Eric Cantona’s Trials and Tribulations at Montpellier

Eric Cantona was an enigma. He was one of the few footballers who embraced the essence of being ‘crazy’ and revelled in his image of being a ‘rebel’. Because of his actions, Cantona acquired the tag of being a ‘journeyman’ who changed clubs as a result of his longing for a place which he could really find himself. He did end up becoming the ‘King of Old Trafford’ as he finally found home in Manchester, Cantona’s career has always been full of incidents that portray his curious personality and his unorthodox approach to life.


Throughout his career, Cantona’s quirky behaviour, comments and performances on the pitch became a big subject of intrigue for the media. It was something new, fresh and sometimes downright crazy and the media in England and France showed no hesitation in milking whatever the Marseillas said or did. As a result, Cantona became a source of fascination for the public and as much as it was tormenting for the Frenchman, it shrouded his character in even more mystery.


Before he found home at Manchester United though, Cantona’s career in France had witnessed a fair share of ups and downs. It was filled to the brim with the stunning anecdotes and events which pretty much defined him as an individual. From his promising breakthrough at Auxerre to a rather unfair character assassination at Marseille, Cantona’s spell at southern club Montpellier was fitting a encapsulation of his career as a whole. The fact that it was a loan spell is further proof of the same.


It, in fact, had come just after his short loan spell at Bordeaux. At Girondins, Cantona spent about five months but was constantly in the middle of a rivalry involving the infamous owner of his parent club Marseille – Bernard Tapie and Bordeaux chairman Claude Bez. Both of them, it has been described, hated each other and it was rather fitting that many years on, Tapie faced legal charges and Bordeaux’s accounts became a source of legal intrigue. Cantona wanted to stay as far away as possible from Marseille and had spoken rather openly about Tapie’s misdemeanours. 


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Bordeaux did try to sign the Frenchman permanently once the loan ended, but Tapie’s asking price was too much for a club that had fallen quite a way off the European Cup semi-final of 1985. Ironically, Cantona did get a winner’s medal from Marseille because his hometown club had won the league title on the last day of the campaign. But Cantona paid little attention to any of it and Tapie had stopped recognising Cantona as a Marseille player anyway.


His spell at Bordeaux was impressive regardless, as he scored six times in 11 games and was hailed by Clive Allen, who was a key part of the Girondins side at that point in 1989. The loan move to Montpellier came as a surprise in France. Cantona and his close friend – Stephane Paille, had made a commitment of moving together to the same club and even though Paille had the chance to move to Bayern Munich in the summer of 1989, he joined Montpellier permanently. 


Cantona had to half his wage to join Sport Club, who had only narrowly avoided relegation in the 1987/88 campaign. Considering how the French media had constantly paraded around Cantona, the move drew the attention of many. Cantona’s influence in France was already so much that chairman Louis Nichollin gave the future Man United man and Paille a strong say in potential transfers.


Fascinatingly, the club from southern France couldn’t fully finance the moves for the duo and they had to seek help from the Montpellier City Council. Marseille earned €300,000 in compensation for the loan and interestingly, Nichollin had rather healthy relations with Tapie and because of that, the move seemed a good fit.


The move came with a fair share of drawbacks, though. The biggest one being the media attention Montpellier got and as Paille admits in Philippe Auclair’s ‘The Rebel Who Would Be King’, it became detrimental for the club. That Montpellier squad had Laurent Blanc, Julio Cesar and Carlos Valderamma, but the media coverage made it look like it was all about Paille and Cantona.


Despite their best attempts to play down what was a very close friendship, the French media left no stone unturned and there was a constantly a feeling of the destablising effect it might have on the squad. At one point of the new season, Montpellier found themselves as high as eighth in Ligue 1 and they looked to be challenging for Europe. In their opening game of the campaign, Cantona had scored the club’s fourth in a 4-1 win over Cannes, with Paille scoring on his debut as well. Blanc, who used to play in midfield back then, grabbed a brace in that game.


Cantona helped them pick up a 2-0 win over Lyon, also scoring in a 2-1 win over Racing Paris. They were inconsistent though, as they had won only once in the first four games of the campaign. They took a 3-0 hammering at the hands of Nice, also losing to Marseille and Paille’s former club Sochaux. But there was one problem – as Paille tells Auclair in ‘The Rebel Who Would Be King’, the team lacked the balance and structure to put the two friends on the pitch together. As a result of that, Montpellier manager Aime Jacquet could generally use one of Cantona or Paille at the same time.


Daniel Xuereb was usually preferred over Paille, who found himself on the sidelines quite a bit for club and even for the French national team as a result of Cantona’s position. Valderrama had headed to South America for some of Colombia’s friendly games and following Montpellier’s win over Toulon, the club’s form deteriorated and they slipped in the table too. They couldn’t win even once in seven league games and while Cantona’s performances weren’t poor by any means, a flare up followed soon after a defeat to Lille.


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Midfielder Jean-Claude Lemoult, who had played over 200 games for Paris Saint-Germain before arriving at Montpellier, was talking to a teammate about how the opposition scored while having just one shot on goal while Jacquet’s side mustered multiple shots on goal but failed to score. There are conflicting reports about who he was talking to but all that matters is that he did say those words. Cantona, who was in the dressing room at that very point, misheard what was said. 


