Words: Owen Blackhurst
Images: Offside Sports Photography
On Friday, February 24 2017, four of us went to the London Palladium to watch An Evening with Eric Cantona. We’d long decided to put him on the cover by this point, and despite negative reviews from an earlier show in Bournemouth, what we witnessed over the next couple of hours fully vindicated the decision. If Cantona was only an exceptional footballer, it’s unlikely that we’d have gone to town in the way we have. You can sit on YouTube all day and be reminded of that. You can endlessly replay the heart-stopping goals, the pornographic flicks and the milligram-perfect weight of his passing until you are breathlessly engorged.
Yet Cantona wouldn’t have been the player he was without being the man he is. And as much as we collectively remain in thrall to his footballing genius, it is his principles as a man that render him, in the eyes of all but the most myopic of fans, as someone who truly transcends club loyalties.
In 1865, Karl Marx answered a series of questions that formed what were known as Confessions in Victorian England. In a man he admired strength, his idea of happiness was to fight, he detested servility, and his idea of misery was to submit. His hero? Spartacus. And although we are not suggesting for a minute that Cantona has the historical importance of a revolutionary socialist who railed against capitalism and its exploitation of labour, or even a Thracian gladiator who stuck the boot into the Roman Republic, his refusal to yield and his desire to fight for what he believes in set him apart. Show me a man who doesn’t admire rebelliousness, and I’ll show you a Tory. Eric had the bollocks to be one and to fuck the consequences at the same time.
When he walked on stage at the Palladium two thousand odd fans, starved of him for 20 years, belted out that Cantona song to the tune of Le Marseillaise as he just stood motionless in the middle of his massive aura and drank it all in before sitting down to tell his anecdotes. It was all too much for one huge bald fella on the front row who, clutching a bottle of house wine and wearing a coat that was clearly designed for driving Huskies in, lurched from resting his head on the apron of the stage in awe to standing up and starting chants every time he answered a question. It was clear Cantona had given him the best moments of his life, and he simply couldn’t handle it. He got chucked out after about 15 minutes, wine still in hand, singing like a madman as security bounced him through the door.
Despite the questions having clearly been hand-picked, and an interviewer who could probably be sued under the Trade Descriptions Act, Cantona was captivating. Speaking with clarity and intelligence on everything from his pure love of the game and how it felt like a drug, to his pride at working with Ken Loach and his hatred of both the Bush regime and the ascension of Donald Trump, he gave the crowd what they wanted anecdotally and talked about matters that he genuinely cared about, all while walking that tightrope between humility and hubris that he’s been balancing enigmatically on for decades. He was undoubtedly, unashamedly, himself. He was Cantona.
“THEN ONE MORNING HE JUST APPEARED”
In 1997 Michael J. Browne painted The Art of the Game, an iconic piece in the Renaissance style depicting Cantona as Jesus…
“I originally wrote a letter to him asking if I could paint him for a different project about the media’s treatment of him, but I got a reply saying that he wasn’t interested. Then he returned from his nine-month ban and really started leading and scoring important goals, and I had the idea to use this resurrection in a painting and knew I just had to start. Because I’d done a version of The Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of Cocotoo’s in Manchester, word got round that I was working on this big 10 x 8 ft project in Barca bar in Castlefields.
“Then one morning he just appeared. At first, he just sat there in the background having a bit of a sneaky look, so I went over and introduced myself, showed him the painting and explained the finished piece. He liked it and agreed to pose for me. He turned up with his Dad, who’s an artist, the week after for another look, then the following week came to the VIP area with Claude Boli, the brother of Basile who he played with at Marseille, and posed for me all morning. I’ve got a picture of him somewhere standing on a chair and holding a broom handle.
“He posed for me four times in all, and when the painting was about a quarter finished he just asked me if he could buy it, I was blown away. Eric’s got a great sense of humour; he’s a very intellectual character. He questions everything and always asks why about everything. I got to know him a bit more when I went to see him in Paris the year later to sort out the prints. He’d retired by then, and we lugged these huge boxes of prints up a spiral staircase together. He was boxing at the time, so we just went to the gym and hung out and talked about Prince Naseem Hamed who’d just lost to Marco Antonio Barrera.
“It took me ten months to finish. I spent time with Alex Ferguson in his office taking photos, and also of the Nevilles, Nicky Butt, John Curtis and David Beckham. Becks was crouched down by the bins and wouldn’t stop messing with his hair. In Byzantine art, there is a hierarchical style based on size, and that was what I wanted to represent. Cantona leading this next generation of English players.
“The world’s media were there for the unveiling. I had to cover it up the night before with bits of paper so nobody got a preview because there was a lot of interest by then. The Independent had approached me if they could get an exclusive and put it on the front page, so I agreed and the day after it went crazy. Alex Ferguson clipped me around the back of the head for giving him a double chin, but we had a laugh about it.
“It’s in the National Football Museum now. I had to hire a van and drive down to the South of France to Eric’s parents’ house to pick it up. When I got there Eric’s dad looked at the van and asked if I was crazy—the painting was huge, and we had a hell of a time getting it in. His mum was up on a ladder cutting wires, his dad had it on his back in this massive crate, but we managed it in the end. At one point on the way back the van got stuck under some 17th Century beams in a hotel carriageway, luckily a load of German basketball players were on hand to come and hang off the back of the van to weigh it down a bit.
