Before Eric Cantona left Leeds United with bitterness trailing behind him, the Frenchman had his moments in the sun.
There was his splendid four-touch goal against Chelsea, his contribution to the glorious resurrection against Stuttgart but nothing more single-handed than the Frenchman’s hat-trick in the 1992 Charity Shield final.
On that scorching afternoon at Wembley, 24 years ago today, Cantona was made to look like the jewel in Howard Wilkinson’s crown and a pillar in United’s forthcoming title defence. He picked off Liverpool in an end-to-end contest, earning Leeds a 4-3 victory and allowing Gordon Strachan the luxury of a comical own goal.
Though Wilkinson used Cantona sparingly during 1991-92 run-in, his team at Wembley seemed to imply that the charismatic forward had finished his apprenticeship in England. Cantona knew that his transfer from Nimes would require some personal adjustment. “English clubs, it is true, display a certain distrust of foreign players,” he said. “Their football is made out of aerial duels, hard running and tackles which can’t be endured unless a player’s physical condition is almost perfect.”
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Cantona rode all of that and more as Leeds picked up at Wembley where they left off on the final day of their title-winning Division One campaign. Liverpool, under Graeme Souness, were losing the aura built up by Kenny Dalglish and had significantly less quality than the side who beat United to the Charity Shield in 1974 but their confidence was lifted by victory in the 1992 FA Cup final. A compelling game beneath the twin towers gave Cantona the exposure he craved.
Liverpool’s formation was risky, leaving space on either flank, and Leeds took 25 minutes to exploit it when Rod Wallace sprinted down the left wing, gathered in a heavy first touch and cut the ball back for Cantona. Cantona finished with a slug of his right boot, driving the ball off David Burrows and past Bruce Grobbelaar.
The match was to become a mix of deadly finishing and suspect defending at both ends. Liverpool equalised soon after when Ian Rush stole in front of Lee Chapman and headed home a Ronnie Rosenthal cross from underneath John Lukic’s crossbar but a deflected Tony Dorigo free-kick, set up by some training-ground manoeuvres, gave Leeds the initiative just before half-time.
Dean Saunders, however, snatched it away after the hour, running onto a rebound off the legs of Chris Fairclough and smashing the ball high into Lukic’s net.
Souness wore a look of confidence for the first time but Cantona put the final to bed with two more goals in the closing stages.
He beat Grobbelaar again in the 77th minute after nodding a Dorigo free-kick against the body of Wallace.
Wallace made himself scarce and Cantona stroked the ricochet with the outside of his foot through the legs of Mark Wright and underneath Grobbelaar.
Liverpool’s keeper had been abandoned throughout but he had no-one to blame three minutes from time when he missed a flighted cross from Wallace and allowed Cantona to nod in an apologetic header. Souness knew his side were beaten and even Strachan’s own goal on 89 minutes did not offer an escape.
United’s captain became trapped on the goalline as Wright drove a volley at him and his attempts to control the ball with his right foot, his left foot and his right again succeeded only in tickling it over the goalline.
Strachan took that moment with good grace and Cantona took the plaudits as chants of ‘ooh aah Cantona’ echoed around Wembley. The Charity Shield final stands as a reminder of what might have been.