Sunday, April 26, 2009
Source: The Observer
Ed; PDF version of the page (The Observer - 2009-04-26 - page 24)
* Tony Howard
* The Observer, Sunday 26 April 2009
For a diehard Manchester United fan it was a chance that was too good to miss: an offer to appear as an extra in a Ken Loach movie with Eric Cantona. Tony Howard recalls the dashed hopes and subterfuge that led to his date with destiny.
The text was intriguing: "Fancy being in a Ken Loach film? They're casting at the match on Wednesday night. Don't tell anyone for now."
Although I was a fan of Loach, I wasn't enthralled by the prospect of wasting time when there was a pint to be had before FC United of Manchester (the club formed by fans in the aftermath of the takeover of Manchester United by the American Glazer family) played a crucial game in March 2008 in their quest for a third successive promotion.
I rang the texter for more details and, by the time I put the phone down, I'd already planned my early getaway from work to be there on time, even if it meant being fired. The reason? The film was set to star one Eric Cantona, a man I'd spent my adult life idolising. A man who gave us memories to cherish and a great joy that is impossible to explain to anyone who is not a Manchester United fan. A man who represents what football was before it got taken away from us. The last great hero in red.
Loach and Cantona had got their heads together to create a film and they'd be using United fans as extras. I'd do anything, almost, to be a part of it.
Much to our disappointment, neither Eric nor Ken was there for the "casting", which entailed standing in a room at Gigg Lane, the home of League 2 side Bury, while a production assistant stuck a camera in your face. It was hardlyHollywood. But that was partly the point.
Loach had contacted FC United the previous autumn after Cantona and scriptwriter Paul Laverty had hatched an idea for a film involving Cantona appearing in a vision to a United fan whose life was falling apart. The main character had been priced out of going to the match with his mates and, as a vocal supporter of fan-owned football clubs, Loach had been impressed with the work FC United had done to make football affordable and to bring fans back together.
Both Loach and Cantona had stated their wish for United fans to feature as extras in Looking for Eric. Cantona wanted to say thanks to the supporters - those attending FC United, those still going to Old Trafford and those doing neither but still harbouring the same deep love for their football club, usually via a bar stool.
"We are a breed of memories," he once said. "That is why I have this love of Manchester and Manchester United. I am not on the pitch any more but I am still proud of that relationship. My feelings will always be in my heart." This was his homecoming. Any Red worth his or her salt had to be a part of it.
The proof of this love was evident in the build-up to filming. "I've just seen Eric in Sainsbury's on Oxford Road," was one more believable text; others were plain daft. "Sure, I've just seen Cantona downing a pint while stood on a table outside Sinclairs" seemed a bit less plausible.
His mere presence had resulted in a real buzz about the film before a scene had been shot. As expectations grew, the production company still hadn't contacted many of us. It was like waiting to hear the verdict after an interview for your dream job. Questions flew through my head. Was I too small? Was I too young? Did I not look hard enough?
Doubts grew as some mates started hearing back. They were given instructions on where to go and what to wear. My housemate was one of the lucky few: he rose bright and early on the Monday morning. He and several other friends had been told to wear dark clothes with no logos and to take either an FC United or Manchester United shirt to the meeting point. He came home that night with a broad grin across his face. He'd spent the day smashing up a house. Eric had turned up on set and posed for pictures with what seemed like the whole of Manchester. Except me. I was devastated.
The night after, he came home with a smile so wide his face was in danger of bursting. He'd spent the whole afternoon in a pub filming a scene featuring Eric. A day in the pub with Cantona - was he taking the piss?
That was it. "Put a word in for me, I've still not heard anything," was my desperate request. And he did, and I got a phone call telling me I'd receive a text on Thursday to film on Friday.
After days of heartache at missing out, I finally prepared to meet my idol. Except I didn't receive the promised text and looking at my phone well into the early hours didn't help. I was gutted - practically everyone I knew was going to be in the film and had met Eric. Maybe it just wasn't meant to be, I would never meet the one hero I had left in the world.
I phoned a mate on set on the Friday and she confirmed that filming hadn't started. "Sod it," I thought and jumped in a taxi, dressed smartly and clean shaven, as requested in the texts sent to everyone except me, and went to Salford University to bunk into the filming of a graduation scene.
