Daniel Storey’s Portrait of an Icon is a masterclass in the profiling of the greats of our game and in 250 Days he has expanded that form to take in not only perhaps the most inspirational player of the Premier League era, but also one of the most successful dynasties of the English game and a period of enormous change. It makes for a captivating read.
Cantona is a player who transcends tribal rivalries, but it wasn’t always the case. The big personality that makes him so memorable now was of course a red flag to the bull of opposition supporters while he was cutting open defences and inspiring his club to an era of complete domination. On one such occasion, lines were crossed, as a tirade of abuse sparked a flash point that would reverberate through the history of the game.
It was a turning point for English football, triggering a genuine move away from the old First Division towards the global super-brand of the Premier League and a new relationship between fans and their heroes. It is interesting to reflect for a moment now how the open abuse of players is once again becoming commonplace with racism in particular prevalent, perhaps fuelled by a populist political environment that relies on division. It is hard to imagine Raheem Sterling diving into a crowd as Cantona did, but will his intelligent, articulate response to abuse be enough to cut through and transform a poisonous national rhetoric?
That Cantona was the trailblazer for the transformation of English football into the global spectacle that it is now only adds to his legend, as does the lasting impact that he had on Manchester United. His belief seems to have soaked through into the whole club, giving it the confidence, swagger and sense of entitlement to conquer the Premier League and ultimately, albeit after Cantona’s retirement, Europe. There is a sense in the book that without Cantona there would be no modern Colossus of Manchester.
Perhaps supporting that sentiment, one of the most striking elements of the book is just how many times Alex Ferguson’s leadership of the club was called into question. Despite everything that he achieved at Manchester United, questions were raised throughout his time including here when the first flavours of success were being savoured, but appeared to be fading.
We see Ferguson gamble everything on his instincts, despite the grumbles of common opinion, in a way that defined his leadership of the club, but we also get a glimpse of vulnerability as he wrestles with his conflicting beliefs of a moral imperative verses protecting and nurturing a special and pivotal talent. Whilst this is a book ostensibly about one footballing icon, it gives us a fascinating insight into another.
Especially for those who are football fans rather than dyed in the wool Manchester United supporters, Storey has done the legwork for you with his research and presented an entertaining and engaging read about a crucial moment in the development of the English game. Cantona is a complex character who courted controversy throughout his career, but he was also a genius with a football who played a key role in shaping both the modern Manchester United and the wider English game, and Storey captures that conundrum and legacy superbly.