“Eric was so artistic and creative on the pitch—he was sort of beyond everyone else. He was in the middle of everything; you knew that you could put faith in him and when you gave him the ball he wasn’t going to screw up. You knew the goals were coming, the game might have been tight, but Eric would make the difference. He’s definitely my favourite Manchester United player, and I’m very proud of the painting. It’s probably the most famous football painting of all-time.”
“WHEN CANTONA WAS PLAYING YOU WERE ON YOUR GAME”
Mark Leech is the owner of Offside Sports Photography, was the recipient of the Premier League’s Photographer of the first 20 years and photographed Cantona on numerous occasions…
“The first time I shot Eric was France v Iceland in Paris in 1991. I’d heard a lot about him from my friends at L’Equipe, and on first appearances he didn't really look the traditional French striker. Iceland were very physical, and what I really remember is that he stood up to them in that sense. I didn't come away thinking I’d seen a superstar, but I certainly thought he could handle himself.
“I then went to Boundary Park for his Leeds debut against Oldham which they lost 2–0. He came off the bench, and he got stuck in straight away. His first tackle was fairly uncompromising, and you could see that he’d decided he wasn’t going to stand on the fringes. A few weeks later I was at Loftus Road when Leeds got whacked at QPR, but you could see the fans had taken to him and him to them and English football. He was chasing lost causes and fighting for things.
“He definitely grew into himself as a player at Manchester United. People talk a lot about players finding the space, but he really did it. I’m not watching the match develop from above, I’m staring straight down a lens, and he’d just appear. I’d be thinking ‘where did he come from?’. Everyone else would be hurtling around, and he’d be dropping off. For a photographer, it was gold because when he did drop into midfield, you’d be thinking, ‘that 50/50 tackle might be on here or a moment of brilliance’. He was always the one to watch out for. When Cantona was playing, you were on your game. You had to be.
“My favourite shot of him is the one of him from behind—shaved head; collar turned up, against Blackburn Rovers. So simple, so Cantona, I don’t think there is any other player I could’ve shot from the back and had the same result. I also like the one from his comeback where he jumped up the pole. The crowd are obviously going wild, but what I really like it is the way Roy Keane has ran over and is looking up at him, you don’t often see that. Keane had probably had to shoulder a lot of the weight in his absence, and you can see him thinking “good to have you back pal, we’ll sort this out”.
“Another favourite is from a warm-up against West Ham in 1994. He’s sat on the turf and doing a lot of stretches you didn’t really see then—stretching his wrists and arms while all the other players were just belting it at the keeper, and in one it sort of looks like he’s praying. France Football used that on the front cover. The French team were in disarray, and they were probably looking for a hero, and there was a clamour for him to come back in. ‘Is there a pilot?’ was the cover line; I was really pleased they used that.
“If I had to pick another it’s one of him and Fergie at Maine Road in 1996. Fergie’s holding him and talking to him, and you can imagine the din and the abuse they were getting, and he was absolutely brilliant in that game. Maine Road derbies were phenomenal. In the middle of it all, and in the intense heat of it all, Fergie has got him, and you know Fergie is thinking “I know who I can talk to; I know who I can trust”.
“YOU NEEDED HIM IN YOUR PERIPHERAL VISION”
Martin Tyler has been commentating on the Premier League for Sky Sports since its inception and was there when Cantona made his comeback against Liverpool…
“To commentate on, he was special because you needed him in your peripheral vision, even if he wasn’t in the shape of the play at that moment. He was Box Office; he certainly had the stardust. That strut and the unswerving belief in his ability whatever the circumstances, however difficult life became, and that is special.
“The difficulty at times was trying to describe him. He had that arrogance about him, he did have that look, and he was great for a close-up. I think he always knew where the camera was. He just had something. You never know how much of it is actually real or how much of it was part of a day’s work. I have come across people in football who are very different outside of the pitch from the persona that the public know them on the pitch. With Eric, there was always an air of mystery about him. That was also part of it, whether he created it or not it came out that way.
“I did the Manchester derby when he came on as a second-half substitute for his debut, and Eric just stepped into it with ease. I’d sat at home watching the Nine O’Clock News when his transfer from Leeds was announced, which given that he had only played for a few months in England was quite extraordinary that it got that coverage, and Fergie should get a massive amount of credit for smelling out his talent. He got an amazing tune out of somebody who other managers might have struggled with.
“In my television capacity—on air, I cannot ever remember interviewing him, to be honest. I bumped into him at times outside Old Trafford—I remember bumping into him in the World Cup in the USA in 1994, and I know he had a bit of controversy there as well—and he was always very polite, and you take people as you find them.
“My memories of his comeback game—I think we billed it as Red October—are not only the penalty but that he made a goal for Nicky Butt in the first minute, straight back down to business after that length of time. That was just Eric, really. It could have been something away from Old Trafford, it could have been against a less heralded opponent, but it was that game. Actually, Robbie Fowler scored two brilliant goals in that game that hardly get a mention. It was a terrific match. He didn’t go on to get the winner, which would have been the perfect repose to what had gone on before.
