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Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Who was the Greatest- Eric Cantona or Roy Keane?

Over the last month or so, Manchester United released a poll to determine who is the greatest player in United's long and illustrious history (these seem to come out twice a year in more recent years).

The latest player to be bestowed with the honour was Ryan Giggs, but I put that down to all the media attention the Welshman has received over the last 12 months as he comes into the twilight of his career.

Ryan Giggs has been a brilliant servant for the club, but has always been overshadowed by at least one other player in the team and for that reason alone I would dismiss him as the Number 1 player in United's history.

Giggs has had some extreme performances- when he is bad, he looks terrible, but at his brilliant best he had some memorable performances, most notably to me in the 3-2 win over Juventus in 1997 when he destroyed Sergio Porrini for 90 minutes, and the famous goal against Arsenal in the FA Cup Semi Final in 1999.

In a family of Reds, I have been blessed to become accustomed to famous names throughout the history of the club. Anyone over the age of 65/70 will have many stories about the greatness of the 'Busby Babes', particularly Duncan Edwards (RIP) who many of that age consider one without a peer in terms of greatness.

Moving down the age scale and we will hear tales of Bobby Charlton and the Holy Trinity of Charlton, Denis Law and George Best (RIP) that secured the 1st European Cup for an English side in 1968.

The lack of success during the 70s did not stop the likes of Gordon McQueen and Lou Macari cementing their legacies at the club and then we got to Bryan Robson- our Captain Marvel.

Robson was my first 'favourite player' as I was growing up, mostly thanks to my Father and Uncles that indoctrinated me with the United philosophy. The most famous of Robson's performances in a Red shirt was in the 1984 European Cup Winners' Cup Quarter Final against Barcelona.

United were 2-0 down from the 1st Leg in the Nou Camp against a side that counted a certain Diego Maradona in their ranks. However, it was Bryan Robson who dominated the show in the 2nd Leg inspiring United to a 3-0 win in what many have told me was the best atmosphere at Old Trafford in any era, and possibly the best performance from a United player.

At the end of the Robson era, when it looked like he would finish without securing a top flight title for United, a gallic Frenchman crossed the Pennines and arrived to signify the start of a period of domination for the Red Devils. Eric Cantona instantly became a cult hero in the stands  and took over the mantel from a soon to retire Robson.

This led to the much more recent names in the history of the club in Roy Keane and Cristiano Ronaldo.

It was only last night that I was having the latest in a long series of debates about who was the better player- Eric Cantona or Roy Keane? It is one many Reds will have had in the pubs and travelling to and from games over the years and divides fans right down the middle.

Yesterday the discussion was with Simon Caney, the editor of Sport Magazine, a weekly publication that comes out on Fridays (if you have not checked it out, I would recommend it- you can also access them by website Sport Magazine Website)

Both camps have a clear favourite, but the debate needs to take place on a different level. So I decided to break it down into categories:

Playing Ability: In terms of playing ability, I think Roy Keane wins hands down- at his absolute peak between 1999-2002, Keane was an unplayable midfielder, coveted by EVERY leading club in Europe. He should have been in the voting for numerous European Player of the Year Awards but this was an era where the midfield general was not as respected by the media as the flair players (rememeber the treatment of Claude Makalele amongst the Galacticos of Real Madrid!).

Eric Cantona played in an era of English football where his technical ability made him stand head and shoulders above most in the League, but he was found out by the superior teams in Europe who were still far and away ahead of English teams at that time. He was also not of the level of top strikers of his time, with Roberto Baggio, Romario, Hristo Stoickov, Gabriel Batitistuta and George Weah all better options.

Keane 1-0 Cantona

Inspiration: Cantona was the catalyst that sparked a revolution at Old Trafford. Younger readers may not be aware that the side had actually failed to win the top flight title for 26 years when the Frenchman arrived at the club- the year before they had lost the title to Leeds when falling apart at the final hurdle... Cantona proved to be the final piece of the puzzle that Sir Alex Ferguson had been building at United.

Furthering his cause will be the 1995-96 season when Cantona was the senior figure in a young team containing David Beckham, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes after the sales of Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrey Kanchelskis. Look at the final weeks of the season and count the number of 1-0 wins for United with Cantona as the scorer.

The most important of those came in wins against Newcastle at St James' Park and against Liverpool in the FA Cup Final at Wembley.

Looks like an easy winner for Cantona, but Roy Keane was the perfect Captain and thus the perfect man to inspire those around him. While Keane had a dominant midfield around him, it was his inspiring tackles and driving runs that propelled the team forward. The fans loved him for his straight talking attitude and many felt he was the public voice of Ferguson and the fans.

