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Friday, January 20, 2006

A quick meet with Eric Cantona, 2002

It's the jubilee weekend and I'm off to see my own version of Royalty. I've missed all the other beach football tournaments in England when Eric has played because I've been on my hols - I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity this time round.

Red News once again - purely for your benefit you understand - managed to blag some press passes (amazing what adding a few noughts to your circulation figures can do) and thus a few of the team decided to treat the long bank holiday as a euro away on the coast. Bed and breakfast prices suddenly got delusional and thought they were charging for a stay in Buckingham Palace itself and the Hilton actually ended up cheaper than any of them (especially with five in the room...).

Even better to learn that Eric, arriving late on the Saturday (the tournament was to be played from then until the Monday afternoon), was to be staying there. But ...not our one! Instead he was in the one just down the road and I homed my stalking impressions admirably over the next few days by managing to walk past that Hilton at every opportunity to see if Eric was around and fancied a pint.

You just don't realise, or should that be recall, the affect that Eric still has over us. Of course we all know the basics - catalyst, inspiration and for my generation the greatest United player we've seen - but here we are all these years on from retirement and he still means as much to United fans as he ever did. He's a talismanic figure and you only truly realise it close up. Contrary to some rumours he stayed behind for an hour after the games were finished on the Sunday to sign every autograph for the waiting crowd (100-150). Children, adults, families, from the dedicated Red to glory hunter, all were there to catch a glimpse, many just wanting the opportunity to say their version of 'thanks'.

On the Monday he had to disappoint some of those who were waiting because he had a plane to catch but unlike other United players, past and present, who I've seen waltz by, make a token blurred autographic gesture and then rush off, Eric took his time and seemed to appreciate the adulation buzzing around him. Well who else would get this kind of reception? However much I appreciate and support the current great set of players in the United team, there is nobody like Eric who'd I travel across England to see play beach football, let alone 5 years after they've left Old Trafford.

Not Matt Le Tissier that's for sure. The star of the England beach team, only just out of retirement himself from Southampton, where he too had been rewarded godlike status, saw only one Southampton fan make the journey down. As he watched Eric and the melee around him at all times he probably realised the difference between support and hero worship. One older male Red gave a shirt for Eric to sign. "I love you Eric, sign the shirt saying you love me". I've always wanted to speak to Eric, and hoped that if I did meet him and get the chance I'd have perfect composure and not lose it, garbling nonsense.

Teresa McDonald has been to all of these events and each time she has watched Eric up close, got a photo with him and uttered one piece of incomprehensible dialogue before rushing off. I told all the RN bods that this year we'd be a lot more professional and a lot less giddy around Eric. As Eric wasn't around for the Saturday games we then discovered the free fridge of Kronenbourg, ogled the beach football dancing girls and got paraletic in the crazy toy town that is Brighton town centre at a weekend. If the kebab owners on the seafront hadn't heard of Eric before then, they certainly did by 4am. Sunday. A bright day and a lot more people around the stadium - about 2,000 present in a 3,000 seater. There were a lot more Reds here today, including a couple of groups of Reds airing all the old classics.

Eric arrived in the VIP/press area and as the games started on the pitch a group of us just watched Eric train. I was less than 20 yards away from a hero, a man who had done so much to alter the course of United's and my own destiny. And all he was doing was juggling a ball and it was brilliant. He recognised Teresa, which was nice, probably thinking 'there's that old grandmother who follows me around the world. I must remember to get that banning order sorted'.

The games on the pitch whizzed by and the French team began to get ready to return to the Hilton. Joel and Eric take their roles of managing the side very seriously. Eric responded to each opponents goal with a scowl and a glare and there were some right old ding dong arguments between opponents and within the French team after a mistake.

Sky did their interview, as did a few other tv companies and the printed press and then our moment came. Or should that be Karim's. All my pre-tournament thoughts of having a lucid chat with him went out of the window as I became a blank mess. I passed the tape cassette to Karim - 'I just caaannnn't do it'. My mission now was just to get my photo with him. I leapt in. Eric is it ok to have a quick photo? "Sure, yes". I put my arm around him - "love is in the air" came to mind like Barry White in Ally McBeal - and then I just blurted: "Thank you Eric, for everything. You changed my life by winning us the league at United. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you".

