It remains etched in the memory because that weekend I made the long haul up from the country to see Chuck Berry in the National Stadium. It was the most anti-climatic gig ever. His set didn’t even last 45 minutes. But what could we do but what most Irish folk tend to after a big disappointment; resort to black comedy and hit the pub. On the box as we entered the establishment was Match of the Day, and as we started joking about how the last song on Chuck’s set should now be entitled Johnny B Gone, Des Lynam and Co turned their attention to Villa Park.
The visitors were Manchester United, just like last weekend, but the only comeback United would enjoy that particular Saturday was the return of Lee Sharpe after a few months out injured. A lone Dalian Atkinson goal condemned United to their seventh consecutive league game without a victory, leaving them 10th in the table, eight points behind leaders Arsenal. Even Arsenal this year had started better.
Arsenal would actually be the ones who’d finish 10th that season, albeit with the consolation of winning both the FA Cup and League Cup. United would land their first title in 26 years.
It turned, as we know, on the signing of Eric Cantona a fortnight after that defeat to Villa. It remains one of the most pivotal and serendipitous moments in Premier League history. What always puzzled this writer most wasn’t what possessed Howard Wilkinson to let Cantona go but what possessed him to think Ferguson might let Denis Irwin go? Was Wilkinson just dumb or being really smart but playing dumb, triggering a phone conversation that could come round to a certain troublesome Frenchman he wanted to offload? Though it has become a cliché just how precarious Ferguson’s position was prior to Mark Robbins’ City Ground cup goal a few years earlier, it’s easy to forget now just how vulnerable he was this time 20 years ago. United had blown the title the previous season. Now they were in mid-table and out of both the League and Uefa cups.
It’s why Cantona remains Ferguson’s greatest signing. Before him, they were plodding, drifting; with him they’d strut their way to titles. Before him United just trained; once he arrived, they practised, realising there was a method to his madness of staying on afterwards with youth team wingers crossing the ball for him to work on his volleying.
Critics will say he didn’t do it in Europe, with even Roy Keane (or more likely, his ghostwriter Eamon Dunphy) succumbing to such conventional wisdom in his book. In his first four seasons with United Cantona was mostly either suspended for the European Cup or United weren’t in it and by his fifth his fire was burning out. If he’d had enough games or seasons in Europe, he’d have done it in Europe, just like Keane eventually would.
In his prime United weren’t adequately geared for Europe, something which Cantona copped quicker than even Ferguson. Way back when Andy Gray was actually a refreshing, insightful football analyst, he and Cantona had a fascinating discussion on Gray’s Boot Room show with Cantona outlining that in Europe United could not persist with two wingers. The inference was clear. As much fun as they were to watch dominate the league, Giggs and Kanchelskis was not the way to win on the continent; Giggs and Beckham was, a right-sided midfield player being an important if subtle difference to a right-sided winger. United failed Cantona in Europe more than he failed them.
Not even the signing of a Cantona-like figure is going to trigger an Arsenal title challenge but it will take something like that to properly safeguard Arsene Wenger’s reputation.
Even when George Graham’s reputation was unravelling, the Highbury faithful still had the consolation of knowing they were still the club of Tony Adams, that they could watch Ian Wright weekly. In the post-Invincibles years, there was always a recognisable world-class figure to draw them to the Emirates: Henry, Fabregas, van Persie. Now, they no longer have what the Americans would term a franchise player. Missing that rock of confidence is as much as anything why this is their worst league start in 30 years.
Yet still Arsenal supporters have to fork up more money than any other group of supporters to see their team. They must be feeling short-changed, just like we did when Chuck made that brief appearance 20 years ago. If Wenger doesn’t sign a franchise player soon, then Chuck won’t be the only legend whose memory and parting will jar with us.