A year after Eric Cantona made his leap into history with his amazing kung-fu kick at Crystal Palace in January 1995 he still had an extraordinary hold on the public imagination. One of my colleagues at the BBC came into work soon after New Year in 1996 with her 7-year-old son who spotted a little Cantona figurine on my desk, prompting him gleefully to trot out the little playground rhyme,
‘Ooh aah Cantona, show us your tits, show us your bra!’
The giggling little lad probably didn’t know that I was still smarting from Manchester United’s humiliating 4-1 New Year’s Day defeat at Tottenham, which I had attended with my Spurs-supporting brother, who called it ‘One of the great White Hart Lane nights’. By that time some of the euphoria over King Eric’s epic return in the autumn after his 8-month ban had faded, especially when the Reds had a pre-Christmas spell of five games without a win. Cantona’s own form had been patchy as he played within himself, as if chastened by the tumultuous events of the previous season, while Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United confidently stretched their lead at the top of the Premier League, only pegged back briefly when United beat them 2-0 straight after Christmas.
My little Babe
None of this stopped my ten-year-old daughter Katherine insisting that I take her to see United some day. She had grown up all her life in a United household and she even used to sleep in my old Busby Babes’ v-neck jersey from the ’50s and still wears T-shirts emblazoned with pictures of Eric, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham. For some reason she also had a soft-spot for Gary Neville, perhaps for his rather endearing earnestness and insistent lack of glamour. We used to chuckle together at a story told by one of United’s more senior players, Brian McClair, who took an almost paternal interest in the brood of ‘kids’ coming through the youth system, such as Gary and his younger brother Philip. According to ‘Choccy’s Diary’ in the official club magazine, one of these young players was invited round to meet his girl-friend’s parents for the first time one Sunday. When he was offered a tuna sandwich the un-named young player replied, ‘I don’t like tuna, it smells too much like fish…’ Rightly or wrongly we always assumed that was Gary Nev.
My get-out-of-jail tickets
My workload at the BBC at that time as the head of a small documentary department was relentless, however exciting and satisfying it could be. It was one of the most intense periods I’d ever known, full of exhilarating highs and gut-wrenching lows from day to day, sometimes minute to minute. Few would have been unaware of my support for United and some also knew I was desperate to take Kath to a game. I was thus very chuffed when a programme contributor, ‘Shotgun Jack’, came up with the goods. He was an ex-offender from the East End who had made a ‘Video Diary’ and was now working towards a BBC2 magazine series called ‘Prison Weekly’, which would contain items from different perspectives – prisoners, ‘screws’ , probation officers, governors – about life in jail. From our very different backgrounds we got on well and as a West Ham season-ticket holder he could get me a couple of tickets for United’s match there at the end of January. I couldn’t wait to tell Kath, or Kat, as she was known to friends.
Cuts that hurt
This nice little distraction would be very welcome, particularly in that month as we were completing the final stages of a very painful redundancy process.However hard it was for some to grasp it was completely unavoidable in the face of relentless cuts and ‘efficiency savings’. As an old union hand I was determined to make the process as fair and open as possible, but there was one particularly embittered producer who was appealing against compulsory redundancy, trying to make his case with an almost daily volley of letters, often full of recriminations, directed at me or my executive producers, all of us still union members. I remember a senior personnel manager asking me whether, given my strong Union views, did I regret accepting the job of head of department at a time when cuts were utterly predictable. I replied that far from having regrets it was a chance to put into practice my vision of how the BBC should be run, in however small a way.Nevertheless I constantly asked myself, were we being fair, was there really ‘no alternative’, questions that kept me awake at night. I would mull things over with my wife, and with Kat, knowing she had a strongly developed sense of injustice, even at the age of ten.
Equally, I never stopped worrying about morale in the department, trying to ensure it didn’t affect programme quality or the flow of new ideas(or there would be yet more redundancies hurtling towards us down the turnpike). Fortunately we had several successes and good reviews around that time, which gave everyone a huge boost. But in the background I knew we had to keep our eyes on what was going on in the world, whether it be atrocities in the Balkans, elections in the Palestinian territories or the rise of Tony Blair’s New Labour.
