Is Cantona really Premier League’s best?

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To celebrate 20 years of the Premier League, a host of awards are set to be handed out at the start of next month in a wide variety of categories.

Everything from best celebration – which includes Temuri Ketsbaia losing his marbles after scoring for Newcastle – to best rant is covered in recognition of the past two decades in the English top flight.

The ‘best player’ and ‘team of the seasons’ categories have started some hotly-disputed debates, as expected, and the fact that a panel of ‘experts’ are selecting the winners in some of the categories – rather than the supporters - will irk many.

And from the pre-selected shortlists on offer from the Premier League, it’s Eric Cantona who leads the pack with five nominations in total. They come in the best player, goal, celebration, rant and striker shortlists. He’s also available for selection in the separate fantasy team category.

But, a quick look at Cantona’s history in England suggests that he’s potentially been over-rewarded for his efforts.

At Manchester United, the Frenchman was lauded as a God during his time at the club, winning two league-and-cup doubles, as well as two more league titles at Old Trafford.

Before joining the Red Devils, Cantona also won an old First Division title with Leeds United, but that success has no bearing on his standing within the Premier League.

From 1992 onwards, ‘King Eric’ scored 65 goals in 144 games. It’s an impressive, but not particularly spectacular return when compared to other attacking ‘greats’ from this era. Thierry Henry, for example, scored 176 goals in 258 matches for Arsenal.

Perhaps the comparison to Henry is unfair, given that the younger Frenchman’s business was all about scoring goals.

Cantona, it could be argued, offered more to the Red Devils than the predatory instinct in-front of goal that made Henry so great. He created chances for others as much as he scored goals, and would often play as the ‘second striker’ rather than leading the line in a more traditional sense.

A controversial figure, the 45-cap international was banned for eight-months after kung fu kicking a fan after being sent off against Crystal Palace in January ’95. That means he missed almost half a season at the end of the 1994-95 campaign, and struggled for match fitness at the start of the following season.

And the next year, as the central attacking figure for United, Cantona scored just 11 goals in 36 matches for the champions. It proved to be the last season of his professional football career.

It’s the magic moments that I haven’t referred to which, in the eyes of Manchester United fans at least, makes Cantona one of the all-time greats.

That chip against Sunderland (and subsequent celebration – which is on the shortlist in that category), the volleyed winner against Newcastle United at St. James’ Park and the comeback match against Liverpool rank as three of his biggest league moments.

But when compared to the likes of Henry, Ryan Giggs, Alan Shearer and Steven Gerrard, it appears that Cantona has been treated kindly by the folks at the Premier League.

Indeed, Gerrard has been omitted from the list of best Premier League players, a quite startling snub for a player who has been the heartbeat of one of the division's most famous clubs.

I'm not suggesting for one moment that Cantona doesn't deserve some sort of recognition for his efforts in the Premier League, and there is no doubting that he was a very special player.

But, his time in the league was limited to just 25% of its 20 years, and I believe others should have been rewarded for their efforts in making the top flight what it is today.

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