Sunday, June 14, 2009
Source: The Observer
Looking for Eric? He's doing the raffle at Twerton Park
Eric Cantona has always been big box office and with the release of a film that bears his name the seagulls are still following the trawler and the Frenchman is straightforward as ever
o Stuart James
o The Observer, Sunday 14 June 2009
Eric Cantona, pictured here at Cannes, more recently popped up at Bath City FC. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA
Eric Cantona pulled a ticket out of the black-and-white striped barrel, held up the number and waited patiently for the winner to come forward before handing over third prize, a bottle of white wine. The Frenchman had already spent more than three hours at Twerton Park speaking to the local media, mingling with a number of Bath City's part-time players and holding court in the non-League club's bar. Now he was drawing the raffle.
What was going through his mind when he was asked to dip into the "golden chest" at the same time as a voluptuous assistant approached is anyone's guess, though the smile that crept across his face as laughter broke out all around suggested nothing had been lost in translation. It was a comical moment at the end of a surreal afternoon when Cantona proved to be every bit as entertaining with a microphone in his hand as he once was with a ball at his feet.
He had spent the past week making appearances up and down the country in the lead-up to Friday's release of Looking for Eric – the Ken Loach-directed film in which Cantona plays himself – but this was an entirely different gig. Twerton Park was not so much the last stop on the promotional tour, but more an opportunity for Loach to give those connected with the club he has followed since 1974 a day they would cherish for the rest of their lives.
Randall's bar is where Bath fans will mull over performances in the Blue Square South league next season, but eight days ago it provided the venue for a question and answer session with one of the greatest players ever to have pulled on a Manchester United shirt. The humble surroundings must have seemed a million miles away from Old Trafford and the Cannes film festival, where Cantona graced the red carpet a few weeks ago, yet the 43-year-old appeared totally at ease.
No subject was off-limits and as Cantona sat for the best part of an hour, without once looking at his watch, candidly discussing everything from the part his father played in his infamous kung‑fu kick at Selhurst Park to his ambition of managing Manchester United and the exorbitant ticket prices that have hammered a nail into the coffin of the working-class supporter, it was tempting to wonder how Cristiano Ronaldo would handle a similar engagement.
After all, at the Football Writers' Association's annual dinner 13 months ago, Ronaldo demanded at the last minute that space was made for five of his entourage to sit on the top table with him. Cantona, in contrast, walked around Twerton Park with the minimum of fuss and took his seat on the small stage in front of the 350 supporters that had crammed into Bath City's function room as if he was pulling up a chair at home.
The first exchange, which followed a rapturous welcome, wonderfully set the tone for the next 60 minutes. Why do you think so many people are here and that you are still so popular, Eric? There was a brief pause before Cantona looked up and replied: "Because I am not a man. I am Cantona." The line was straight out of Looking for Eric and engendered the sort of reaction that used to be reserved for one of his exquisite touches at Old Trafford.
It also became clear there was more where that came from. What's the most difficult: playing football or acting in films? "For me," said Cantona, with a shrug of the shoulders, "everything is easy." For the second time in 60 seconds the room erupted and it was easy to imagine that if Cantona had got up from his seat and left at that point, no one would have complained that the £20 they had spent on a ticket did not represent value for money.
Cantona has always been box-office material. In his six seasons in English football, he won the league title on five occasions, four times with Manchester United and once with Leeds. He would probably have completed a clean sweep but for a notorious January evening in 1995, when Matthew Simmons, a 20-year-old Crystal Palace fan, provoked a furious reaction from Cantona that led to an assault charge, 120 hours' community service, a nine-month ban and Blackburn winning the league.
It was the sort of incident that Cantona could have been forgiven for sidestepping. Did you hear him or see him? "I heard him and I saw him," said Cantona, smiling. "And he heard me and he saw me!" Why did you decide to kick him? "My father, when I was young, he said: 'If you fight somebody one day, you have to kick them first'." Cue more mirth. "I could have killed him," continued Cantona. "I was nice to him really."
The quotation that Cantona later gave at Croydon magistrates' court – "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea" – is almost as memorable as the incident itself, though he insists that he never intended to cause such a stir. "It was a way for me to put a mirror in front of them [the journalists] and to try to make them realise that it was not so serious," he explained. "But all of them tried to analyse it."
