France`s center forward, Eric Cantona, was something of a legend; even before he retired at Manchester United to become a recognized artist, and Hollywood movie actor. In the 1991-92 season he led the line for a while at Leeds United after his transfer from French club Nimes. Appearing 15 times for 3 goals, he inspired the Yorkshire outfit to win only their third league title ever with 82 points and their first since 1973-74 after coming on as a substitute against Oldham Athletic on February 8, 1992, 0-2. It was a blow to the Lancashire club across the Pennines where it`d been anticipated that the `red devils` would win their first title since 1966-67, but 78 points wasn`t enough and Manchester United finished second and had to wait until the following season, 1992-93, when the appearance of Eric in a red shirt on December 6, 1992, against Manchester City, 2-1, after 13 appearances and 6 goals for Leeds, was the significant catalyst that finally wrested the trophy back to Old Trafford`s theater of dreams after its 26 year absence. The championship win effectively resulted in the eclipsing of United`s Northern rivals Leeds, who`d won their first league title in 1968-69, the year after United`s first European Cup win over Benfica, 4-1, at London`s Wembley stadium. Leeds never again ascended to the dizzying heights of league championship winners and were relegated to the second tier in 2004 subsequent to a transfer deal upsetting to Leeds fans in which popular center half, Rio Ferdinand, went to Manchester United for £30 million, before the commencement of the 2002-03 season, when Rio had performed well in taking Leeds to the 2000-01 semi-final of the European Cup against Valencia, although the Yorkshire team lost, 0-3, away after a 0-0 draw at Elland Road. Manchester United had won the 2000-01 title and had won it the two seasons previous to that also, along with the F.A., European Champions`, and Intercontinental Cups in 1999, and they`d win it again in 2002-03 with Ferdinand at center half. Leeds, on the other hand, would be relegated to the third tier of English football in 2007 after the loss of Rio.
By the time Rio had arrived, Cantona had left, but his legacy continued. Although he strenuously denied it, Eric`s influence on the young players coming through at Manchester United during his sojourn at Old Trafford`s theater of dreams was invaluable in their development as players. Gary and Phil Neville, full backs; Nicky Butt in midfield; David Beckham on the right wing, and Paul Scholes, a forward who was known as the `Ginger Prince` to Eric`s `King`, received the full benefit of playing alongside the creative attacking forward. United didn`t win the European Champions` trophy until 1999, when Eric had retired at 31 years after the 1996-97 season`s campaigning produced another league title, which was Eric`s fourth with United since 1992-93. During that five year period, United won their first league and F.A. Cup doubles in 1993-94 and 1995-96, before their completion of the unique treble in 1999, which included the European Cup, 2-1, against German side, Bayern Munich, and injury time goals from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to seize the trophy after being behind, 0-1, for most of the game after forward, Mario Basler, scored in the 6th minute from a free kick. In the 1996 F.A. Cup Final it was a single volleyed goal from Eric Cantona that decided the issue, 1-0. On 85 minutes, Liverpool `keeper David James tried to punch a corner clear, but the ball landed outside the penalty area, at the feet of captain Cantona, who struck through the crowded penalty area.
The team was fairly representative of what would also win the title that 1995-96 term. Peter Schmeichel, Denmark`s ever reliable `keeper, was in goal, a ten goal start every season, because of his clean sheet statistics, manager Alex Ferguson often observed. Ireland`s Denis Irwin was at right back, and England`s Gary Neville`s brother, Phil, at left back, although Gary would become United`s captain after Cantona, and would replace Phil in the regular side, while Phil would vie with England`s Nicky Butt for the role of most used utility player. At center back, England`s Gary Pallister played alongside England`s David May, who`d arrived from Blackburn to replace England`s ageing Steve Bruce, who`d virtually assured United the 1992-93 title with two late headed goals (86th and 90th minutes) against Sheffield Wednesday on April 10, 1993. Wednesday had taken the lead with a 64th minute penalty towards season`s end when defeat could`ve put the reds two points behind nearest rivals, Aston Villa, whose scoreless draw against Coventry City instead put United two points clear with five to play.
