On Thursday evening, Eric Cantona was in Nottingham for a sell out crowd of people who had travelled from far and wide to listen to him speak. I was fortunate enough to be among those who were able to meet Cantona before he took to the stage and was utterly star struck. So I looked him in the eye, and did what any other Red would in that situation, and blurted out “I love you.” His response? “Thanks.” I can now die happy.
Cantona did a tour just like this in February 2017 and I was in attendance then too. Thursday evening took a similar shape to his previous tour, although there were new stories among the familiar ones to be shared.
— Scott Patterson (@R_o_M) October 26, 2018
You imagine that Cantona can’t be interviewed anywhere without being asked about that kung-fu kick on the racist Crystal Palace fan which lead to his nine month ban. His regrets about that incident?
“I should’ve kicked him harder,” he said, greeted by cheers and laughter from the crowd. “Of course I didn’t have to do it but I am a human being. I don’t have regrets because I think the way we take one day, because something happened, will take us to a better place. After the kung-fu kick, it took me to a better place. I went to court and after court the lawyers of the club said I had to say something to the press. The press had destroyed me and had followed me everywhere. There were hundreds of journalists in the room waiting for me to say something. Why do I have to say something to the press? Why? They told me I had to say something, so I said, ‘ok, I will say something. You’ll be happy with what I say, you’ll see.’ And I just said, ‘when the seagulls follow the trawler it’s because they think sardines will be thrown in to the sea’.”
Cantona owes a great deal to Sir Alex Ferguson, who took what seemed like a gamble to sign him from Leeds in 1992 given his disciplinary record, and who protected him immensely following his ban. Cantona spoke about how the players felt about Ferguson.
“We respected him and we loved him,” Cantona explained. “We loved him as a friend and respected him as a father. Everything in life is about finding the right balance, to be loved and respected at the same time. He had so much humility and humanity. He won all the trophies but the next game was like the first of his life. He had so much passion for the game.”
Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Roy Keane are among a group of many talented players that Cantona shared a dressing room with. When asked to name the best player he had played alongside, he struggled to name just one.
“When I was in Glasgow I said Brian McClair. If tomorrow I was in Russia I would say Andrei Kanchelskis,” he joked. “I’m in Nottingham, so I’ll say Roy Keane. It’s difficult to say. I cannot give a name because I played with wonderful players and to name one more than another would be unfair.”
When talking about opposition players, he singled out Vinnie Jones, who is a good friend of Cantona’s and who gave him a tough time on the pitch.
“I never played against a good defender,” Cantona said with a smile. “Maybe they were good, but…” he continued to smile, suggesting they weren’t ever good enough. “Maybe Vinnie Jones? He’s a good friend. I’m not very honest, but he’s a good friend. He’s a wonderful guy. I played against him for Wimledon in the cup. He tried to kill me! And then I scored the most wonderful goal.”
As good as the Wimbledon goal was, it was his finish against Sunderland in his final season at United that will likely go down as his best. Cantona gave an amusing insight to his mindset before scoring it though.
“The goal I scored against Sunderland, the chip, it was against a French goalkeeper [Lionel Perez] and I played with him at my last club where I kept getting sent off [Nimes],” he said. “He was a young goalkeeper and I played for France at this time so I took care of him. We became good friends and I tried to help him. When I was a young player, other players took care of me and that gave me confidence, so I did the same. He was very nice. When I played against him at Sunderland, I came to him the tunnel before we went on the pitch, to shake his hand, but he didn’t look at me. People are crazy sometimes. And maybe if he had shook my hand I would never have scored this goal. And I really, really enjoyed it.”
Cantona has a rare bragging right, as he won the league titles for three consecutive years for three separate clubs. First with Marseille in 1991, then Leeds in 1992, before United in 1993 (and again in 1994, 1996 and 1997). However, Cantona didn’t assume that he would be successful in England when he left France and credits his achievements to how hard he worked.
“No, I didn’t believe I would be successful anywhere I went,” he said. “I felt that I had to work hard. Every day, every week, training session after training session. Game after game. I always wanted to enjoy football. I love football. I was very passionate about football. But to really enjoy football you have to work hard. If you work hard you’ll find the confidence, and with confidence you can enjoy football. I loved to train. I loved to try and improve myself. It was obsessional. Footballers are all a bit obsessional. I didn’t want to be an example to others in training sessions, or in life. I don’t want to be an example. I’m just a human being. I am fragile sometimes, strong sometimes, I’m just a human being.”