“When I go to an Old Trafford game and when someone says to me “Eric is here today.” I want to know where he’s sitting, can we get a shot? You would always want to see him. It shocks me how quickly time has gone—it seems only yesterday that I was writing his name on my notes and was wondering what was going to happen and keeping his stats up-to-date. Not too many players just go like he did—maybe that is part of why he is remembered so much. You know … as an actor, you want a good entrance and a good exit. He came in with a bang and left with a bang, and there were plenty of explosions in the middle.”
“IT’S IMPORTANT TO PORTRAY THAT AIR OF ARROGANCE”
Stanley Chow is a world-renowned illustrator whose clients include Saatchi & Saatchi, The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, The White Stripes, and Lego.
Illustration: Stan Chow
“My work is solely digital nowadays, but the first time I did Cantona was an actual painting when I was at art school. It’s clearly not one of my best efforts. I always wanted to illustrate people I admire, and I loved him because he had that air of arrogance when he stepped onto the pitch, plus the ability to back up that arrogance. That was what gave him his star quality, and having star quality made him very attractive; I had a serious man-crush going on. He wasn’t the easiest to illustrate, but I didn’t have a problem wanting to illustrate him.
“My favourite one is the full figure Stanley Chow FC illustration. I’ve managed to capture him in the simplest most iconic way I could without actually making it look like him. The stance, the collar, the eyebrows; it doesn’t need anything else—you instantly know who it is. That is what I try to achieve in most of the illustrations I do, to get a message across in the simplest way possible.
“It’s evident from print sales that people love Cantona in Manchester more than any other player. Of the three that have been on sale, the one with the horns has sold the most, but the Stanley Chow FC one is the best-selling of all my prints in 2017 so far.
“For the MUNDIAL cover illustration, likeness is the key. His was quite difficult to nail despite him having distinct facial characteristics like his big nose and thick eyebrows. The problem with this is that it becomes too easy to turn the illustration into a caricature, which was something I wanted to avoid.
“Once I nailed the likeness, it was important to portray that air of arrogance, that ‘don’t mess with me’ look as well as looking pensive and enigmatic while trying to retain the likeness. In short, he was a ball-ache to do, but I persevered. I’ve looked at it for a long time, and I generally get very bored very quickly with my own work. Having said that I’m pretty pleased with the final outcome.
“I believe he has seen one of my illustrations, the one with horns. I know this as someone told me recently that they brought along a print to one of Eric’s recent talks and had it signed by the big man. What he thought of it, I have no idea.
“I’ve never met him, but the producers at MUTV tried to green light a documentary with me talking to Eric about art. Half of me is quite happy it didn’t happen, as I was completely shitting myself when they came up with the idea. It would have been lovely to have met him, but not in that circumstance.
“As a Manchester United fan, I simply don’t think United would have gone on to win so many titles without Cantona. The effect he had was monumental, in many aspects just as important as the effect Sir Alex Ferguson had, if not more so, because how instant his effect was. I don’t think any other player can rival him in that aspect. United fans will be forever grateful.”
“I REALLY FELL IN LOVE WITH HIM”
Philippe Auclair is a French football journalist, writer, and musician who spent three years of his life writing Cantona: The Rebel who would be King. Published in 2009, it’s an exceptional work of art, and the definitive study of Eric as man, player, and enigma.
“It was very consuming. Not just time consuming or energy consuming, but emotionally draining at times and yes, very painful. I had done political books before, but I had never written a football book. So, my agent, well he became my agent when I decided to take it on, said ‘we have just got one word to say to you and that is Cantona’, and I said yes. There was already Eric’s autobiography, which was basically complete and utter bollocks and written in great part by somebody else. I thought it was a perfect subject in so many ways because I’d started working on football in England just three or four years before Eric arrived, so I saw his effect as a catalyst in the transformation of Manchester United, and of the Premier League as a brand.
“I wouldn’t say there was an affinity, but it was an opportunity to think about a Frenchman in a foreign culture—a Frenchman in English culture. I was right for integration when I arrived, I was already cultured, whereas Eric wasn’t and still isn’t. He hasn’t changed very much at all. That played a part; the thing is I had never met Eric before I started writing the book. I decided straight away that I was going to treat this as a biography of somebody who was dead because he was already dead as a footballer in many ways. And I was going to do it in the same way as a biography of a composer or a politician, so I was going to use the same methodology, which means an awful lot of research. I spent two years researching. I read every single piece in English on Eric from 1991 to his retirement—every single one, I am not joking.
“I decided I wanted to go through absolutely everything, first of all because he is someone who had attracted so many myths, even before he arrived in England. You have to extremely careful with everything and don’t trust any source. It was very time-consuming but well worth it and by no means the most difficult part of the job. I love researching. The most difficult thing is to pare it down. I swore to myself that I would never do another book when I finished it. It was exhausting. I also decided very quickly I would do it without him—but I would make sure he knew about it. Because of his personality, it is almost impossible to do anything that wouldn’t be an autobiography if I did with his help.
“He never ever stopped anyone talking to me, which says a lot for the man himself. I really fell in love with him when I started writing the book, which is very important. The more I knew about him, the more I liked him as a person. I have always adored the football player; I thought the football player was incredibly underrated. Sometimes the judgements that were passed on him were not necessarily based on a fair appreciation. It was either one thing or the other—he was either an angel or a demon. Whereas he was nothing of the kind, which was one of the first things I realised. From my point of view, I was someone who had seen him play, who had read about him, who had seen him on television, who had known all about the excesses, the brutal fouls, but had little inkling of who the man could be.