No doubt he's heard it a thousand times but as he said something to the effect of "thanks" himself (the word was catching) and as the photo was about to be taken, some gormless bimbo got in the way of the camera. Probably a nice girl, quite pretty, but she's just barged in and said: "I echo his thoughts". The usual "never seen you at a game" thoughts spring to mind and then the fear that the photo opportunity might be lost forever. "Excuse me, can you just move out of the camera shot while I get the photo". She stayed stuck where she was and I think we were at the stage of her being thrown into the cold sea of Brighton unless she moved before she got the message - thus I now have pride of place a shot of a beaming smiling Eric and me with a demented face, angrily staring at said woman just out of shot.

You often have an image of a person, especially someone you look up to, that you'd like to be true in reality - sadly it is rare to be the case. All those stories of Eric staying behind after games until the last autograph had been signed seemed no exaggeration here. Ready to leave, as soon as Karim said could he spare a minute or so to talk to a Manchester United fanzine, he stopped in his tracks, smiled and said: "Of course". Happy days. At first this all went unnoticed but the few seagulls present for the tournament (England were playing so few had made it to Brighton) soon realised an outsider was chatting to Eric and smelt some extra quotes.

More of that later. Red News asked Cantona about the French beach football team.

EC: "We have young players. We train every week. We train very hard all Winter. We improve a lot. I think in future times we can beat Norway and Portugal (the current leaders of the league). This summer we have a tournament with 1600 young players...ages 13, 17 and 20"
RN: "How do you feel about the support you still get at Old Trafford and Manchester United fans singing your name?"
Eric: "It moves me a lot"
He also said: "A great goalkeeper in Fabien Barthez"
Red News then asked if he kept in touch with Alex Ferguson and the players.
EC: "I have got them in my mind, in my heart" as he then pointed to his heart.
RN: We asked him if he had a message for United supporters, after the low season.
EC: "I just hope that they will win everything. They will win the European cup and they will come back and win the Championship"
RN: Would you have liked the opportunity to play alongside Ruud Van Nistelrooy, would that have been a good partnership?
EC: "Yes. I think there are good players so he can play with them. I think the players around him must enjoy it very much because he's a clever player. He can score but he can play football also, a good passer. Strong"
RN: We asked him if he thought Roy had done the right thing leaving the World Cup?
EC: "I think he is too professional for Ireland. So the people who are not professional can not understand him. I think the people most understand that and they must take his advice very seriously if they want to improve. I think it is a good thing for the future for Ireland because they will realise that...they have to listen"

I'd been watching nearby and noticed one journalist idle up and start taking notes. I'd expect nothing else from them but it was that last quote that he apparently relished. The seagull dashed off and relayed to others in the press cabin that this had all now been worth the effort as he had a story to send into HQ - Eric's quote on Keano. He was with the PA and not at any stage did we see him talk to Eric about Keane elsewhere. Considering he rushed in straight after Red News' questions we can't help but presume that the quotes that appeared - and the "too professional for Ireland" bit is exactly what Cantona told us - in many of the Monday tabloids came from our interview. A Scouser at work! Yet just how did the above get transformed into these quotes that appeared via PA.

"I think Roy Keane is too professionalk for Ireland because they are amateurs. They don't understand him because he is such a professional. It's good for the team he said what he did because people may realise in the future that they have to listen to him and good players like him. It's great for a player like him to speak out about these things because they have to do it properly in the future and hopefully the preparation and things like this will be better. Roy does not have anything to prove to anyone. The problem is the amateurs do not understand these kind of players."

The hack was writing shorthand but perhaps he was better at the creative writing part of his journalism course. Another example of how you just can't believe what you read in the papers.

Anyway, off we went for another night in toytown, all set for the press conference at the wrong Hilton the next morning. Not even a hangover recorded at 10 on the Richtor Scale would make me miss that and again a sparse crowd - mainly Red News contributors and readers it has to be said - gathered to see Eric. The conference was supposed to be question and answers with Le Tissier, a Kronenbourg spokesperson and someone from the beach football organisers. So just Eric then. This beach thing is a good life - you can see why so many players want to be involved in it. A few grand each week, travelling the world to receptive crowds. Before the grand final next month in Monaco they would have played across Europe and from Brazil to Thailand. For the likes of John Scales it must be a dream come true. So the questions were directed at Eric, Eric and Eric. Le Tissier only got involved for the likes of: "What's it like playing...with Eric then" and I felt so sorry for him at one stage that I actually asked him what his plans were this year just to make conversation. Considering he later said when asked by RN whether he'd have joined United: "I never had the chance to go to Old Trafford, that was all rumour, probably started by people (journos) sat behind you . I had the chance to go to Tottenham and to Chelsea". Would you have joined United though? "I didn't go did I probably wouldn't have (joined United)" I wish I hadn't been sympathetic earlier.

