Finding Eric: Cantona on Manchester United, creativity and the team he dare not name
"We were just good for each other."
Whenever a 'best ever' poll is devised for the Premier League era, Eric Cantona's name tends to crop up. Whether he wins or not is irrelevant, because his very inclusion seems irrelevant. Judging such a transcendent figure on football alone feels like indulging in trivialities, as great as he was.
It's a bit like critiquing David Bowie's acting career. Bowie was always Bowie, sometimes on the screen. Cantona is always Cantona, sometimes on the pitch. You'd be better pulling a stick of candy floss through a toilet roll than judging Eric against a Rooney or Shearer. I mean it's possible, but why would you do that?
Ahead of his 'An Audience With...' tour of the UK and Ireland later this month, the enigmatic Frenchman spoke to JOE about his eclectic life outside of football, his great fondness for football culture in this country, the deep affection he still harbours for Manchester United, and the begrudging respect that dare not speak its name.
It soon becomes clear that Cantona's motivations for the tour are two-fold. Firstly he holds a genuine affection for English and Irish football fans, and secondly the charitable aspect is clearly an important factor to a man with such a strong social conscience and sense of community spirit.
"I love coming to England because it feels like such a creative place to be. The shows we are doing will be fun," Cantona enthuses, before a special mention for his fans across the Irish Sea: "And of course Ireland is such a lovely country to visit, with thousands of Manchester United supporters."
"It is always great to be involved in something that raises so much for good causes," he adds. "We are expecting to raise a good amount for charity. The profits from VIP tickets, as well as photographs taken with me before the show, are all going to A1's chosen charities - which include Juliashouse.org a children’s hospice - so I’m very happy."
Cantona is so much more than a mere 'ex-footballer', and his varied interests outside the game crop up throughout the conversation. Very much a renaissance man, he sees himself first and foremost as a creator, for whom football was one medium of many by which to express himself.
"I love to be creative. Whether it’s great football, or great acting, or great art. I have done a lot of things since I stopped playing. [For instance] I am starring in a play onstage in Paris in December, and that is always an exciting thing to do. Also I am going to appear in a French TV series next year, and there are other plans ahead."
That said, any ardent fans concerned that the great man's sparkling football career will be overlooked on his forthcoming tour needn't worry. It is clear that Cantona's love of all things Manchester United still runs very deep. He is positively gushing when talking about the club and its legion of fans, for whom he holds special fondness and empathy during these relatively chastening times.
"We were just good for each other. I loved the fans at United and happily I did well for them. The manager was the very best and we won the league four times in my five seasons. I was happy and content with the team and my teammates."
As he goes on, it is clear that none of the seven other clubs he represented before retiring at just 30 years old come anywhere close in his affections to the Red Devils, who he refers to as the "greatest club in the world":
"They were superb fans and we played such exciting football. It was gratifying to walk out onto the pitch every time. We always felt confident. I can’t imagine I would or could have been happier at any other club in the world. I will talk about my career [at United]. We will do our best to make it entertaining and amusing as well."
Cantona's great love have endured a difficult start to the season, and the subject of their ongoing tribulations will certainly be covered. He is, as ever, philosophical, but it's telling that such is his unashamed bias towards United, he finds it difficult to name Pep Guardiola's City as their modern-day superiors.
"I always hope it will be United [to win the league]. Especially as the favourites this year are the teams we most want to defeat. It’s very early in the season so we must still hope that United will perform well," he admits, before adding: "It is terrible but the best team to watch at the moment is the other team. The one I don’t like to mention by name."
This is more gallows humour than bitterness on Cantona's part. He is a champion, an artist, an auteur, and so much more, and he acknowledges the challenge that Manchester City have laid down for others to accept. He respects them, but his heart belongs to the club - and fans - who accepted him as their own and deified his name.
"I always try and watch as many Manchester United games as I can, because I love them." As he will no doubt find when he returns to Manchester, the feeling is very much mutual.