“When you talk to people about it … travel to where he grew up and try to go to every single city and try to understand—try to have a proper picture of the man. You grow a lot of affection for your subject. You cannot write a proper biography of someone that you do not like. You can be fair when you love, but when you don’t, you will be unfair. I would meet someone who was very important in his life and suddenly shed a new light on a moment in his life that I thought I understood—he is so complicated, so contradictory and oxymoronic, and with that you have to be very, very careful and I was very lucky. The first thing I did was go to see somebody in Marseille, who was his coach when he was a child really and to take it from there.
“I first became aware of him in 1987 or 1988 when he was starting to do some impressive stuff with Auxerre. I was already in England at the time, so I wasn’t a first-hand witness, but I was still keeping in touch and also what he did with the Under-23 team—it was magnificent. That really caught the public’s imagination, and Eric was at the forefront of it—he was the main man, and I was aware of him then. Then afterwards I was like everyone else—I followed the very odd and strange career that he had in Marseille, and I thought that he was lost to football. And then he arrived here and then I almost became a Manchester United fan because of him. I say almost because my loyalties haven’t changed.
“I know he read the book; I sent it to him. The first comment was that he didn’t dislike it, which is fine. I will not name names, but other players who I have written at length about have been very, very, unpleasant indeed. With Eric, there was not a squeak from his lawyers, his solicitors or anybody. Nothing. If he had hated the book and wanted say it—he would have said it in no uncertain terms. I finally met him and he was utterly charming, and as I have said the response he gave to three of my friends was non-committal to start with, then later ones once the book was translated and published in French I actually had good echoes of his feelings. I had insisted on aspects of his behaviour, which people had taken against him, and I showed him in a rather different light. Also, I tried to show that he wasn’t a failure, which is how he can be perceived in France.
“A very important thing that I did during the research of the book because I didn’t trust match reports was to go back to the videos and watch the games. I watched many, many games as I wanted to make sure that the judgements that were passed were correct—and in many cases they were not. There were big inconsistencies, especially the judgements of his performances. At the time when you think about football reporting in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s you didn’t have a video replay at your seat, you didn’t have the internet to check your statistics, you had to take a punt and in many cases when I read about Eric having a stinker in a particular game—he didn’t. Anyway, I wanted to have as much information as possible and also to remind myself of what kind of player he was. Physically for example and how he changed through the years to become the Cantona of 95/96 who is the ultra Cantona—the hyper Cantona—the Cantona Maximus. That year he was astonishing—he had something about him, and physically he was at his absolute best. It is extraordinary how quickly he declined from that.
“I loved that he was fearless. That doesn’t make him the easiest person to write about in some ways, but in others it gives you so much freedom to explore other things and areas you wouldn’t normally think of touching on when you are writing a football book. That more than compensates for the fact that he is a tricky customer—you cannot label him—every time you say something about Eric you could also say the opposite and it will always be true as well. Once you recognise that, you can do some serious work.
“I am very, very, proud of the book and I probably won’t do anything in the field of football as good as Cantona. When it is your first attempt at something, you’re always at your peak, provided you work at it properly. Also, I would never be able to devote three years again, and you also don’t find many subjects like Eric Cantona. Eric was from the right era for this type of book. Generations before you wouldn’t have the videos. On the one hand, he is modern and part of our age—on the other hand, he is still part of a generation of footballers who were quite open to the normal world, who had normal friends, who led normal lives and came from normal backgrounds. If you combine the two it was bang at the right time—it is the beginning of the Premier League and the hype and everything else, and at the same time he is still very much part of the older football world. I think his values and virtues are very old-fashioned, which meant I could speak to people I don’t think I would be able to speak to if I was talking about a footballer who is active today.
“He was also a grafter. Which is one of the things I try to push in the book—and every time I have spoken about him. Never forget that Eric is first and foremost a hard worker. He might have been late to training sometimes, but he stayed there much longer than everyone else. He was a terrible timekeeper—but on the pitch, he was a worker and a team player, it was never all about him.
“It is one thing that every single person I talked to, and every single player who played with him, says about Eric: he was a team player. It was something he insisted on himself. When he felt a teammate had a 100% chance of scoring and he only 95% chance—he would pass the ball. He was not there saying ‘I have to take the penalty kick’. Some of his acts of generosity towards his teammates … and he is very discreet about that. You talk to one guy who played 53 times with him at Montpellier … not everything is in the book—maybe there should be a director’s cut at some point. You talk to this guy who played 53 times with him at Montpellier who says Eric was so good with me. He realised I didn’t have much money—we went out for dinner and he paid for everything—he is that kind of guy, you know. Where are the Cantona haters today?
“I genuinely believe he isn’t bothered by his reputation in France. When he says that he would like England to beat France every time—I think he means it. He found himself here; he found a father in Alex. He became Cantona. He was able to be who he was. He was Eric and became Cantona. There is bitterness, which isn’t the same as regret. There is bitterness, but I wouldn’t say with the national team—I think that what still hurts him is the fact he never succeeded with Marseille. Before being a Frenchman he is a Marseillaise and that for him will be the greatest regret of his footballing life—the fact that he fell out and had this terrible injury against FC Brest, just when he was going really well and then he found himself completely ostracised and was sent on loan to Bordeaux.
