My recommendation for this week is never to get gastroenteritis.
Not only did this violent affliction completely obliterate my Easter weekend, and rid me of half a stone I can’t really afford to lose, but I’ve honestly never before felt some of the pains and discomfort it managed to inflict.
In scenes reminiscent of the cold turkey sequence in Trainspotting, I lay in bed sweating and screaming for an escape. I was fortunate to have my loved ones there to care for me, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them on screen for their love and attention.
However, I also suffered from the occasional nightmare—listening to Everton letting a two-goal lead slip at Villa—and the odd hallucination. Not a baby crawling across the ceiling, but Eric Cantona.
Stick with me—this does kind of make sense.
You see, I genuinely feared I was in danger of missing out on the upcoming weekend trip to Wembley. Just as Alex "Hitch" Hitchens says in Hitch, "...you can’t really know where you’re going until you know where you’re coming from...." Similarly, thoughts of this weekend’s semifinal immediately evoked memories of the past.
1995, to be precise. My last trip to Wembley, with my dad for the Sinny Vamways-inspired Charity Shield victory. But of course, earlier that summer we had beaten Manchester United to win the FA Cup.
It was a Manchester United team of Schmeichel, Bruce, Keane, Giggs, Hughes, et al from what I can remember. But a team missing Cantona. He wasn’t playing, was he? He was still banned for attacking Matthew Simmons at Selhurst Park.
Recently I have begun to think about Cantona much more. I’m not so sure why. It wasn’t just the illness, of course.
I suppose I have read a couple of articles and interviews featuring him...but moreover, perhaps writing about the game as much as I now do has made me think about those players who have had real significance in my football-following life.
For several reasons, Cantona could be the most influential.
At this juncture, you may want to read my previous article about my failed playing career. That should make it clear that I did not play much like Cantona. I tried to, of course, but never shared the confidence/arrogance/power he portrayed.
Neither did I attack the crowd at any point, although unfortunately I do seem to recall wearing my collar up from time to time.
However, in the mid-'90s, he truly was the Roi of the Premiership. Everyone will have their favourite Cantona moment. Many will cite that chip at Old Trafford, the penalty celebration on his return against Liverpool, perhaps even a free kick against Arsenal.
Of course, others will suggest the Crystal Palace moment, a ludicrous challenge on John Moncur that he was (rightly) sent off for, or even his press conference sound bites.
I think this brings us to the real issue. Cantona, I believe, was taken for granted, for several reasons, and whilst some (most United fans, and Leeds for a while) remain devoted followers, others—even if they recognised his importance—would not admit to it, instead dismissing him, or attempting to wind him up further.
Only now, when the game is lacking characters—players?—like him, do we rue the missed opportunity.
People chose to laugh at his statement about the seagulls and trawlers without actually realising the poetic truth in what he was saying. Certainly, some of the young people I teach could do with thinking about it before getting themselves another exclusion.
Many fans would boo Cantona’s every touch, and players try to distract him—one pathetic little opposition midfielder famously bet him he would miss a penalty in an important match, whilst rumours that may or may not be true about his career moves were ultimately overshadowed by fall-outs with managers and teammates.
At Everton he would have been just up our street. Passion, skill, the ideal head boy of the school of science. At the time, with ’95 being its heyday, the team was more Dogs of War though, and we sang (still do), "Who needs Cantona...when we’ve got Barry Horne" (later adapted for Tony Grant'ona').
And, let’s not forget, there were parallels between Cantona’s philosophies and behaviours and those of our own enfant terrible Duncan Ferguson. Just a slightly different achievement level.
Meanwhile, not only did Cantona change the fortunes of Manchester United—and may still return one day—and perhaps British football overall, but his influence permeated across British culture. I vaguely recall a dancer for N-Trance on TOTP c1994 with a No. 7 Utd shirt on.
I can still picture Eric’s Spitting Image puppet. A painting as a God. An upcoming Ken Loach film about him. And recently at a christening, the DJ played a horrendous version of Music Man presumably called Mimic Man of which the chorus was Ooh Aah Cantona.
On a personal level, he affected me too. I genuinely believe that Cantona is part of the reason I studied French up to A Level, and could still remember enough to have a detailed conversation atop the Eiffel Tower last year. And one of my best ever meetings with footballers took place on Goodison Road, September 1995.
Getting autographs before the game (as usual), I spotted a tall man with an escort striding towards the entrance in a black blazer. I was more starstruck than I had been for any of the Everton squad I’d just irritated.
OK, it was terrible French, but it didn’t matter to Eric, and my "Bonne chance quand tu retour" was met with a nod and an autograph I would cherish forever.
If I’m honest, another reason I like Cantona so much is that he once said he felt he already knew Manchester through the music of The Smiths. Morrissey was quoted recently as saying only two people had ever shunned him in life, and one of them was Eric Cantona.
I am running out of time and energy. I need to pack for my trip. Much has been said about Cantona’s decision to retire early and his career choices since: painting, acting, beach soccer, performing music.
Much has also been made of his political views and his philosophical musings, which are explained much better in the following article.
Whatever his shortcomings and misdemeanours, Eric Cantona remains a vital part of modern British football’s history and development. Given his love of literature life and thought, I must end on a quote I think particularly apt when summarising his career:
Everything was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt.
Everything was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt.
PS...Regardless of all this, come on Everton on Sunday. Think about 1995.