Heart Of Football

Cantona epitomises 25 years of EPL thrills and spills

The English Premier League (EPL) turns 25 years of age this weekend.

It was born out of the greed of the big clubs, who believed they could bank more by breaking away from the century-old structure of the Football League.

I doubt that even David Dein of Arsenal and Irving Scholar of Tottenham, enemies with a common cause, and the chairmen of Liverpool, Everton and Manchester United, envisioned their brainchild outgrowing them on a global scale.

They saw, clearly, that TV rights were at the crux of it, because that was how it all started, in a clandestine meeting with Greg Dyke, the managing director of London Weekend Television.

Nobody in that room foresaw foreigners, that national rulers from the Gulf, oligarchs from Russia and American billionaires would buy them out.

Arsenal and Spurs didn't imagine Roman Abramovich arriving to transform Chelsea from a poor neighbour to the biggest spenders London football has ever known.

And United didn't anticipate the ruling sheikh of Abu Dhabi turning City into such a force that, in the 12 months since Pep Guardiola was lured to coach them, the club have bought new players worth £315 million (S$557 million).

When I think of players who have lifted the EPL, improved its technical quality, thrilled a world television audience of addicts, I personally start with Eric Cantona... By what criterion do I single out Cantona? By sheer force of personality.

Money cannot buy success? You might as well say that stimulants cannot make Olympians faster, higher and stronger.

It has been called the "Greed is Good League". But only a fool would see everything in the Premier League garden in a negative light.

Yes, money rules. Any day now, this summer's accounts will show that another billion pounds have been spent on new players - primarily imported by the new Big Five who, in purchasing power are now City, Chelsea, United, Liverpool and Arsenal, in that order of extravagance.

But, as the new season began with Arsenal, as ever flamboyant in attack and feeble in defence, squeezing out Leicester City 4-3 at the Emirates, you might say that the status quo rules.

Leicester was the upstart, the story of the EPL era, in coming from nowhere to capture the league title two seasons ago.

It still is pugnacious and daring, but like so many clubs that grow so rapidly, Leicester sacked Claudio Ranieri, the Italian manager who somehow coaxed that historic performance out of them.

Through the 25 years, the 9,746 games, the 25,769 goals before Friday's goal rush, Leicester's defiance of every fiscal rule in the book remains supreme.

The pendulum swiftly righted itself with Abramovich's "Chelski" regaining the crown.

But owners are not, and never will be, the heart of what makes a league great. Players are.

On the first weekend of the Premier League in August 1992, just 13 of the 242 players on the field were from outside the British Isles.

Last season's opening weekend accommodated 112 foreign players.

This weekend's foreign legionnaire quota will exceed that.

Who is complaining? Not me.

When I think of players who have lifted the EPL, improved its technical quality, thrilled a world TV audience of addicts, I personally start with Eric Cantona.

He was not the best player ever to take the English pound. That could be Dennis Bergkamp for the sheer grace of his touch. It could be Thierry Henry, such a gliding god of movement and effortless finishing.

It could be the menacing power of Didier Drogba, the imaginative passing of Luka Modric, the stunning stepovers of a young Cristiano Ronaldo.

Or, Heavens above, we might acknowledge that in sheer numbers, Ryan Giggs ran on United's wings more than any player in the history of the league. Alan Shearer hammered in more goals - 260 of them - than any other player and only Wayne Rooney can possibly beat that total.

So by what criterion do I single out Cantona?

By sheer force of personality.

He illuminated Old Trafford. The strutting image of him: collar turned up, breathing arrogance, chest expanded, preening and daring (and yes, gongfu fighting on that one lamentable occasion when he assaulted a Crystal Palace fan who verbally abused him) made the Frenchman unique.

"King Eric" was such a winner that between 1992-97, he led the United forward line to four league titles and one FA Cup.

Of course, he had a boss, Sir Alex Ferguson, who had both the strength of character, the wealth from the boardroom, and the collection of players both homegrown and imported, to dominate the EPL from the start.

I should mention Roy Keane because there would be hell to pay if he heard he was omitted. And Paul Scholes and Peter Schmeichel. It never stops, or it didn't in the Fergie-Cantona side because United was then omnipotent.

None of this should suggest that the Premier League has divine right to world appeal. The Real Madrid of Ronaldo, the Barcelona of Lionel Messi, and who knows in time, the Paris Saint-Germain of Neymar have the wealth and the ambition to "own" the greater competition, the Uefa Champions League.

That is so far as spectacle and accomplishment is concerned. The Premier League, however, commands world acclaim because of its depth.

You can say in advance that either Real or Barca will win LaLiga. You can put your money on Bayern Munich for the German Bundesliga, probably Juventus for Italy's Serie A, and now that Monaco are selling their stars, on PSG hoovering up the French league top spot.

The weight of expectation is now on Abu Dhabi-owned City to win the Premiership, or else to dispense with Guardiola and the other former Barcelona officials who run the club.

Yet would you rule out Chelsea, or United, or even Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs from winning this league? Indeed, can you be sure that Everton, under new ownership and buying a new team, will not challenge the established elite?

Leicester did it. The Foxes were a one-off, a 5,000-1 shot that came off. But now that every club have a more or less equal stake in the £3.2 billion worth of broadcasting rights over the next three seasons, there is a chance for everyone.

That means that you, paying for the privilege through TV subscriptions, have a claim to help make the EPL what it claims to be: The most competitive league on earth.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 13, 2017, with the headline 'Cantona epitomises 25 years of EPL thrills and spills'. Print Edition | Subscribe