The `red devils` never looked back, and won those last five games to take the title; Coventry City away, 1-0 (Irwin, 40); Chelsea at home, 3-0 (Hughes 24, Clarke, o.g., 44, Cantona, 48); Crystal Palace away, 2-0 (Hughes, 64, Ince, 89); Blackburn Rovers at home, 3-1 (Giggs 21, Ince 60, Pallister 90), and Wimbledon away, 2-1 (Ince 63, Robson 70). Bryan Robson scored the eventual winner at Wimbledon, but United had already won the championship after Cantona`s 48th minute goal in that 3-0 home win over Chelsea. The final margin was 10 points, so United could have lost the last three games and still won the league, but Robson`s only goal in five starts (and 9 as substitute) was more than symbolic at Wimbledon, because it meant he qualified for a title winners` medal, and he`d do so again the following 1993-94 season after making 10 starts (and 5 as sub) for one goal on the opening day of the campaign away at Norwich; the second and 58th minute goal after Giggs` 26th minute opener, 2-0. Ireland`s Roy Keane, who`d been bought from Nottingham Forest by Ferguson for £3. 75 m to replace 36 year old England star, Robson, as a lynchpin midfield workhorse and creative goal-scoring dynamo for the start of the 1993-94 campaign, was alongside the ever industrious Butt in midfield for the `96 F.A. Cup Final, although England`s tenacious attacking midfielder, Paul Scholes, was available on the bench, and would be a luminary second to none in the history of United`s assault on the medals and trophies after midfield strong man, Robson, had led the club to its first league title in 26 years in 1992-93. Left winger, Ryan Giggs, had been working full time magic there since 1991-92, and would remain as an established immovable fixture in the team until his decision to retire having reached 40 years in 2013-14 after winning the championship yet again the previous year, 2012-13. England center forward, Andy Cole, the latest in a lengthy list of successful forwards purchased by Ferguson for £7 m from Newcastle in January 1995, and immensely skillful goal-scoring England left winger, Lee Sharpe, a £200, 000 snip from Torquay after 16 games, completed the 1995-96 F.A. Cup Final line-up.
It was United`s second double winning season in three years after Chelsea, 0-4, were beaten in the F.A. Cup Final. It was largely a last effort by United`s old guard. England`s Paul Parker was at right back, and captain Bruce was at center half. Russian right winger, Andrei Kanchelskis, a very good fast nippy forward, but who just wasn`t able to keep England`s future right wing, and United captain, David Beckham, out of the team, had done just that to England`s left winger, Lee Sharpe, who found himself competing for the right wing spot, because Giggs had made the left wing position his. England`s midfield tough guy, Paul Ince, and Welsh forward, Mark Hughes, who`d been inexplicably sold by former manager, Ron Atkinson, to Spain`s Barcelona, after top scoring for two seasons, before being bought back by Ferguson to score twice against the Spanish side to win the Cup Winners` Cup, 1-2, in 1990-91, were the mainstays that day as United won with a penalty from Cantona in the 60th minute, and another in the 66th. Hughes struck after a slip from defender Frank Sinclair in the 69th minute, and Scots` forward, Brian McClair, who`d moved into midfield since being brought by Ferguson in 1987-88 from Celtic for £850, 000, and had that first year gotten 24 goals, a personal best at United, came on as a substitute for Kanchelskis and got a fourth in the 92nd minute. An unselfish pass from Paul Ince, when Ince looked likely to score, saw Ince put McClair in, because Brian`s success looked even more certain.