Cantona felt that he was being criticised for not being an efficient finisher and a scuffle broke out between Lemoult and the ex-Auxerre man. Cantona hurled a shoe at the teammate, which hit the Lemoult. Cantona even threatened to punch his teammate in the face. 


Now generally, scuffles like these can break out in dressing rooms but the word about this one got out very quickly. Tapie got news of it, making it clear that Marseille weren’t having the player back. The newspapers were soon filled with rumours about the incident and chairman Nichollin had to arrive on to a decision soon. 


The Montpellier dressing room though, was divided over what to do with Cantona and his future at the club. Some members of the side wanted the Frenchman gone. While others such as Paille, Valderrama and Blanc issued strong support for him, with the Colombian going as far as issuing a threat about any removal of Cantona from the side.


While the press kept stirring the pot of rumours, talking about a dressing room divide and possible ramifications, some journalists also reached Cantona’s house in Marseille – essentially turning the scenario into a circus. Auclair’s book suggests that when Cantona arrived home, he and his wife Isabelle went on short walks outside the house, ignoring the journalists but the media’s favourite victim often swiped at them for talking about his potential sacking.


In some ways, it was perhaps definitive of Cantona’s enigma. In the media’s lap of tortures, casually walking about with his distinguished swagger from right in front of their faces, days after having been impulsive on having misjudged a conversation. 


Some days later, Cantona was told that he was given a ten-day ban from the club. The fans reaction to this announcement was positive – largely because Cantona had performed quite well, despite Montpellier’s inconsistencies and failures. More than anything, it was a reflection of the dressing room fractures that had appeared very much when Cantona and Paille were signed. As much as it was Cantona’s fault to some extent, it was a long time coming.


During Cantona’s absence, he was issued a warning by Jacquet to improve or get out – it was that simple. Montpellier picked up an impressive 3-3 draw against St. Etienne in his absence too, despite being a goal down three times in the game. As much as the draw could’ve been a sign of improvement, Jacquet’s time at the club was of the essence and he was losing control over the dressing room. 


Cantona returned to the first-team fold soon, scoring on his return against Bastia. Paille though, was soon gone from the club and Jacquet didn’t have too many kind words for him – irrespective of how well his friend had performed. While Cantona’s career skyrocketed soon, Paille’s nosedived as he played for multiple clubs in a short period of time.


Not having Paille took some burden off Jacquet’s shoulders but at the turn of the year, Michel Mezy sealed a return to Montpellier. Mezy would have a very good relationship with Cantona and both of them shared a good time together and this became a very solid foundation for the rest of the campaign for La Paillade.


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A bit of it was down to fortune too, as multiple major clubs got knocked out of the Coupe de France very early in the competition. In their game against second division side Istres Sports, Montpellier scraped through with a 1-0 win thanks to a Kader Ferhaoui goal. They notched up wins in the league too, beating Nantes and Nice. In the Round of 16 of the cup, Cantona’s hat-trick helped La Paillade beat Louhans-Cuiseaux by a 5-1 scoreline, reminding everyone of his importance to the club.


It was Cantona’s sole hat-trick for all the French clubs that he had played for and the Frenchman followed it up with a 2-0 win over Sochaux too. There was also a 5-0 win over Lille and Cantona scored once in that game too. The club’s form was clearly improving under Mezy and Cantona was enjoying himself under someone who he could connect with at a level which has been compared to the relationship he shared with Sir Alex Ferguson.


The win over Lille helped Montpellier seal their survival in the league and gave them the chance to concentrate on the cup. Nantes were supposed to provide some challenge on that front, but Montpellier won 2-0. Another second division side – Avignon made Cantona’s side work hard for a 1-0 win as midfielder Vincent Guerin grabbed the only goal of the game.


Cantona then scored in the semi-final against St. Etienne, helping his side pick up a 1-0 win on his 24th birthday. Despite having Valderrama suspended for the final against Racing Paris, Montpellier won 2-1. All the three goals came in extra time and it was Ferhaoui’s goal which handed the club their second ever Coupe de France title.


While Cantona paid little regard to the league title with Marseille for obvious reasons, he embraced this cup win. Mezy, who left the club to join Nimes and reunited with Cantona there too, famously stated (as per Auclair’s book) that even if the would-be Man United man is on the other side of the world and has a problem, he’ll go there to help Cantona out. It was, in many ways, the sort of father-son relationship that Cantona would always want in his career.


Following the kung-fu incident in London and when Cantona could’ve left Man United for Inter soon after, Sir Alex had to personally meet the Frenchman to convince him about a stay at Old Trafford. This act had moved Cantona to the point where, despite the animosity between him and many in the English public, he stayed at United. Mezy may not have had the chance to do something like that with Cantona, but it was all that Eric ever wanted to thrive. 


This is a player who had grown up in a very supportive family and undying support is all he ever wanted in his career, despite the human flaws. Mezy gave it to him throughout his short stint at Montpellier – similar to even Guy Roux at Auxerre. 


The support from Mezy, the chapters of his rebellious nature and how he led from the front to help the club to the trophy – Cantona’s time at Montpellier had everything. More than a roller coaster, it had all the attributes that the Frenchman would be known for – a master of the game who was just different. 


By: Kaustubh Pandey / @Kaus_Pandey17

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Onze – Icon Sport