Coke? Just a line he made up…
One of the producers who had taken voluntary redundancy and was already lining up work elsewhere came to see me with an interesting story he was trying to sell as a one-off documentary. He’d got to know Eric Hall, one of the new breed of rather brazen wheeler-dealer football agents who was linked to Arsenal’s Paul Merson. He’d do almost anything to get publicity, good or bad, and he claimed that Merson had made up his recent tabloid confessions of cocaine addiction in order to push up the market value of his story. He’d evidently got half a million pounds, a hundred grand more than the original asking price, which he allegedly needed to pay his gambling debts. To this day I have no idea if that was true.
Peace-making TV and ‘just say no’
Also pressing on my mind was a very exciting possibility.We were just at that moment trying to set up a version of our Video Nation project with Israel TV and the Palestinian Authority, whereby ordinary people from all areas in the region, of all political views and religious affiliations would be trained to use camcorders to record their lives and express their own points of view in two-minute ‘shorts’, like the ones we did at home on BBC2. We hoped the un-fettered voicing of diverse Israeli and Palestinian opinions would somehow contribute to greater understanding in the region, and make fascinating viewing here in Britain. We were setting up a series of meetings in Jerusalem and Nablus which would be of critical importance to the whole thing. However, much though I wanted to fly out to Israel at such a historic moment, I was getting a little nervous in case the dates clashed with taking Kat to West Ham.
Just as things were working out perfectly, I was hit with a referral to the Broadcasting Standards Council, the statutory body who dealt with viewers’ complaints, about drug taking in a documentary series called ‘My Secret Life’ involving a high-flying – in every sense – civil servant. It had been seen and approved by everyone, the controller of BBC2, the head of editorial policy, the head of presentation and so on, yet instead of a vigorous defence of the film as an honest attempt to explore the complexity of the drug problem beyond ‘just say no’ rhetoric, the sniffy official in the BBC dealing with it was blithely planning to cave in, which would almost certainly lead to an embarrassing on-screen apology. I had furious arguments with the relevant department, which seemed to operate as a branch of the Daily Mail, wilfully ignoring what’s going on in the world. I was angrily determined to do everything I could to uphold the honour of the producers involved in the Secret Life series, which I strongly believed in.
Of course the whole issue of drugs was very much on my mind as I worried about how Kat would handle it when she started getting offered certain substances, as she surely would. She was only ten but in some ways she was already a trainee teen-ager despite still playing with her Barbie dolls and teddy-bears (nothing wrong with that – I still have my childhood teddy, plus younger ones in United gear). As parents we continually tried to help her find her own way in the world while protecting her soon-to-disappear childhood, sometimes with mixed success.
The other United – in Chesham
To prepare Kat for going to Premiership football I had a couple of years before taken her to see the team I used to watch as a kid, Chesham United , who’d just clinched the title as Diadora League Champions in 1993. I’d been pleased to see my old friend Ted, a team-mate and centre half from my 1960s North Watford Sunday League team, Amersham Ravers FC. He was still selling programmes in the stand. To maintain Kat’s interest we had a £1 bet on whether Chesham would score five. They managed it with the last kick of the match.
This was all intended as ‘nursery slopes’ training for Kat, just like I’d had at her age. I decided Kath could skip watching my other childhood local team, Amersham Town FC. They were somewhat on the staid side, my main memory of attending matches at The Meadow being told with my mates to ‘pipe down , you’re making too much noise’. Hardly preparation for Manchester United at Upton Park on a cold January night with Eric Cantona.
The big day at last
When the day of the big match arrived I was nervous throughout. Before I left for work Kat was undecided whether to wear her wellies or normal shoes for the match. When I arrived at work I saw an old boss of mine, Mike, a veteran West Ham supporter, and I told him that for once in my life I didn’t care if United won, as long as Kat had a good time. Knowing how frothingly foul-mouthed and aggressive West Ham fans can be I would have preferred Kat’s premiership baptism to be somewhere a little less confrontational. I had particularly painful memories of what they had been like on the last day of the previous season, when United’s failure to win lost them the league title to Blackburn Rovers. At least now Paul Ince had left United some of the racist edge would perhaps be softened.