“Can you imagine—the club of your youth is playing in a European Cup final and loses and if he had been there they would have probably won—and without having to pay for it. It must be so hard. That’s why he says some horrible things about Tapie—that must be the greatest regret. You go there and there is no trace of him whatsoever, which is unbelievable—he won titles with Marseille and he is completely erased from the club’s history.”
“IT FELT LIKE A CONDENSED ACID TRIP”
Steve Evets is an actor and musician from Salford who starred alongside Cantona in Ken Loach’s film Looking for Eric.
“When Ken Loach films he doesn’t let the actors see a script and he shoots in sequence, so you don’t know the outcome. I didn’t even know Cantona was in the film. I knew my character’s background, I knew he was a Man Utd fan, I knew he was obsessed with Cantona, but I didn’t know the story. One day the scene he gave me was where I’m in the bedroom and talking to a Cantona poster. So I learnt it, we went in the next day and did about six or seven takes, and I thought 'we must have nailed it by now'. Then he said to me the lighting wasn’t right so they needed to tweak it so I could go outside and have a cigarette.
“Ten minutes later he got me back in the house, and they’d put some big black flags up to diffuse the light and Ken said ‘let’s do one more take’. So I speak to the poster again, turn my collar up and put a spliff in my mouth. Then this voice behind me says 'WELL HAVE YOU?' and I didn’t want to turn around because I thought it was one of the Belgian lads on the crew, the camera was behind me I didn’t wanna spoil the shot. Eventually, I’ve turned around and Eric Cantona, beautifully lit, is stood five feet away from me. I was shocked. You can see the surprise on my face.
“I’ll never forget the feeling. It felt like a condensed acid trip; it was just unbelievable. I think I said 'Is it really you?' And he said 'Oui'. So I said 'Well say something in French then', and he said 'Je suis Eric Cantona'. Then we cut and I was having lunch next to him, I couldn’t believe it. It was just mind-blowing. I was in shock for the rest of the day, and then I had to do a scene with Eric after lunch and it was an incredible experience.
“After they cut that scene and all the crew just started applauding and laughing, and I was just stood there gobsmacked. I couldn’t believe it, and I didn’t know what to say to him. And he was like to me 'Are you ok?' and he did his best to put me at my ease, to not be in awe of him...because although my character is in awe of him, we had to make it real and we had to make it work. So I had to treat him like he was my best mate.
“He was great with everybody. He’s such an icon, but he’s so humble. He was so down to earth. Every time I had to do a scene with him and he’d say to me 'Steve, was I OK?' I’m like, ‘You’re Eric Cantona, why are you asking me if it was any good for?’
“We were doing the scene near the end where we’ve all got the masks on, and we’re gonna smash up the villain’s house, and Ken was rehearsing it. He had over 100 extras, mostly United fans, and this people carrier turned up with Eric and Jean-Marie, his brother, and as soon as he got out of that, the scene went to cock because everyone’s like 'the king is here, Eric’s here.' So Ken had to stop filming for a bit because everybody wanted a photo taken with Eric, everyone wanted something signing, and that was the good thing about him. I’ve never ever seen him refuse anyone a photo or a signing, even when there’s been over a 100 people there, he’s still as enthusiastic about the last one as he was about the first one and that’s why people love him. He’s got time for people. He’s just an unbelievable bloke. He treated everybody the same. The guy was just so down to earth. He was such a pleasure to work with and to know. I feel very privileged.
“He had an amazing effect on everyone. Morale was so high on that set, and it’s the most amazing experience in terms of acting that I’ve ever had or ever will have. I’ll never forget the shocks and surprises and the sheer joy of waking up for work and getting there to see what the day held.
“I remember getting in the pub one night after a day’s shooting and somebody said to me 'Well, what have you done today then?' I didn’t let on to a lot of people in my local what I was doing, so I told him 'If I tell ya, you’ll think I’m bullshitting'. He wasn’t having it 'No, come on, tell us…' so I said ‘Ok, I’ve been stood on a flat in Hulme singing with Cantona while he plays the trumpet’. ‘Right Steve, yeah, fuck off!’
“A few times a week I’m in a pub or walking along, and I get 'Oh you’re the guy from Looking for Eric, can I have a picture? What was he like?' Then I get the people who say 'Have you found him yet?' But the whole experience of the film was an adventure from start to finish, and the scenes with Cantona were just so special because it was just me and him, because only my character could see him. It was like I had him all to myself.”
“IT SHOWS YOU WHAT THE MAN IS ABOUT”
Peter Hooton is the lead singer of The Farm. A Liverpool fan, he was one of the founder members of the Justice Collective and fronted the Justice Tonight Band who toured to raise funds and awareness for Hillsborough-based charities.
