ERIC CANTONA must often wonder what would have become of him had it not been for Sir Alex Ferguson.
He certainly would never have been transformed from brooding French maverick into a cult hero with Manchester United.
If anything, thanks to Fergie’s backing, his status only became grander following that infamous kung-fu kick attack at Selhurst Park, an unlawful but instinctive retaliation triggered by a Crystal Palace yob’s foul-mouthed insult directed at his mother.
In the current climate at Old Trafford, manager Erik ten Hag would likely not have gambled on someone like Cantona who arrived from Leeds in 1992.
And had he been around in 1995 then he, or at least the club’s hierarchy, would probably have frog-marched Cantona out of United for being found guilty of assault and given two weeks in jail, although that sentence was later quashed on appeal.
Now ETH faces a make-or-break call on Marcus Rashford with his 26-year-old errant star staring at more disciplinary action.
Ferguson saw such situations many a time and he would come down like a ton of bricks on those who messed him around.
Ryan Giggs discovered exactly that once when a furious Fergie stormed into Lee Sharpe’s house as the teenage team-mates had drinks before a night out.
The pair never forgot the tongue-lashing they got and Giggs, now 50, still shudders at the thought of it.
Fergie’s word was final when it came to punishments and he could be a hard man when trying to get back in his good books. But when it came to real trouble, when true understanding of a player’s problems was needed, Ferguson was almost always there for them.
Few, if any, could do the arm around the shoulder better than him. Perhaps it worked so well because it was the opposite of his normal fearsome reputation.
No one needed the human touch more than Cantona, who had unhappily wandered through six French clubs before finding himself at Elland Road and then the Theatre of Dreams.
Team-mates reported that he never met their eye when he first got there, that he was silent to the point of shyness.
But Ferguson saw the genius in him and gave him the voice to express himself.
Most importantly, Fergie stood by him in his true hour of need, taking a trip through the Paris streets on the back of a motor bike to meet him in a largely deserted restaurant to persuade the star to stay at United.
As he later revealed: “Those hours spent in Eric’s company added up to one of the more worthwhile acts I’ve performed in this stupid job of mine.”
Ten Hag has had plenty to deal with regarding what he called the “no good culture” he found within the squad when he became boss in 2022.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Mason Greenwood and Jadon Sancho were all problems and they are all gone. Rashford now could be, too.
But the Wythenshawe lad, who became a home-grown star and a national hero with an MBE for his charity work in aid of under-privileged children, surely needs saving — and, by the look of it, from himself.
Sir Alex would know how to do that, for he used the carrot just as much as the stick.
He is also still in the building. Although that hair dryer of his has long been packed away.
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