Amongst some Eric gems,
RN: asked him if there was one moment at your career at United that you would say would be your top one?
EC: "My best moment? I have a lot of good moments but the one I prefer it when I kicked the hooligan"

RN: When asked why he was in Brighton instead of commentating on the world cup for French tv:
EC: "Oh no. I tried it once because I didn't know it, wanted to try it but I didn't like it at all. I prefer to be on the beach and play" "Desailly was good with Laurent Blanc because Blanc was so great, I think Frank Le Beouf is not good enough"

RN: A Red News reader asked him had he any thoughts on management:
EC: "I manage a team, for beach soccer. I'm the coach. Player, coach". End of.

RN: Teresa had to get her mandatory set of baffling questions in and asked whether Eric's father, Albert, would be at the Marseilles event, being organised by CMC, of which the Cantona family is involved with.
EC: "Yeah my father will be there". "He loves football and he loves this, he follows when he can. I love my father...I love my mother too...and my Uncle"

He continued with the joke as he ended the one man talking show:
EC: "I started beach football in Monte Carlo when I retired from football in 1997. I liked the game very much. Joel got me into it. He is my younger brother but he's got good ideas...hours before me. But he is my brother and I love him..."

Another set of autographs, another set of photos and Eric was heading for the final day of the tournament. A bus was waiting especially for the French squad and Teresa, showing her pass, asked the driver if she could get a lift because of a sore knee. Thus the French team whizzed down the beach on an open top double decker with the added addition of a 66 year old Red News contributor...

On the sand Eric once again was the star of the show and main attraction to the ABUs present - he didn't disappoint with a hat-trick and a typical Cantona moment. Marked by an opponent in the penalty box, the ball far away, Eric did a Richard Shaw on the bloke and just walloped him in the bollocks. He collapsed in a heap. The Eric stare followed - 'who me?'. Then the incredulous shrug, as Eric walked away from the ref only to be summoned. And then the card. Not red but blue. Effectively a sin binning for the offence, the only one all tournament!

Back to the dressing room area (which was a few chairs under the stand for each team - no curtains or anything) and Eric was in a rush to make his flight. We said our thanks and goodbyes to Joel, and as the French team dashed off, like a shot we rushed to see if he'd left his shirt. No chance but there, by Eric's chair - were another set of gems. His shorts and, wait for it, underpants. A very unattractive set of Marks and Spencers y-fronts it has to be said, but nonetheless clothing from the chosen one and they quickly went into Teresa's bag.

The shorts were the very pair that Eric had scored his hat-trick in, Number 7 gleaming on a nice beach football logo. The underpants? Well they were washed in case you're wondering but those of a weak disposition look away. It had been my intention to wear them and hope that some of Eric's magic would rub off on me and at the very least provoke an interesting chat up line to women - and maybe even improve my performance. Like it did for him. Sadly my physique is more Eric Idle than Cantona and I looked absolutely pathetic in them. (of course I tried them on, what do you take me for?). So they currently reside in my wardrobe, waiting for Plan B to be formulated. And so it was time to leave. A truly memorable weekend about to get even better. As we left the VIP area, Eric shook mine, Karim's and Teresa's hand and said "Au Revoir".

Eric said goodbye. To us. Cloud 9 and then some.

They want to host the event annually in Brighton from here on in. You should make it down there next time, it really is worth the effort. And Eric truly believes, as he said to us, that this sport will be: "famous around the world soon".

So, here we are five years on from his Old Trafford departure and I think all the above safely confirms that he means as much now as he did back then. I may not want to have his babies anymore, that's just plain daft isn't it? But I still want to marry into the Cantona family. As proud owner of his underpants surely an invite into the Cantona household can't be that far away.


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