Eric Cantona at 50: Why Man United need a player like the wild French genius to fix timid club culture
Published 24/05/2016 | 12:29
Today Eric Cantona celebrates a significant milestone in his life and the legendary French striker's 50th birthday is a reminder of just how much Manchester United miss him.
The Red Devils don't so much miss his footballing ability - of which he had a lot - but rather, his outsized personality, especially since recent reports indicate that Manchester United are almost entirely devoid of players who have one.
While you face an uphill struggling in arguing that Louis van Gaal should have been given the chance to see out the final year of his contract after two underwhelming seasons in the Old Trafford dugout, some of the reported criticisms aimed at the Dutchman from the dressing room show just how far the club has fallen.
When Cantona aggressively swaggered around the pitch under the watchful eye of the biggest personality of them all, Alex Ferguson, the team was stocked full of leaders like Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Peter Schmeichel, whose pursuit of excellence was relentless.
Now, according to Mark Ogden in the London Independent, players are so coddled that one asked the chef to hard boil him some eggs to take home, as he had no idea how to perform the basic culinary duty himself.
And what about the email nonsense? Van Gaal reportedly sent around detailed reports highlighting where players had gone wrong and areas where they could improve.
The response from within the dressing room? To direct the emails straight to their trash folders until van Gaal had a tracker fitted to see how long they were read, after which players would leave the emails open on their smart phones while they did other things, perhaps learning how to hard boil an egg.
This is obviously a different generation to that of Cantona, Keane, Ferguson and company but the lack of big characters at the club has created a timid atmosphere both on the pitch and off it.
And the manager alone cannot fix the problem. Van Gaal has as big a personality as any manager in football, perhaps second only to his successor, Jose Mourinho, yet even he failed to fill the void left by so many departed icons.
The problem lies in the squad and in the boardroom.
The dithering executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has consistently shown himself to be an indecisive leader, whether he is taking an embarrassingly long time to change manager or failing to sign a big name player.
That indecision has seeped down onto the pitch too, no doubt magnified by van Gaal's unusual order that attacking players must take a touch in the box no matter what.
There is quality in the United side - Chris Smalling, David de Gea, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford all enjoyed great seasons - but is there anyone who could rival the legends of old in terms of combativeness or presence?
Cantona had that in spades, and as he celebrates his 50th birthday today, the club where he created his legend ought to remember the qualities he brought if they want to reclaim their place at the top of English football.