“In 2011 I set up a Don’t Buy the Sun concert in Liverpool after Billy Bragg had just released that track 'Never Buy the Sun'. The News of the World was in the process of shutting and my mate Dabbo who is a roadie for the Manic Street Preachers and The Stone Roses, said Mick Jones of The Clash was interested in getting involved. At the concert, there was a feeling that it was almost like back to the days of political rallies. The next day we’re in a cafe, and Mick Jones is going 'that’s why I joined The Clash man, that’s why I joined The Clash, because of fighting injustice, that’s why I picked up a guitar, we’ve gotta take this on the road'. So we’re all thinking, yeah, great idea but how we going to do it? We were taking some advice off some of the Hillsborough groups, and they basically said, look, The Sun is a diversion to the whole thing, you know, it’s really more fundamental than that. It’s the political establishment, that’s who we should be getting at so we decided then to call the series of concerts Justice Tonight.
“Ian Brown and John Squire came on stage at the Manchester gigs when they were in the process of reforming, and we then performed at the Heaton Park concerts. They then asked us to take the Justice Tonight band on the European Tour. Mick Jones always talks in terms of football, and he said 'we’ve done the home matches, now we’ve got to go to Europe'—it’s like the Champions League now, we’re taking it to Europe! The independent report on Hillsborough didn’t come out until September 2012, so these Man United fans, The Roses, putting their flag in the centre circle, that was enormous. It was monumental.
“I heard a couple of days before when we were travelling to France that Cantona might be coming along, I was thinking 'Nah, I can’t see that'. And when we turned up to the sound check, the rumours started going round that Cantona was going to turn up. At the time, Mick Jones had been producing his wife, or his partner, in Paris, so I think Mick has asked him 'why don’t you come down?'—Cantona was a big Clash fan, but we still didn’t think that it would happen and then he appeared. That was during the sound check time, just after the sound check and we’re all thinking what’s he gonna do, what’s he gonna do? And then Mick was saying 'get up and sing 'Should I Stay or Should I Go'. And he did it, and the reaction was amazing.
“I was determined to ask him the reason he was there because the cynics are just going to say 'oh he’s just doing this cos he loves Mick Jones and The Clash'. So I went over to him and said: 'I’m Peter from The Farm and the Justice Tonight band...I just want to ask you what your reasons are for coming and getting on stage with us—you do realise how significant it is, how monumental it is?' and he said: 'Of course I do, of course I do; it’s a great injustice, I’ve read all about it and if I can help in any way, give it publicity, I will do it'. In terms of the grassroots of football fans—at Man United and Liverpool and all around the country, really—I think everyone saw what he did and thought that’s a massive gesture, that’s a massive act of solidarity. The Manchester Evening News covered it, the Liverpool Echo covered it, and for me it was a very emotional moment really because we’d be fighting all these years to get the truth out there and here’s one of the most famous footballers of the last generation coming to support the Justice campaign.
“As a gesture, it was absolutely magnificent, and it shows you what the man’s about. He’s an educator. He’s trying to educate the people about the injustice. And generally, I think the vast, vast majority of Man United fans understood what he was doing. I think the grassroots fans know it could have been them. For Cantona to have done that, on that day in Lyon, is just one of those unbelievable moments in life.
“Apparently, Souness turned down the chance to sign him before he went to Leeds, imagine that. He was an absolutely exceptional player, unbelievable, and just the type of player that Liverpool team under Roy Evans team in the mid-90s could have done with. They were a very attractive team, but they were just missing that killer instinct. I do think Liverpool fans respected him though. What he’d done at Crystal Palace, Liverpool fans, certainly ones I know, were made up with that, 'good on you, you know?' He’s one of those players which we reluctantly admired. I think most Liverpool fans, I’d say 9 out of 10, realise what a player he was and what a person he was—someone who stuck up for his beliefs and his principles, and he reinforced that by getting up on stage for the Justice Tonight tour.”
“IN THE MOMENTS THAT MATTERED HE WAS ALWAYS THERE”
Nick Dydyna and his brother Marcus run cult brand Rosso Bianco Nero 1878, named after Manchester United’s colours and year of formation. They have produced several iconic Cantona-inspired pieces of merchandise.
“The first time I saw Eric at Old Trafford he was playing for Leeds. I came away from that game thinking one of their players was amazing, and for some crazy reason I cut a picture of Cantona’s head out and stuck it on a United player, and my Dad went mad—he came in the bedroom saying take that off the wall! He made an impression on me that day at Old Trafford—I don’t think he had a particularly great game—but the aura around him and the chants around him—he just made an impression.
“As soon as he stepped out at Old Trafford you could see he was born to be there. He enjoyed the spotlight being on him and being a kid looking at that you think, wow. When I was 11 or 12, there weren’t many foreign players like him in England, so when Cantona signed for United it was like watching a different kind of footballer—there was the pantomime about it as well. It was a big thing for me watching a player like Cantona, especially playing football myself because you try and use players like that as a role model and try and do the things that they are doing. Everyone wanted to be Eric Cantona in the playground—everyone was fighting as to who would be him. I was on Manchester United’s books, and I had never put my collar up in my life—but you start emulating these things, the collar up and ‘look at me, I am the man’.
“We've made quite a bit of Cantona related stuff. One of the first bobble hats we ever did was "Le Roi", based on the black kit. I loved that kit; my mam was too tight to get me Cantona on the back, though—I had to make do with May. Seriously.