Cantona returned from his suspension in October, when he scored against Liverpool, a feat that he repeated against the same opponents in the FA Cup final to help United win their second Double in three season. He was 29 years old and at the peak of his footballing powers, but 12 months later he quit. "I lost the passion for the game," he said. "I don't know why the passion went. You are in love with somebody and sometimes you break up."
He insists he has never regretted the decision. "I think the best years for a footballer are between 26 and 30 and I spent these years with United. I was lucky to spend these best years with the best club in the world, with the best players and with the best manager. The players were the kind of footballers that I dreamed about when I was a child. And it was the perfect football for a player like me. They gave me everything and I had a great time."
With acting now his priority, Cantona no longer follows football closely but he knows enough about the game to realise that much has changed since he retired and not necessarily for the better. One of the subjects he feels most passionate about is the soaring cost of tickets, an issue that Loach tackles in Looking for Eric through Cantona's co-star, Steve Evets, who plays Eric Bishop, a postman who has switched his allegiances from Manchester United to FC United, the club formed by fans disillusioned with the Glazer's takeover at Old Trafford.
Cantona, who had a working-class upbringing, empathises with those supporters who can no longer afford to attend top-flight matches and there seems little doubt that United's owners were uppermost in his mind when he suggested that football has betrayed its traditional fan base in the pursuit of wider profit margins. "There are many games on TV now and many sponsors come," said Cantona. "They [the clubs] make a lot of money.
"It's big business and because of that businessmen now own the clubs. If football was not so much on TV, I'm not sure these kind of men would be involved. So I am not so surprised with these kind of businessmen that the ticket prices are higher and higher. They don't care about working-class people. I try to understand it because I care. I came from this class. The real fans of football are the people I really love and these kind of people cannot go to the game anymore."
Not for the first time the silence that accompanied Cantona picking up the microphone was followed by cheering and applause when he put it down, and there was no sense that he was merely saying what the audience wanted to hear when he added: "I think it's a shame that the money the TV pays for football is spent on the clubs at the highest level. More money should be spent on clubs like this because Bath are the future."
Cantona's own future seems more difficult to plot. He is enjoying his new career as an actor, which he first became interested in when he was banned from playing, but there is also a feeling that he has some unfinished business in football. "If I come back, I try to come back for United," said Cantona. "I'm not sure that after a while [Malcolm] Glazer will ask me to become a manager. But I would love to. I don't care about what they [the Glazers] are saying."
While the chances of Cantona taking over when Ferguson retires appear slim, it is safe to say that there would not be a more popular appointment. His name continues to reverberate around Old Trafford 12 years after he played his last game for the club and his thoughts on his former manager's behaviour in the dressing room suggest that his current work could be more helpful than some people might imagine.
"I think managers are like actors," said Cantona when asked whether he had ever been on the receiving end of Ferguson's "hairdryer" treatment. "They do what the players need. They launch out because the players need to feel that. And [Ferguson] was a wonderful actor. Sometimes we needed confidence and he was quiet. Sometimes we needed him to be strong and he was. Every time he was right and that's why he is so successful."
While Cantona retains a great deal of respect for Ferguson, there is a former team-mate at Old Trafford whom he also holds in high esteem. "Ryan Giggs is 35 but still has the passion for the game. I admire this kind of player. I don't admire every player in the world who plays football until 35 years old because some of them play and are not passionate anymore. But when you see Giggs, everybody knows that he still has the fight and passion for the game."
The Q&A was drawing to a close and there was little Cantona had not covered. He had claimed that "no one could pay it" when asked what he would be worth in today's transfer market and he even offered an explanation for his famous upturned shirt collar. "One day I just put the shirt on and the collar did this," he said, gesturing to the audience. "I scored a goal and after it was like a habit. Sometimes a player keeps his underwear the same; I like to change mine."
With lines like that, it is little wonder that Loach enjoyed working with Cantona so much on set. The film director thanked the Frenchman afterwards and another standing ovation for King Eric followed. Bath City were around £12,000 richer and Randall's would never feel the same again. Cantona, however, was not quite finished. Moments later he was holding aloft a pink ticket with No62 on it. The bottle of wine must have tasted fantastic.