Phillippe has given an exclusive interview with me which explores his understanding of Eric’s relationship with the fans, his feelings on that incident at Selhurst Park and how he sees Eric as an untamed man.
Can you understand why Manchester United fans still feel such a strong connection with Eric Cantona?
I most certainly do, and I think it’d be incomprehensible if they didn’t: without Eric, I’m not sure that United could have won the 1992-93 title – remember how difficult Hughes and others found it to score before his arrival, the trophy that kick-started the club’s ascent into dominance. Would Ferguson have survived without the League trophy that season? I’m not so sure about that either. And there would have been no Double in 1995-96, but that is blindingly obvious.
Eric was more than a catalyst. He was also the chief engineer of United’s rise. He helped define a new culture of playing within the club. He brought the flamboyance, the artistry and the hunger for victory that every fan craved at OT. In that, as Sir Alex says, he was ‘the perfect man, in the perfect club, at the perfect moment’. He also identified himself to the club as every fan dreams his heroes will do. Denis Law once told me – ‘compare Cantona to Beckham – who is a legend in Manchester?’. Bull’s eye. Nobody sings Beckham songs at OT. Cantona songs – of course! And rightly so.
Do you have any sympathy for Cantona following his actions at Selhurst Park?
Again, yes. What he did was awful, unjustifiable, deserved to be punished, etc – but the more you knew about Simmons and what he’d done, the more sympathy you had for what was a reckless but unpremeditated transgression. As to what happened afterwards, the vilification in the media, the 8-months ban…Totally out of order. A lynch mob took over. He was made a scapegoat for English football’s far more dangerous ills, the rampant violence you could witness on and off the pitch in most stadia. He was the softest of targets: a foreigner. A recidivist (at least in the eyes of people who didn’t question the dark side of his legend). The way he was treated afterwards was a disgrace; but the way he bore his punishment was one of the things that he should feel the proudest of. My admiration for him was increased tenfold when I delved into the circumstances and consequences of his excommunication. 1995-96: the season that made him a true great, an example.
What is your opinion of Cantona as a man?
The more I learnt about him, the deeper I went into his life, the more I spoke with his friends, the more I warmed to the man – whereas, before I started working on my book, my opinion was one of fascinated but not necessarily benevolent neutrality. There are a number of sides to his character which I found unappealing, and sometimes worse than that; the way he courted advertisers and accepted to become a willing and well-paid tool in their hands contradicted much of what he’d always advocated – football as an untainted expression of joy and freedom, as an art, even. His main flaw perhaps was to see everything in black-and-white, when he was (like most of us) the greyest of men. But I came to accept – and even admire – this contradiction within himself. There is something very beautiful about Eric’s refusal to be tamed. And when you say ‘as a man’, remember footballers are never more true to themselves than when they play. In that regard, he must have been a magnificent man. Because he gave such joy to so many, but also (and, to me, that is a crucial point) because he always, always remained a ‘team man’ – the player who offered the ball to the team-mate who was better-placed than he was. He loved being loved. Who doesn’t? So what? He was also extraordinarily generous. And that’s a fascinating thing about Eric: I’m an Arsenal man (sorry, guys – Liam Brady was my hero), but, like most Arsenal fans I’ve talked to, I loved Eric the player. I’d have loved him in my team. Most fans of other clubs felt the same. The reason is that Cantona was United, ok, but he was also ‘football’ itself, an aristocrat and a man of the people at the same time. If you don’t feel affection for such a man, you don’t really love football. I’d say the same about Zola, Bergkamp and, today, Rooney. It’s a remarkable thing: I’ve started to work on another biography, the subject of which should normally have been much closer to my own inclination. But, whereas my emotional link to Eric grew stronger over the three years I spent with him (so to speak), I can feel that my new ‘patient’ will get a rougher deal than the demon of Selhurst Park.
What is your opinion of English football, in particular, their dominance of the Champions League?
For me, English club football is football. I don’t care much about my national team. I grew up in the North-West of France, where we paid as much if not more attention to the results of the old First Division as to what happened at home. This is to say: I’m totally biased in favour of English clubs.
This said, I’m not sure that this dominance is going to last much longer. With the exception of Arsenal (whom I think will be the surprise package of the season, and that’s not an emotional judgement, by the way – it’s based on watching over 100 League and Champions League games in the football grounds every season for 10 years), the Big Four clubs have taken a step back. Chelsea will miss Hiddink, and the average age of their squad is far too high. Liverpool is a shambles, on and off the pitch. Man U can take heart in the fact that the ‘winning culture’ is so strong within every nook and cranny of the club that it can withstand the huge loss of Ronaldo better than any other club could – I also believe that Berbatov is a magnificent player, who is starting to show what he bring to his team, and that Rooney is the best footballer on the planet. But the defence…and where’s a truly creative midfielder when Giggs can’tplay?
Parallel to that, there is a power shift in European football, the first effects of which can already be felt in the CL. The emergence of strong Russian sides doesn’t surprise me, when you see how much money has been pumped into them – and you recall that CSKA Moscow and Zenit recently won the (late) UEFA Cup, a very sure indicator of future trends at the highest level. The same goes for Unicerea in Romania, and Dinamo Kyiv in Ukraine. I was very impressed with Porto, who should have beaten Chelsea at Chelsea. And don’t discard the French or German sides either. It’s all far more balanced than two years ago. It’s no coincidence that sterling has fallen by 1/3 against the euro in the same period, don’t you think? I’d be very surprised if more than 2 English teams made it to the quarter-finals this time round.
Philippe will be doing a book signing at the Waterstones in the Trafford Centre on November 7th at 1pm and has invited RoM readers to go down for a chat about the great man, Eric the King.