“We’ve done various pin badges, prints, T-shirts, an overshirt, and other bobble hats inspired by Cantona. My favourite is the France one we did for the pop-up shop as an exclusive and limited it to 35. I've always liked the rebellious nature of Eric, and he had that relationship with the French FA. I thought it would be pretty smart to make a France hat based on a kit he wore playing for France and mix it with a United label and a quote. I think it really works; it stands out when you see it at the match.
“Another favourite is the ‘Eric’ bobble hat featuring an embroidered shield and RBN logo. Based on the away kit worn during the 1992-93 season, when Eric arrived from Leeds and became the catalyst for that first league title in 26 years, it sold out in seconds. We could have sold them many times over, to be honest, but that's not what we are about at all. We like people to wear our stuff knowing they are not going to see thousands of people in the same thing.
“I've so many memories from growing up watching him at United that inspiration tends to come easily with Cantona related items. I think everything we make is a challenge in its own right, though. We’re baring our ideas to the world, and it can be really daunting sometimes.
“Everything we do on Cantona gains a huge amount of interest. He’s still revered by United fans of all ages. He shaped my youth, and I’d make Cantona products every day of the week if I could, but I like to keep it to a minimum and special, just like the man. I’ve been lucky enough to see so many great footballers following United, but he stands alone for me as ‘The One’.
“Obviously his goals stand out, but he was more than that. We were playing Wimbledon, and Vinnie Jones had been in the papers all the week building up to that game saying what he was going to do to Cantona. In the first ten minutes, he nailed him two or three times. Then a ball came over, and Cantona controlled it and volleyed it in one motion into the top corner, a beautiful goal. That was very typical of the man—he took a lot of stick but, when it mattered, he was always there to come up with that moment of genius. He was a very strong character, and I think that is what still sticks in the memories of lots of fans today.
“We've done an overshirt based on the kit he wore that night at Selhurst Park; it's mint. We've had loads of interest in it when people have seen the sample, but it's a special piece, and I can’t bring myself to make it. I’m being selfish really, but I’m enjoying being the only person who has one.”
“NOBODY HAD HIS ABILITY OR CONFIDENCE”
Ben Thornley was one of the stars of the famed Manchester United youth team that won the FA Youth Cup in 1992 and remains a regular at Old Trafford for MUTV.
“Eric signing for us was a massive bolt from the blue, us young players had all seen the images of him throwing balls, and taking his shirt off and snapping at people, and even though there hadn’t been that much controversy when he was at Leeds we’re still thinking ‘hang on a minute, what have we signed here.’ But from the moment you spent as second in his company, he was the complete opposite of how he was portrayed.
“I wasn’t in and around the first-team when he came in, but within a year all of us who had won the FA Youth Cup started to get involved. Eric was such a presence in and around the club, not only on the field but everywhere. He just had an aura about him that very few players have—but he was also very gentle, very calm to be around. Occasionally we used to leave The Cliff and go and train at our other complex around the corner at Littleton Road and we’d all pile into different cars, and on a couple of occasions Eric offered me a lift, and from being someone who was very focussed around the club, he was surprisingly chatty. My family speak fluent French, and although I don’t I did have a go, and he smiled and came back to me in English. We ended up having a conversation about the French language, him telling me how difficult it was even for French people to write in it.
“He was so, so, professional. He had his own routines for training and matches that were just different from what everyone else was doing. The manager made a point of saying to the lads, ‘watch him, not just games but around the club, if you’re in the dressing room with him watch what he does and how he prepares and how focussed he is.’ The single-mindedness he showed before games, knowing that he had a job to do, was something that he wanted to instil into all of us.
“Eric might have been one of the last ones through the door at The Cliff every morning, but he was always one of the last ones to leave. He was an absolute winner in training, all the stuff you saw him do in games—the back-heels and his little flicks—he might have had the natural talent, but he practised and practised them. They might not have always come off, but the things that he tried were things that nobody else would’ve tried because they were perhaps scared of what the manager might have said, and also because they didn’t have the ability or the confidence that he had.
“Some of the senior players would’ve come across Cantona before he arrived and were very excited about the signing, but us youngsters didn’t know loads about him. I think they knew that you had to let him get on with it. He was a law unto himself and not someone whose face you could get in and start screaming. But as long as he was left alone to do what he wanted to do, and was able to do, then you’d get results.
“He was such an affable character, when you speak to him one-on-one he was just so far and away from the player you saw losing his rag from time to time, from the person who did what he did at Palace in 1995. But he also had that thing inside him that he just wouldn’t let anyone get the better of him, and that’s not a bad thing.
“I wasn’t at Selhurst Park, but David May who is a good mate of mine has a cracking story. He’d scored our goal but then had lost Gareth Southgate for their equaliser. Anyway, they get back into the dressing room, and the manager is going ballistic at everybody, and he gets to David and gives him the biggest rollicking of his life. Then he turns to Eric, who has just launched himself into the crowd, and sort of tuts and calmly says ‘Eric, you just can’t do that son.’
“I didn’t get to play with him consistently because of the injuries I suffered, but I did play in the Sunderland game when he scored that chip, and I wish I could have spent more time on the pitch with this exceptionally talented monster of a player. I was at the same club as him, but I’ve actually seen more of his goals on a TV screen than actually witnessing them from the bench or alongside him in the starting XI, and it’s one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t spend more time on the pitch with Eric and people like Becks and Scholesy who I’d grown up with. I still think it was a massive shame that he packed it in when he did, but that was also testimony to his character. He’d made his decision; nobody was going to change his mind.”