I had endless meetings all day, about finance, about legal matters, about staffing issues and – best of all – about programmes, the thing that really kept my boat afloat. But all the time Upton Park was on my mind.
At long last, the last memo completed, it was time to go. My wife, Hilary, who had no interest in going herself, brought Kat to meet me at Hammersmith ready to head East on the Underground, grabbing food for the journey. Kat was decked out in new jeans plus tights and leggings, it being a miserably cold, wintry night. I could tell she was a little nervous, but excited, covering it with chatter much of the way. She told me how she holds ‘conversations’ with Ra, one of our cats, getting his ‘advice’. When I asked what sort of problems she looked superior and tapped her nose. She claimed Ra wanted to come to the game, a bit unlikely as he hardly leaves his spot on the sofa.
When we got to Upton Park and joined the milling crowds outside the stadium I wondered and worried how she’d react. This was the first big test, a cold night, a crush of boisterous fans, mainly bullet-headed men with tatts and beer-guts shoving their way through. Then somewhere in the damp distance we heard for the first time the swelling sound of ‘Ooh aah Cantona!’ and it immediately made her feel among friends. There are people who will march towards gunfire and those who beat a hasty retreat, and Kat was the former. She seemed happy, it was exciting, not frightening, so I felt able to get a cop to keep an eye on her as I went to a toilet .When I came out I found them chatting away, him a true laughing policemen. We spotted the usual stalls and I got the obligatory badges and fanzines while she insisted I get her a United scarf (£5), although she had to hide it when we went in as we’d be among Hammers.
She was impressed to see people giving generously to charity collectors with their cans for the homeless and cancer reserach. As we walked round to our entrance and I took a wrong turning in one of the mean side streets she witheringly told me not to ‘embarrass’ her, but was entirely relaxed in the deepening crush. We eventually found our seats in the lower section of the of the Centenary Stand, behind the goal at the North End (not that far from where I first saw United at West Ham, in 1960). It was actually a magic moment for me seeing the look on Kat’s face as we walked up the stairs to find the brilliantly floodlit arena in front of her eyes. She’d never experienced a sight like that, or an illuminated expanse on such a scale before. With the damp night air creating atmosphere there was a palpable mood of excitement in the crowd. United supporters were penned into the far corner of our stand and there was already a healthy wave of chanting, ‘Ferguson’s Red & White Army!’, ‘Ooh Aah, Cantona!’ etc. There were quite a few children near us, including some brave souls in United scarves, which was good to see. For all their dread reputation, I have to say on this occasion the West Ham fans were great – loud, passionate, partisan, unfair, infuriated, angry, foul-mouthed – but never nasty, at least not near us. For whatever reason there was none of the visceral hatred towards United that there had been the previous April. And that wasn’t because the match was cool.
As the players warmed up Kat already looked tired and I wondered how she’d cope with another two or three hours before we’d even begin to go home. We looked out for the players she knew, Andy Cole, Giggs, ‘Michael/ Schmeichel’ as she used to call the Great Dane goalkeeper, Eric the King, and of course the tuna man, Gary Nev, looking very focussed with a furrowed brow.
When at last the players came out for real and the whole stadium was suddenly up on their feet Kath looked surprised, not to say affronted as though she was in the theatre and her view was being blocked. But she instantly got the hang of it, and as soon as the game got under way she was leaping up with everyone else.
Monday January 22, 1996: West Ham 0 Man United 1
It was actually a terrific, incident-packed game, with West Ham nearly taking the lead in the first few minutes when Tony Cottee burst through and thwacked one against United’s crossbar with the big man beaten. But United looked very strong and purposive and didn’t cave in, taking the game to the Hammers, passing the ball at pace with mercurial inter-changing up front. They swung the ball about in great sweeping movements of breathtaking speed and precision, with Kat keeping up her own running commentary, with many a mention of Gary.
Ryan Giggs, who was for once playing on the right wing to accomodate Lee Sharpe on the left, bamboozled the Hammers’ skin-head left back Julian Dicks, slipping past him like an eel, exchanging exquisitely weighted passes with Andy Cole before fizzing the ball across the penalty area, where Eric Cantona was waiting a few yards out some way beyond the far post, seemingly at an impossible angle. He met the ball side-footed on the half-volley and sent a rip-snorting shot high into the roof of the net, a stunning piece of virtuosity. It all happened at the far end and for a moment I was wasn’t sure if he really had scored, but when the United fans to our right erupted we knew United were one up, and the King had scored. A great moment for one’s first United match.
