Approaching 15 years since his last competitive game in the royal red of Manchester, the King is still hailed to this day. Now in the third day of Christmas, the Stretford End will forever sing about his legendary arrival from rivals Leeds United. He oozed confidence and produced poetry, and with every move frenzied charisma, every pass conducted the symphony of Ferguson’s army and every shot ignited the fire in the hearts of football fans.
He was so much more than a footballer, he embodied the tradition of the sport—the clever drops of the shoulder, the intricate flicks with the outside of the boot, the terrifying capacity to find space, the unpredictable nature of the beast—he was our hero, our saviour and without anyone taking the thrown since his departure all those years ago, he remains King.
The opportunity revealed itself through my good friend of over 20 years, Daniel Sansovini, or as we call him, Sans. Of Roman lineage, for a man whose nickname translates to “without” in French, he was quite the contrary when it came to talent as a young schoolboy.
Managers in all his age groups believed he would go straight to the top, but a passionate affair with music and his laid-back personality forced him away from the beautiful game. He is a man who is rarely outwardly excited, but on that fine day in May of 2009, Sans was nearly trembling when he told me his mother, Helen, the fairy godmother of our close-knit group, had secured two tickets for the “Looking for Eric” premiere in Dublin.
Together, we bounded into town on the 2nd of June, and it was by far the hottest day of the year. We were to meet Helen in Smithfield, just outside of the theatre that would present the film, and after a quick drink we made our way to the red carpet.
We stood with the crowd waiting for Cantona’s entrance and as we did, we saw the former Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, walk toward the building—it was an accomplished guest list, fit for the royal guest of honour.
We were then ushered in, without a glimpse of the French demi-god, and once we were inside we were served wine by one of Ireland’s most well-known models, Glenda Gilson.
Not usually wine drinkers, there was no beer available so we made do with what we were given and got through as many glasses as we could. We started to become worried by the lack of the main event’s presence. We were seated right at the front of the theatre and out of nowhere, in stepped one of the greatest players to ever wear the emblem of the Red Devil.
Cantona was a stunning specimen of a man, charcoal-grey suit, with a linen shirt underneath and a pair of colourful Nikes to set it all off. There he stood in front of us and waved to the crowd, making a short introduction to the film before retreating to his chair. We sat down and enjoyed it, but in the back of my head was the one mission I was given by Helen–“Don’t come home without getting a picture.”
At the end of the film, Cantona stood up again and a team of three security guards surrounded him as he walked from the theatre. It was time to get this done, so I suggested to Sans that we needed to make a move and quickly.
We flew out the cinema doors quicker than you could say “seagulls,” but as we ran toward the great man, two security guards held out their hands and told us, “No pictures, we need to move Mr. Cantona out of the venue.”
With that said, I felt deflated. Looking at my good buddy and realising he was even more bothered than I was, a voice came through from nowhere.
“Please, let zem through,” said the King, and he reached out toward me and Sans.
Like Moses parting the Red Sea, the security guards moved left and right accordingly, and Cantona was in front of us. Shell-shocked, our party of two could say nothing but look on at this creature we had worshipped through all of our days in school and continued to do so in his retirement.
“Did you enjoy ze film?” he asked. I can’t quite remember what we said, but we definitely answered in a positive way and threw several compliments at him which he didn’t seem to really care about. And why would he? He hears them everyday.
The henchmen tried to move him on again, but I quickly asked if we could take a picture, to which Cantona again told the heavies that we could. After the photo was taken, the security team made a circle around us and Cantona, and together we were all whisked off to the VIP party in the Jameson Distillery.
Once inside, Cantona went upstairs and we were left to "drink, a drink, a drink" (whisky, a huge step up from the wine) and ponder one of the greatest days we have ever had.
We had spent time in the presence of true greatness and the King of a community we felt so attached to, despite coming from across the water. They say never meet your heroes, but if you are to regard the great Frenchman as a hero, don’t be afraid, he goes above and beyond any person you might put on a pedestal.