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How Erik ten Hag could spark a Manchester United revival like Eric Cantona did three decades ago

Ten Hag and Rashford© Getty Images

Eric Cantona in action for Manchester United. Photo: Shaun Botterill

Roy CurtisSunday World

HE shares a given name, albeit one spelled slightly differently, with a beloved Old Trafford creature of myth.

If Eric Cantona resides on a gilded perch atop Manchester United’s Mount Rushmore, Erik ten Hag has hardly arrived at the foothills of that same steep and arduous ascent towards the crimson uplands of Theatre of Dreams immortality.

One donned messianic robes to liberate United from the icy chains of a 26-year title winter; the other is a first season coach seeking to negotiate the hazardous and killing crevasses into which each of Alex Ferguson’s previous successors eventually tumbled.

Yet, having faced down Cristiano Ronaldo and applied jump leads to United’s stalled motor, ten Hag has lately looked the most likely appointee of a grim post-Ferguson lost decade to restore the 20-times champions’ lost aura.

Of course, the sample size remains too absurdly tiny to offer anything approaching a decisive judgement.

The road ahead remains paved with the kind landmines that did for A-list coaches like Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal, but there is something about the club’s increasingly coherent capo that evokes Teddy Roosevelt’s recipe for effective leadership: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Eric Cantona in action for Manchester United. Photo: Shaun Botterill

In impressively decapitating Ronaldo’s conviction that he was untouchable, a deity beyond censure, ten Hag, with one Machiavellian intervention, summoned memories of the pitiless authority that was a vital calling card of the Ferguson years.

On the field, the addition of Casemiro, perhaps the closest thing the Stretford End has seen to a high-grade Roy Keane facsimile, has re-seeded a barren midfield.

An infusion of confidence has reawakened Marcus Rashford’s inner predator. There is a growing coherence, a long-absent sense of direction and togetherness about United that is expanding the perimeter of possibility.

A seven-game winning streak has carried them into rarefied Top Four air, clear of Liverpool, Spurs and an ailing Chelsea.

Tonight’s Carabao Cup quarter-final with Charlton will hardly be a momentum-breaking hurdle en route to a Manchester derby of authentic substance at lunchtime on Saturday.

When the crosstown rivals collided just over three months ago, dry rot was evident everywhere on the walls of United’s empire.

Erling Haaland and Phil Foden helped themselves to hat-tricks as City gorged on a forlorn red carcass, a stony-faced Ronaldo looking on from the bench like a plotting Portuguese Brutus.

Ten Hag regularly and understandably appeared rattled in those early weeks as Brentford inflicted humiliation, Ronaldo brooded, and poor Harry Maguire came to resemble a terrified fawn who had lost all control of its limbs.

In truth, he appeared to have been promoted above his station, the latest Old Trafford dead man walking.

In the exactly 100 days since the City game, the manager – through decisive leadership, an increasingly lucid game plan and the sheen that winning momentum delivers to any nascent regime – has risen above that period of turbulence, buffing anticipation to its highest shine in years.

If – and, of course, it is a big if – United prevail on Saturday, supporters might even surrender to some giddy title talk conversations.

At the very least there will be another significant surge in ten Hag’s share price.

From the moment a starstruck David Moyes stuttered into Manchester in the summer of 2013 with the deferential air of a humble footman on his first day serving at an aristocratic house, Old Trafford became an abattoir for hope, a place where optimism went to die.

Might Erik be about to apply the defibrillator as Eric did three decades hence?

Sober, slightly nerdy and technocratic, the Dutchman resides at the opposite extreme of the personality bandwidth to the flamboyant, charismatic, theatrical and often ungovernable Gallic prince who invaded the Stretford End’s consciousness with hurricane force all those years ago.

Starched collars, God-like poses and operatic philosophical pronouncements about seagulls and trawlers are unlikely to ever feature in any ten Hag highlight reel.

Increasingly, though, he has emerged as a figure of quiet wisdom, unafraid to make big calls, with a vision that might yet facilitate the behemoth he now leads in their marathon quest to reverse imperial decline.

Already, a coherent argument can be made that ten Hag has lowered the pail deeper into the well of hope than any of the previous incumbents handed the keys to Ferguson’s kingdom.

Manchester United’s long winter has felt even colder because of the blaze of success enjoyed in that period by the two foes against whom they prefer to measure themselves.

The past decade has largely belonged to City, with Jurgen Klopp’s frequently overachieving Liverpool their lone credible domestic rival.

Arsenal’s bold early charge has hinted at an expansion of that duopoly.

The weeks ahead – United visit The Emirates on January 22nd - will reveal whether there is real substance to what some Old Trafford partisans believe might be a genuine red renaissance.

A compelling fortnight of truth looms.

January could alternately confirm or stop dead in its tracks the thesis that ten Hag might someday walk in the same special light that will forever illuminate Cantona’s Manchester legend.


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