I could tell Kath was enjoying the match, asking questions, commenting, making jokes, even trying out loud scornful comments, such as ‘this is supposed to be football, not netball’, when the West Ham goalkeeper kept indecisively bouncing the ball before kicking out.
United looked completely different from the shambolic lot who’d collapsed so feebly against Spurs. Cantona was at the heart of everything, orchestrating his young charges, playing them in, setting the high tempo for attack after attack, passing long and short, displaying all his old flicks and back-heels, always available to get a team-mate out of trouble.
There was something imperious about Cantona that night at West Ham, but also something different. He played with controlled passion and intensity, but there was no longer the dangerous whiff of sulphur about him, no feeling that something weird might suddenly kick off . And as if to prove the point his greatest test yet since his post-ban comeback in October came when Julian Dicks kicked Andy Cole up in the air with an appalling two-footed, studs-up lunge. The referee did nothing, just as he’d done nothing to protect Eric from earlier heavy tackles, so Nicky Butt threw himself into a shuddering tackle on Dicks moments later. He cleanly won the ball, but with the clear intention of getting in a bit of retaliation too. The ref instantly issued a yellow card, Butt’s second of the night which meant his dismissal was inevitable. The United players were furious, led by the incandescent Andy Cole, closely followed by the always-combustible Roy Keane and even the normally wise old head, skipper Steve Bruce. It could have all got very nasty, with some United players on the edge of losing control, with the West Ham faithful in uproar and baying for blood, screaming ‘you fucking cunt’, and other local pleasanteries. But then who should stride forward and place calming hands on his team-mates , pulling them gently back from the brink, none other than the Kung-fu King himself, Eric Cantona. This was something new, this was Cantona the peace-maker, which had a pleasing symmetry about it, coming almost exactly a year after his explosive reaction to poor refereeing and racist abuse at Crystal Palace. His calm and dignity in the fiery Upton Park helped steady the ship, as ten-man United held West Ham at bay and won the match.
The King’s Inner Calm
I’m not sure even now how much people realise what a turning point this match at Upton Park represented. Certainly all the press the next day were full of praise for Eric, acclaiming him a Peace Maker, applauding his Man of the Match performance. The papers also correctly declared that United’s title challenge was back on track, as they leap-frogged above Liverpool to go into second place, but they were still nine points behind Newcastle, who also had a game in hand. But what gave United real hope was the way Eric Cantona had got his game back as the most inspirational figure in British football. With him in the mood, now with a new steely resolve and sense of discipline it felt like no-one could stop United. He’d taken the team to the first league title in 26 years in 1992-93, capped that with the glorious League & FA Cup Double of 1993-94, and it suddenly felt like he could do something similar again in ’95-96. Nine points behind? No problem!
Kat and I had had our usual £1 bet, that United would win, and I was never happier to dish out a quid. I hadn’t told her the odds were somewhat against United, as they had only won twice at Upton Park twice in 22 years.
She’s really enjoyed herself and was untroubled by the hour-long queue to get back into Upton Park station, by now proudly wearing her scarf. On the Tube going back she insisted on playing ‘Make You Laugh’ games, inevitably involving references to tuna. When I phoned home Kat insisted on talking to her Mum, eager to tell her the most urgent thing, that I had ‘embarrassed’ her by going to the wrong entrance at the match. We got home at 11.30 and she went to bed happily, saying she wanted to see United again.
The next day I took her into school where she was due to appear in a series of drama sketches on the theme of two points of view. I’d helped her learn her part and taught her to project her voice by standing at the front door while she spoke her lines from the top of the house. I was delighted that the night’s exertions and late hours hadn’t affected her performance, which was delivered with aplomb and she looked very happy. I set off for work in an excellent mood, ready for rows about drugs or more angry redundancy appeal letters.
When I got to my office I found a note on my door. It simply said, ‘Ooh Aah!’