The Cup successes give an indication of how the team had evolved since 1990. Danny Wallace had been on the left wing when United took the F.A. Cup in 1990 against Crystal Palace after a replay. Then left full back, Lee Martin, ran the length of the pitch to receive a pinpoint 50 yard pass from Neil Webb in the penalty area, before lashing it delightedly into the net, 1-0, in the 59th minute. England`s ill-starred midfielder, Webb, a fine distributor of the ball bought from Nottingham Forest for £1.5 m, who`d incurred damage to an achilles tendon shortly after arriving for the 1989-90 season, and which ultimately proved to have slowed him down too much, played on the right side of midfield. Webb would win a Cup Winners` Cup and, as an unused substitute, a League Cup winners` medal in 1991-92, after a 14th minute goal from McClair against Forest, 1-0. Gary Pallister played the ball midway inside the Nottingham Forest half to McClair, who laid it off to Giggs. Giggs then drove at the Forest defense, drawing defenders towards him and away from McClair in the center. He then slid the ball sideways to McClair, who dribbled into the penalty area and shot left-footed into the bottom-right corner. The loss of pace, resulting from the tendon injury, caused manager, Ferguson, to transfer Webb for £800, 000 back to Forest for the 1992-93 season. England midfielder, Mike Phelan, was at right back for the 1990 Final win in the absence of a recognized right full back, before England`s Paul Parker arrived from Queens Park Rangers, and so the club geared up for its 1992-93 first title success since 1966-67.
A very low scoring United won the title with a strong defense consisting of Irwin at left back, Parker at right back, and Pallister and Bruce as the center backs. In a very settled team, Hughes made 41 starts and top scored with only 15 goals. Schmeichel kept 18 clean sheets, and United won with 84 points. Cantona`s arrival, and a debut goal in a 1-1 draw with Chelsea away at Stamford Bridge on December 19, 1992, was the fillip United needed. Eric duly made 21 starts and weighed in with 9 precious goals that made him joint second highest scorer alongside Giggs, who made 40 starts, and McClair (41). The 1993-94 season`s title campaign saw United open up more in attack. They won the title by 8 points with 92, Cantona (18), Hughes (12) and Giggs (13) reached double figures, while Sharpe got 9 from the left wing. United finished second in the league in 1994-5 to Blackburn, despite obtaining the services of their England center half, David May, as cover for Bruce. Andy Cole was at center forward, but it was Kanchelskis with 14 goals that top scored, while United also lost the F.A. Cup Final, 0-1, to Everton without Cantona, Cole and Kanchelskis, although Gary Neville had replaced Parker at right back by then, and Butt was becoming the midfield stalwart that was his destined role.
In 1995-96 the bridesmaid was once again the bride and the title was won along with the F.A. Cup. Cantona top scored with 14 goals, although the revelation was Scholes who bagged 10 in 16 starts. Giggs got an impressive 11 for a wide player, while 11 from center forward, Cole, wasn`t so impressive, but Beckham out wide on the right made 26 starts for 7 goals as Kanchelskis` star dimmed. Cantona`s last season with United saw the title won with 21 wins from 38 and only 75 points. The Frenchman struck 11 times, while Norwegian striker, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, brought from Molde for £1.5 m in time for the 1996-97 campaign, top scored with 18, and the `red devils` were champions. Teddy Sheringham was bought from Spurs at the beginning of the 1997-98 season for £3. 5 m to replace Cantona, and two years later, having made 17 appearances for just 2 league goals in 1998-99, Ferguson brought on substitute Sheringham for Swedish left winger, Jesper Blomqvist, himself only in the European Cup Final team because of Scholes` suspension, and Teddy subsequently repaid the manager`s faith with the second injury time goal in the 93rd minute that won the European Cup, 2-1, against Bayern Munich in Spain at Barcelona`s Nou Camp stadium, after Solskjaer, substituting for Cole got the 91st minute equalizer. The irony was that, although Trinidad and Tobago striker, Dwight Yorke, who was brought from Aston Villa for £12.6 m at the start of 1998-99, top scored in the league with 18, and Andy Cole was second top scorer with 17, it was Solskjaer, who made only 9 starts for 12 goals, and Sheringham that won through for United at the Nou Camp on the foundations laid by captain Cantona, `le god` to the supporters, but only a leading man to the rest of the players on the stage at the theater of dreams.