On Thursday evening, I was lucky enough to be part of the crowd that listened to Eric Cantona speak. The event had been slated that morning following what happened in Bournemouth, an odd location for such an occasion, where Cantona was only on stage for 45 minutes and a stand up comedian/auction dominated the evening.
At The Lowry, the format changed, with a decent comedian starting the evening before an interval and over an hour with Cantona. Most of the questions were pre-planned but there was the opportunity for supporters to ask questions too. Some were good, like whether he would ever want to stand in an away end or which Double winning side was the best. Others were not so good, like whether he had ever read a poem dedicated to him written by a person in the audience.
On several occasions, the audience broke out in to song, keen to worship their hero. After one of these songs, Cantona said: “Can I ask you to do something for me? Never stop.”
Below is the write up of the first part of the evening.
Q: When did you decide to play in England?
Eric: When I was 24. In France, I didn’t want to play anymore. Michel Platini was the manager of France at the time. He said ‘you cannot retire at 24.’ But I did not want to play anymore in France. He said ‘I think there is a country for you where football is real football. It’s England.’
So I came first to Sheffield Wednesday where I played for one week. After a week, I said ‘when do I sign the contract?’ And they said I had to spend one more week on trial. So, I said ‘no’. [Audience laughs] During the week we played a friendly game and we won four something and I scored three goals. The manager of Sheffield Wednesday was Trevor Francis, who was a great player.
Q: Not such a great manager?
E: [Eric holds his hands up in the air and smiles] I didn’t say that. So I moved to Leeds.[Audience boos then sings ‘we all hate Leeds scum’].
E: And then we won the league.[More boos]
E: And then I went to United where I spent the best time of my life. I love Manchester United.[Cheers]
E: Thank you very much. And thank you Michel Platini and Alex Ferguson.
Q: Alex Ferguson was a great manager to you. You had a great affinity, didn’t you?
E: He was a great manager because he was a great man. He loves football. He’s a great man of humanity and humility. He gave us motivation every time. We could be seven points in front and he would always find something to motivate us. We loved him and we respected him. It’s difficult to find both.
Q: Who was your biggest inspiration?
E: When we were kids, who was it who gave us this love of football? For me, it was my father. My father loved the game. He was a goalkeeper and I so I started as a goalkeeper. I played in a team and we won every game six or seven nil. I never touched the ball. I thought maybe if I played up front I would score goals, so I played up front and I scored goals.
My father always said, like Alex Ferguson, he never said to me that I was good but always made sure I knew that I was good. But he also made sure I knew I needed to work.
I was born in 1966 and when I was a boy Ajax were good. I loved Johann Cruyff who was the leader of this team. He was a great player. I remember one thing he said was that was important for me and followed me, was to have a sense of anticipation. You need to know before you receive the ball what you will do. It’s the secret of the game I think.
Q: What was your favourite goal or moment on the pitch?
E: I really love to score goals but I love to give a great ball to my teammates. It’s like giving a present to somebody. It’s a pleasure for me to give a present to somebody. I never scored a goal that I dreamed about. It’s a simple goal. The goalkeeper has the ball and everybody touches the ball once and then the last one, it’s me, and I score. I would never be a manager, but if I was, I’d want to be a manager of a team that could score a goal like this.
Of course, one goal was important for me, and it was the goal I scored against Liverpool. It was in the last minute of the game, it was a cup final, it was Liverpool. The energy between the players and the fans was so special. I don’t know if you felt it? It was so special.
Q: It almost ended your United career and now it’s remembered with affection. What do you think of that kung-fu kick?
E: I think it was great. I had been insulted thousands of times and never reacted but this one, on this day, it was a good day. I heard a very nice quote, I love it. A mistake is a hidden desire. For some it was a mistake, but for me it was a hidden desire.
You can’t call these people a fan or a supporter. I just call him a hooligan. I never did a kung-fu kick on a fan, I kicked a fucking idiot. But then I was a banned for nine months.
Q: At the press conference, you didn’t want to speak. Had you prepared what you were going to say?
E: Maybe it was a mistake? Or a hidden desire? [Eric smiles] So many journalists were there and they wanted me to be in jail. I didn’t want to speak to the press because I don’t care about the press. But United told me I had to say something, so I told them I would say something. I could have said something else, like ‘it’s so dark, there’s the light’. What I love is that, even now, journalists are still trying to find an answer and analyse it. I want to make them crazy.
Q: After the suspension, you returned against Liverpool. You set up a goal and scored a penalty. Was it a great feeling?
E: Of course it was a great feeling. Nine months is a very long time and I needed to work hard, train every day more than the others, and I couldn’t even play in a friendly game. You can train for 10 hours a day but a game is special. Nine months is very long, so I was a bit afraid. It was a kind of liberation to score. What is important is that for a few months after this I didn’t play very well but Ferguson still kept me in the team. He knew it would take time to come back at my level. I came back at my level and we did great things. We won the Double.[Audience cheers]
Q: Do you feel emotional when looking back at your time at United?
E: I spent the best time of life at Manchester United. When I retired, it was to do something else. I didn’t want to look back. I didn’t have pictures or medals in my house. I didn’t want to be a prisoner to my past. When I arrived in Manchester I tried my best and when I retired I wanted to do something else. Football is like a drug. Every week, sometimes twice a week, it’s like an injection, and when you retire it’s difficult.
I wanted to do something I was a passionate about. Acting gave me an adrenalin, not stronger than football, but it gave me excitement. Lots of footballers become a pundit or depressed. Or both. [Audience laughs] Or you become a manager. You were great as a player but as a manager you lose every game 3-0. I didn’t want that. I wanted to be excited. I think we should do something for players to prepare them for after their career.
Q: Have you ever been a pundit?
E: I will never be a pundit.
Q: Would you ever be a manager at United?
E: If one day I become a manager it will be for Manchester United. But you have a great manager in Mourinho. He’s a winner. He’s won so many things. I’m sure he will win many things for United.