Eric Cantona: brilliance and violence

Published : Sep 19, 2009 00:00 IST

There can be no doubt that as an attacker, in almost every sense, you might say, the Frenchman was one of the finest of his time. Powerfully built, adept in the air and with his powerful right-foot, on the ground, possessed of exceptional technique, flair and originality, he could score goals or set them up with almost casual ease, writes Brian Glanville.

Recently, Manchester United fans voted France’s Eric Cantona their best player of all time. Ahead, mark you, even of George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law. More recently still he has appeared as the phantom protagonist of a film much praised at the Cannes Film Festival in France by the renowned director, Kenneth Loach. Something of a reprise, really of Woody Allen’s movie ‘Play it again Sam’ in which a ghostly Humphrey Bogart appears to inspire the fearful character played by Woody himself. This time, the Allen character is a confused Manchester postman, to whom his hero, Cantona, mysteriously and somewhat inexplicably appears, to give him advice and courage.

There can be no doubt that as an attacker, in almost every sense, you might say, Cantona was one of the finest of his time. Powerfully built, adept in the air and with his powerful right-foot, on the ground, possessed of exceptional technique, flair and originality, he could score goals or set them up with almost casual ease. And yet, as a new, exceptionally urbane and perceptive biography, ‘Cantona: the rebel who would be king’ by the greatly gifted Philippe Auclair all too starkly reminds us, Cantona’s whole career was punctuated by episodes of violence and intransigence.

Auclair, London correspondent of the ‘Peerless France Football’ magazine, whose immaculate English prose puts that of most English sportswriters to shame, admired and is fascinated by Cantona, but has no illusions about his explosive, contentious and sometimes irrational character. The intriguing fact, however, is that Cantona, so often marked in his native France, not least on satirical television, for his supposedly pretentious intellectual and artistic claims, seems now to be having the better even of that argument. For, not only has he made a new and promising career in films, not only does he continue to paint, though he asserts that he will never be as good as his father — but he is even involved in the backing of a Parisian theatrical company.

Certain episodes, however, are hard to forget. Thus, shortly before he came to England to play for Leeds United, and indeed as a consequence of his intransigence, he was up before a disciplinary committee, in Paris. Far from accepting their authority and verdict, he made a point of going up to each member in turn and insulting him. ‘Idiots!’

But the most notorious episode in his career took place on a January evening at Selhurst Park in South East London, the stadium of Crystal Palace, where Eric was playing for Manchester United. He had in the first-half been pretty comprehensively kicked by his Palace marker, Richard Shaw, supposedly Palace’s Player of the Year, fouls ignored by the referee Alan Wilkie, but when, in the second-half, Shaw did it again, Cantona turned, kicked him back, was spotted by the linesman and sent off. As he went, a young London hooligan with a record, it transpired, for criminal violence, one Mathew Simmons, rushed to the bottom of the stands to assail Cantona with vicious obscene abuse. Whereupon Cantona kung fu kicked him. Later, Cantona himself admitted that he didn’t quite know what came over him.

The sequel however was disastrous. “If I’d met that guy on another day,” he later told an interviewer, “things may have happened very differently, even if he had said exactly the same things. Life is weird like that.”

There was a heavy price to pay. Alex Ferguson, United’s manager erupted in Wilkie’s dressing room, shouting, “It’s all your blanking fault! If you’d done your blanking job, this wouldn’t have happened!” Alas, it had, and the sequel was punitive. A long suspension — extended by an FA tribunal and a fine from Manchester United. An initial sentence of two weeks in gaol from a magistrates’ court later on appeal commuted to 120 days community service which Cantona happily performed, coaching young children in the Manchester area.

Famously or infamously, outside the court house after his appeal, besieged by journalists, Cantona made the enigmatic and in fact as he later admitted himself, meaningless statement, “When the seagulls follow a trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much!” Later he’d admit, “I just said that. It was nothing, it did not mean anything.” But the words would resound.

He was already a salient talent at 14, but local club Marseille decided he was too slow. He and his family lived just above and outside the city in a house his Sardinian grandfather had built. His grandmother was Catalan. The logical move would have been along the coast to Nice, rising high, but when they tried to make him pay for a club shirt he turned his back on them and moved as a 15-year-old 600 miles to Auxerre. Under the shrewd wily aegis of Guy Roux, who’d brought the club in that little town all the way up from amateur soccer to the top division. There Cantona would flourish and attain the national team. And there he would once butt international ’keeper Martini in the eye when he refused to help clear the snow from the pitch. Eventually, however, he was too big for Auxerre and at last was persuaded by Marseille’s flamboyant President Bernard Tapie to join the club which had once turned him down. “When I was a little boy,” he once said, “what made me dream was (Marseille’s) Stade Velodrome.”

But in Auclair’s words, “The fantasies he had entertained were shown to be mere daydreams.” Left out of the France team for a mere friendly by the manager Henri Michel, he responded with an attack on Michel so intemperate that he was banned from the national side for 10 months. But the balloon went up again in January 1989 during a fund raising match in Sedan against Torpedo Moscow and he’d be on his way again; this time to Bordeaux. His next loan was to unfashionable Montpellier whom he eventually inspired but he had to return to Marseille; where once he scored from 50 yards.

Recovering from torn ligaments, result of a violent tackle from behind, Eric, when back again, fell out not only with Tapie, whom he despised, but with the veteran Belgian coach Raymond Goethals, who dropped him. Next came modest Nimes where his old friend Mezy was in charge.

Which ended when, sent off and given a four-match suspension by the disciplinary committee, he called each man on it an idiot and walked out. Consequent suspension meant he had to look abroad. Japan didn’t pan out, Sheffield Wednesday’s manager Trevor Francis had him and let him slip away: to Yorkshire’s Leeds United and a some what dour coach in Howard Wilkinson.

In that first season Eric materially helped Leeds win the Championship; some of his goals were spectacular. But it was perhaps too good to last. Cantona and Wilkinson fell out, Cantona’s form diminished, he lost his regular place. In November 1992 he was sold to Manchester United for a derisory £1.2 million.

There, however, he formed a warm relationship with manager Alex Ferguson and would express the whole range of his tremendous talents. There would inevitably be moments both of brilliance and brutality — one recalls a shocking foul at Swindon on John Moncur — but overall brilliance prevailed. He’s retired, venerated at Old Trafford, in May 1997. To pursue his genuine artistic interests outside soccer; actor, painter, theatrical producer.

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