Whether it was battles with the opposition in centre midfield, or driving the players forward in games and training, Roy Keane epitomised inspiration... this is a tie

Keane 2-1 Cantona

Big Game Performances: This is the category that drives the most arguments from both sides- Keane fans will say Cantona failed to perform on the biggest stage, the Champions League, and that gives their man the edge when it comes to this discussion... Personally I tend to disagree...

Yes, Cantona did struggle to really enforce his will in Europe, but English sides generally struggled in the European Cup with the 'no more than 3 foreigners allowed' rule. This gutted the United team of 1994 as Irish, Welsh and Scots were all considered foreigners and so it is a bit unfair to criticise Cantona for not leading the team in those years.

One of his best performances for United came in the 4-0 home win over Porto in 1997- the Portuguese side had beaten Milan twice in the group stages (Milan were considered, along with Juventus, the top side in Europe) and United were the underdogs in the tie. The whole team played well, but Cantona was still the star of the show.

The big accusation levelled at Cantona came in the next round when United met Dortmund at Old Trafford. United were 0-2 down on aggregate after Lars Ricken scored early in the 2nd leg, but Cantona missed a hatful of chances and took plenty of criticisms for that. He never again played for United in Europe, retiring a month later.

Roy Keane was the man who guided United through in his biggest performance. The 21st of April 1999 will be remembered as Keane's finest hour and the day he became a legend as he inspired United to a 2-3 win in Turin against Juventus, a team that had proven to be United's bogey team over the last few seasons. What made the performance even more spectacular was the fact Keane knew he was missing the Final through suspension but that did not stop him making sure United got there.

Other memorable performances came in a 3-0 home win over Valencia in the following season after Keane finally signed an extension to his contract at Old Trafford as all the big clubs in Europe eyed him up, or the 1-2 win at Highbury when Keane battled Patrick Vieira during the game and scored 2 goals.

A lot of people now use the benchmark of 'big game' performances as the Champions League, but Cantona and Keane played in different times. English clubs were not as successful in Europe in the early to mid 90s as they were at the latter end of the decade and moving into the new Millenium.

Cantona's big games came in England where he did produce as I mentioned. The lack of success in Europe is a concern, but it was a much harder time for United and he still managed to perform at a top level in some games. Keane was immense in every game between 1999-2002 and that gives him the edge, but this is close enough to call a tie.

Keane 3-2 Cantona

Who was the more important player to his team? This is a really tough question to answer with both players being essential to their teams.

Cantona was definitely a presence in the United team and I remember the team used to lack something when he was not in the line up. Every full season at United saw them win the title and it may be telling that the 1995 team failed to win a trophy in Cantona's absence through suspension.

OK, it was down to at least 3 fantastic saves from Ludek Miklosko of West Ham on the final day of the season that prevented United winning the title, but no one can tell me they would not have won if Cantona was in the line up that day.

Both Keane and Cantona were absent in the 1998 season when United again failed to win anything.

Keane was another player that was missed when absent from his team of 1999-2002... However, United can say they won the FA Cup Final and European Cup Final in 1999 WITHOUT Keane in the line up. This United side was capable of winning things without their leader, although it is harder to compare directly with Cantona as Keane did not miss a chunk of the end of season and United possibly would have lost to Juventus in the Semi Final without Keane.

However, the FA Cup Semi Final of 1999 was also missing Keane for an important spell- people remember the Giggs goal, and rightly so, but how many remember Keane being sent off while the score was still 1-1?

Keane was the inspiration, and the team definitely missed him when he was absent, BUT they showed they could still win trophies without him and that makes Cantona the more important piece in the team.

Keane 3-3 Cantona

The 'X' Factor: So who had 'it'? I think this is where Cantona wins out... Keane was a snarling midfield general who could score goals and tackle the life out of the opposition and was a hero to all, but Cantona had 'it'.

There was a special aura at Old Trafford reserved for the Frenchman- he had something that made us all sit at the edge of our seats and almost come to a hush as he walked out on to the pitch, collars up, and surveyed the stadium as his own.

I have never been starstruck, but meeting Cantona was different, there was something a little bit special about him, something that made him an instant hit at the club and something that has us all singing his name before every game.

Keane 3-4 Cantona

And there you have it, I would vote Cantona as the greatest of my era. Cristiano Ronaldo was the best player, on playing ability alone, that I have ever seen on a regular basis at Old Trafford, Roy Keane was the greatest Captain, but Eric Cantona had a bit of everything that will make him our hero forever.

Without Cantona, there would be no Roy Keane at United and who knows where the club would be now? There are clear arguments that would favour Roy Keane in this debate and I hope one day I can reach an age where I can tell my stories of these greats as I hear stories of Edwards, Charlton, Law and Best now

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