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Remembering Sunderland: When Eric scored his greatest goal

Come back in time to December 1996, to a hammering at Old Trafford capped off by a moment of genius.

Hamish Blair/Getty Images

Welcome to an occasional series in which tBB revisits a old match against whichever team Manchester United happen to be playing at the weekend. Today, Sunderland, and one of the finest goals Old Trafford has ever seen ...

For two teams who have been knocking around English football for a while, there aren't that many notable games between Manchester United and Sunderland. As such, this piece looked for a while as though it might have to be about last season's League Cup semi-final: certainly a game of rare farce, but perhaps one too recent for a proper retrospective.

Happily, and as he so often did, Eric Cantona came to the rescue. Because if there isn't an iconic game to write about, then the next best thing is an iconic goal, followed by an iconic celebration.

It was 21 December 1996, and United hadn't been entirely convincing over the first few months of the season. Convincing wins over Leeds and Nottingham Forest in September had been offset by two bizarre, back-to-back November thrashings. First Newcastle stuck five past Peter Schmeichel — "Albert, he's being urged to shoot by the crowd ..." — and then, down at the other end of the country, Southampton went one better, rattling home six to United's three. Though that, of course, was entirely down to the colour of United's black and blue white and gold grey shirts. Definitely.

So when Sunderland rolled up to Old Trafford, United were in sixth, having already lost three times and been held to seven draws (that's as many as they drew through the entire of the preceding season). Though they hadn't lost since 2 November, they'd failed to win away at Middlesbrough, West Ham and Sheffield Wednesday, and were nine points behind early frontrunners Liverpool.

A 5-0 win looks, in hindsight, entirely convincing, but according to the official United website Sunderland were "arguably" the better side for the first hour. Be that as it may, by the end of that hour they were also four goals down. After 35 minutes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer nodded home from short range after a crashing Paul Scholes volley came back off keeper Lionel Perez, just before halftime Cantona tucked home a penalty after Perez tripped Nicky Butt. A few minutes after the break, Solskjaer picked up his second, collecting a trademark Schmeichel overarm hurl and outsprinting his defender from the halfway line. And then, on the hour, Butt nodded home a Beckham corner.

The cake was done. Now, the icing.

Many great goals are great in one regard above all others. Marco van Basten's far post volley is a masterpiece of its art, as fine a single connection as foot has ever made with ball. By contrast, Maradona's second against England in 1986 ends with a relatively straightforward finish; the genius lies in the slalom that comes before the poke.

Others, like this one, chain brilliance together. There are three elements to this goal that would, on their own, make any goal great; in sequence, they make the thing remarkable. The first is the soft-shoe shuffle on the halfway line: a jink to the left, then a step to the right, then a half-turn and, on that half-turn, the faintest suggestion that the ball might just be leaving his control. In steps the defender, eyes wide ... and round spins Cantona, who has not only kept the ball but contrived himself some space to run into.

Which he does, in that bustling, big-chested way of his, pausing only to scare Karel Poborsky away from the ball, then hand the ball off to Brian McClair for a moment while he walks through a defender. Then comes element of genius the second: the finish.

There is something intensely pleasing about gratuitousness in football. The ball hammered into the net, even though it just needed a tap. The tackle that doesn't just take the ball, but leaves the man upended on the floor, cartoon referees dancing around his head. Or, as here, the chip that probably doesn't need to be a chip — and certainly doesn't need to be a chip as precise and as delicate as it is — and is all the more delightful for being so. Off the inside of the very top of the post. You can almost see the hope die in the keeper's shoulders.

The third element of genius is, of course, the celebration (and if you're tempted to even begin to think about arguing that the celebration isn't technically part of the goal, then you are welcome to click the little 'x' in the top right of your screen and go about your day elsewhere). We don't know for sure if Ridley Scott was watching — he's a Hartlepool fan — but here, four years before Russell Crowe took up sword and sandal, is a stubble-cheeked gladiator facing his seething, adoring coliseum. Except he didn't need to shout at them. He just had to stand, and turn, and raise his arms.

And if that had been it, then that would have been fine. What truly makes the moment, though, is the arrival of Brian McClair, who provokes Cantona to crack his own imperious resolve with the beginnings of a grin. In essence, in the course of a few seconds we are treated to both an untouchable genius basking in his own flicked-collar magnificence, and an actual human being who can't believe what he's just done, and is really rather chuffed. Just a moment, just enough to lace the divinity with humanity, and then he's smothered by his teammates, because they're quite pleased with him as well.

You know the rest of the story. United won eight of the next ten games and didn't lose again until 8 March — away at Sunderland, as it happens — by which time they were top of the league. Though Liverpool and Arsenal stayed in touch until May, both teams failed to win their penultimate fixtures, and United were champions again with two games to play.

It might be the best goal he scored for United, but It's certainly not the most important: the fifth goal in a romp can't compare to, say, the winner in an FA Cup final, or any of those "Cantona! 1-0!" moments from the 1995-96 run-in. It's not his favourite moment: that's the chipped pass for Denis Irwin against Spurs. And it's certainly not the most iconic moment of his United career, because, as you've doubtless heard, he kicked that bloke that time.

Ultimately, Cantona was too complex a man and a footballer for any few seconds of footage to entirely encompass all that he was and all that he did. But this celebration gets close, perhaps as close as anything could. The turn, the arms, the collar ... and the opening notes of the smile. A king, accepting the deserved adulation of his giddy subjects, and then, just for a second, a man, startled and amused and delighted by his own startling, amusing, delighting brilliance.