The premise was that the main character's daughter was graduating and we were family members of another student. After we had been waiting around for hours, Loach appeared with his production crew and told us very little - as he often infamously does. Our instructions were to take pictures and clap a bit. We weren't really concentrating. Our minds were occupied with questions. Would Eric be in the scene? If not, would he be on set to say hello?
A painstaking afternoon was spent acting out the same scene, with forced smiles and aching hands from all the clapping. It was June, but as the sun fell in the sky and the night began to draw in, we were getting cold. And there was still no sign of the Frenchman.
There were plenty of false dawns. "That's him, he's there," was the day's second most common phrase, behind the hearty calls of "action!" During a break in filming, I and a mate, who was my "dad" for the day, gave chase after spying a recognisable figure sneaking behind the university building. We'd found a Cantona all right, but it was the wrong one. It was Eric's brother, Joel.
We'd begun to give up as filming drew to a close when my "dad" swore he'd finally spotted the right Cantona. This time he was correct and word spread quickly as the assembled extras made their way over to him for pictures. He posed and smiled for everyone before having to leave. I hadn't got near him. But there was always the "wrap party" that night.
The venue had been kept secret, but that didn't put us off. We'd get in by hook or by crook and finally meet our hero. I'd just added "bunking into a film set" to the CV, so a swanky bar in town would present few obstacles.
Only selected members of the crew had been invited, along with the small group of fans who had organised the extras. They were sworn to secrecy, but a phone call to a less than alert friend revealed the location.
"Hi, mate, you out tonight? Where are you?" I inquired.
"Loaf, on the locks," came the reply. All too easy.
We walked in as the bouncers were examining each other's shoes. I saw my housemate in the corner, deep in conversation with the man himself. Eric was casually sipping a Coke as he listened intently to my friend. We walked over, trying to act casual, and sat at the same table. They showed outtakes from the film on a big screen and Eric laughed with the rest of us, while looking over to fellow cast members and winking. It was surreal to be this close to a man you had spent so long admiring. I simply had to speak to him.
I'd been carrying a picture in my pocket all day that I wanted signing. It was crumpled and bent over at the edges, but it showed him in mid-flight, with the ball at his feet in his majestic pomp on the way to leading that young side to the double in 1996.
I couldn't drum up the courage to approach him, despite taking full advantage of the free bar. I'd never experienced this form of "stage fright" before. Through work I'd met members of the royal family, actors, television stars and even musicians I looked up to without being even slightly overawed. But with Eric it was different.
As my mate turned, I asked him what he'd been talking about. "Eric loves Manchester and what we're doing with FC and has promised to come to a game," was his excitable reply.
Then Eric got up to leave. Now had to be my moment or I'd regret it for the rest of my life. I leapt up and shook his hand as he went to pass. Stuck for anything to say and with my heart pumping I blurted out: "Thanks for everything, Eric. We owe you so much." It was one of the most cringe-worthy sentences I'd ever uttered.
"No, thank you. I owe you," was his reply. And with that he made his way through the throngs and out of the door.
Months later, at FC United's game yesterday against Bradford Park Avenue in the UniBond Premier League, 3,000 fans wore masks with Cantona's face on them as part of a publicity stunt from the film's production company. United fans sang his name, as they still do at Old Trafford. Thanks to this film, more than 10 years since he left our city, Manchester became Cantona's once more. And we were proper chuffed to have him around.
• Looking for Eric has been nominated for the Palme d'Or award at the Cannes film festival. It opens at cinemas in the UK on 12 June
Eric: from seagulls to kung fu
Born 24 May, 1966, in Marseille.
Status Somewhere between royalty and god. Manchester United fans refer to him as King Eric.
Career on the pitch Started with Auxerre in 1983, had spells with Bordeaux, Montpellier and Marseille. Joined Leeds in 1992, left for Manchester Utd the same year. Left the club when he retired in 1997 after scoring 64 league goals.
Career off the pitch Manages French beach soccer team. Fleeting appearance in the film Elizabeth
Character Fiery. Famously kung fu-kicked a Crystal Palace fan.
Outlook "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown in to the sea." . Also a tad romantic: "I'm so proud the fans still sing my name, but I fear tomorrow they will stop. I fear it because I love it. And everything you love, you fear you will lose."
Ed; PDF version of the page (The Observer - 2009-04-26 - page 24)