by Philippe Auclair
26th of November 1992 is the date when a signing altered the course of Manchester United history and in a five-year span spawned a spate of trophies, seagulls, sardines and prawn cocktails; Fergie’s shrewd bit of business, the signing of the Molotov cocktail that was Cantona. During the recent much hyped Ken Loach film “Looking For Eric” an emollient Cantona looking back on his playing days in a Manchester United jersey claimed his proudest moment wasn’t one of the many great goals he scored but was the return pass to Denis Irwin that enabled the Corkman to score against Spurs. Echoing his own previous admiration for a forward pass:
‘An artist, in my eyes, is someone who can lighten up a dark room. I have never and will never find difference between the pass from Pele to Carlos Alberto in the final of the World Cup in 1970, and the poetry of the young Rimbaud’
The parents of young Irish fans may wish their young sons to follow the behaviour of a model professional like cherubic Dennis, yet fear they might follow inscrutable Eric’s viscosity. It was when Howard Wilkinson, then the manager of Division One winners Leeds United rang Alex Ferguson to enquire as to the possibility of re-signing Denis Irwin for Leeds that Cantona’s name cropped up. Wilkinson had tired of ‘attempting to read the confused map of Eric’s character’ and wanted rid and Ferguson, at that time, desperate for a striker – United had failed to score in four of their last five games – and always admiring Cantona’s talent jumped in and bought him for a giveaway fee. Right manager, right player, right time for both of them. League and Cup titles followed.
Cantona’s Hari Kari at Selhurst Park not withstanding, it was five years of triumph. He scored his last goal in competition twelve years ago yet his ‘legend’ is as strong today as when he was playing. This momentous signing takes place exactly at the halfway point of this thoroughly researched biography by French football journalist Philippe Auclair. He charts Eric’s steps from promise to damnation, then redemption and idolatry. Cantona grew up near Marseilles, his roots Sardinian and Catalan, think ‘Jean de Florette’ rather than the Marseilles of ‘French Connection 2.’ Marseilles was full of immigrants, both refugees from the Algerian war and Arabs who had been invited by the French Government to work in the manufacturing and construction boom of the late 1960’s, the formerly colonised settled in vast numbers in huge housing estates. Zinedine Zidane, another inscrutable unpredictable genius, was born in one of them. Cantona allegedly alerted Fergie to Zidane’s youthful potential but Fergie passed. For all the great decisions managers make they also make the same number of bad ones. Don’t forget Kleberson, Juan Sebastian Veron and Eric Djemba-Djemba. When he was six Cantona saw Johan Cruyff and Ajax ‘who pass the ball as if it were a gift’ at the height of their powers and it made a lasting impression. He was the second of three sons and indulged by his parents because of his ‘special’ talents. His first father figure thereafter was Auxerre’s Guy Roux but all father figures failed until Fergie. As Gerard Houllier says, ‘The more talented a footballer is, the more insecure he feels about his ability.’ Every day Ferguson had a cup of tea with Cantona. This simple gesture was the key to gaining trust between two driven combustibles. Cantona divided people. Simon Barnes in the Times said ‘Eric Cantona is a man who seems to rise to the small occasion.’ True if he is referring to his failure in the Champions League but all those domestic trophies don’t lie. Cantona was also a painter and as we have already seen admired the enfant terrible Rimbaud. He considered himself an artist while being a footballer. Philippe Auclair sums up:
‘At certain moments sport has as profound and life-changing an effect as painting or music can bring about on those who witness the act of creation. But no sportsman is an artist, regardless of how much he or she would want to be considered one. I am convinced that Cantona’s outbursts of temper, his reluctance to take root, his chronic instability are, when distilled, expressions of his raging at the limitations of his gift and of his awareness that, no matter how great his on field achievements may be, he had never become the tormented, misunderstood creator of genius he wished to be in his naive dreams.’
It can be said that Je suis nenu, j’ai vu, je conquered and after five years he returned to France where he became involved in beach football and developed a career as an actor with his best performance ‘til now being in Thierry Binisti’s ‘The Over-Eater’. But for those years as a footballer in England in the ‘90’s he was both catalyst and icon and was recognised by the wisdom on the terraces and adored by the non prawn cocktail fan in the stands. These true supporters saw a flawed individual who through blind belief harnessed the will of teammates. The enigma of ‘King Eric’ during those years has never before been dissected with such scientific precision and presented with humour and understanding. Absorbing. Yet the enigma remains, and perhaps that’s as it should be.