“THERE WAS NO-ONE ELSE LIKE HIM”
James Brown founded loaded, edited GQ, launched Sabotage Times, and is now a celebrated author. A lifelong Leeds United fan, he included Eric Cantona in the debut issue of the mag.
“Prior to loaded, I'd been responsible for sourcing 48 covers a year for the NME, so I knew whatever we did on the first would be followed very quickly four weeks later by the second. I had imagined the loaded readership would be the New Order audience. Paul Weller was back on track with his solo records, so we set up an interview and shoot with him. He was to be the cover —interviewed and shot by two former colleagues of mine from the NME. Then the publisher worried it would confuse advertisers in their music mags. So my deputy Tim and I turned our attention to Eric, but it was impossible to find a decent photo of or get an interview with him. A pretty good Gary Oldman cop film had just come out, and I bought an interview and photo session in and just wrote a page essay saying why I liked him. I wanted Eric in simply because of the attitude, that was all. He was an extremely gifted player dripping with self-confidence and attitude, that was why he was in. There was no-one else like him.
“The piece was pretty forgettable. It was a collection of quotes provided by the guy who had done a lot of interviews with Eric for the MUFC programme. The club sent us a legal letter saying we'd lifted them, but then we sent them the correspondence with the author and they backed off.
“When he joined Leeds, everyone was curious about him and how his first performances were going to pan out. I don’t remember the first time I saw him, but I think it was coming on as a sub at Elland Road. You have to realise the team was flying, so a guy no-one had heard of coming on as a sub was bound to be a curiosity, and the effect he had on the home fans when he took to the field was electric. I don't think I've seen that anywhere since, although the love for Pontus Jansson at Leeds at the moment is pretty immense. Then when we won the league, and he said "I don’t know why I love, but I do"—footballers didn't really say things like that then. The backspin chip against Sunderland for Man United is probably his most celebrated goal, but karate kicking the prick in the stand at Palace was pretty memorable too. As Andy Townsend said to me not long after then “I bet that bloke’s bollocks hit the floor when he saw Eric coming over the fence, so many of us have wanted to do that."
“His impact on the Leeds team was both overstated and understated. Overstated by people who weren't paying attention—I just read a Twitter link saying 'LUFC led by Cantona won the league’, which is totally wrong. But a lot of key people around the team highlight he was a silver ball on the icing rather than the cake itself. Yes, to us fans, bringing him on was akin to sending in the cavalry, but not so much in the sense of saving games, it was more his power as the rallying point for some amazing support His name rang out around the ground in a way no other player was heralded. The fans loved the mystery I think. This genius just arrived from nowhere. No-one had heard of him. It wasn't like it is now where kids know all about foreign players and leagues because of FIFA and Football Manager.
“I clearly remember where I was when I heard he’d left. I was in my little flat in Royal Mint Street, London, and the phone went—an old blue landline phone with a very twisted handset cord. A guy I used to go to games with called Don was the other end and just blurted out "Eric's gone to fucking Man U." I was stunned. I remember staring at this big lump of orange candle that had melted all over the bookshelf and twisting the phone cord in my fingers. I’d been at the QPR away game just before then when the rumour went round that he'd had a row with Wilko and flown off to Paris.
“I think if you dwelled on what could have been it would have just finished you off. But let's dwell on it. The class of '92 kids that grew up around Eric at MUFC and regenerated Man United for a generation had been beaten in the Youth Cup final by the Leeds team fronted by Jamie Forrester and Noel Whelan. Wilko didn't seem to rate our youth team enough to trust them with graduation to regular first team starters. Instead, he bought a load of hard-working journeymen from teams in Sheffield like Nigel Worthington, Brian Deane, and John Pemberton. Only Whelan had a top-level career. Yet when Wilko did play Rob Bowman one time against Giggs, the young LUFC defender kept him totally quiet. As I said, what might have been is all just fantasy and projection and what if. Losing Eric was the wrong move for the fans of Leeds, the wrong move for the emerging LUFC kids, but in the short term it was seemingly the right move for Wilko and Strachan. The wrong move because we should have won more trophies after that league success. Cantona would have stayed at Leeds for a decade if Wilko had been able to accommodate him, but he didn't want a standout potentially problematic player. I enjoyed Philippe Auclair's book on Eric last year but strangely stopped reading it at the end of the chapter documenting his departure from Elland Road.
“I met him with his brothers and a photographer friend of his called Richard, who’d done a photoshoot in Barcelona with Eric decorated in Maori war paint that I’d put on a cover of GQ a few years before. It was just before midnight at a party for The Clash frontman Joe Strummer not long after he died. It looked amazing when Eric and his crew walked in, my mate Dean, a Bradford City fan, went 'Fucking Hell Eric!' Richard introduced us, and we hung out for a bit until my friend Paul Buck, an avid Man U fan, got Eric in a headlock and started kissing him.
“What do I admire about him? I liked the way he wore his collar up, a simple move but a big statement of intent.”
James Brown's book Above Head Height is available now on Amazon.
This article originally featured as our Issue 9 cover story.