995. Having been sent off, the enigmatic forward launched an attack into the crowd, at a fan who was abusing him as he walked towards the tunnel.
His action resulted in a lengthy nine-month worldwide ban, and Cantona did not feature again for United that season. Media speculation suggested he would leave Old Trafford that summer, but Ferguson convinced his star striker to stay, and he scored in his comeback game against Liverpool in October 1995.
United regained their title from Blackburn Rovers in 1995-96 - the club's third triumph in four seasons - and also beat Liverpool 1-0 in the FA Cup final that year to become the first team to win the Premier League and FA Cup double twice.
With regular captain Steve Bruce missing the match at Wembley through injury, Cantona took the armband, and after scoring an 86th minute winner, became the first player from outside the British Isles to lift the FA Cup as skipper.
In 1996-97, Cantona was confirmed as United captain after Bruce departed for Birmingham City. After winning the title again - his fourth Premier League crown with the Red Devils - the striker announced his retirement at the age of 30.
With 80 goals in 175 appearances over five years, Cantona enjoys an iconic status at Old Trafford, having played a key role in the revival of Manchester United as a footballing force. His number 7 shirt, which was previously worn by George Best and Bryan Robson, and subsequently worn by David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo, is revered by fans all over the world.
Affectionately nicknamed "King Eric" by United fans, Cantona was voted the club's greatest ever player by Inside United magazine, and earlier this month his famous pirouette pose celebration, after scoring a delicate chip following a surging run against Sunderland in December 1996, was heralded the best in history at the recent Premier League 20 Seasons anniversary.
"That's the only thing I won? For a king like me it's not a lot," he jokingly stated.
The accolade not only recognises the impact he made, but the lasting legacy that Cantona has left on the English game. Football in this country will be forever grateful. Happy Birthday "King Eric!"
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