HERE’S a little fact for all those of you who enjoyed, as I did, the copious amounts of cod (and sardine) philosophy doled out by Eric Cantona in Ken Loach’s excellent film Looking For Eric. The first time Cantona tried to conduct a TV interview in English, he had to use Lee Chapman as an interpreter.
When Cantona joined Leeds in February 1992, he didn’t really speak any English. (All the more remarkable, then, that within three years he would be confident enough to dive fearlessly into metaphors involving seagulls and trawlers.) Chapman didn’t really speak that much French, but half-a-season in Le Championnat with Niort four years previously had made him more fluent in the language than any of his team-mates.
And so when Yorkshire TV wanted to speak to Cantona after Leeds’ 2-0 win over Luton – a match which had seen the Frenchman score his first goal in English football – Chapman was drafted in to translate interviewer John Helm’s questions.
The result was a spectacularly awkward three-way exchange of Franglais which gave little indication as to just how big a character in English football Cantona would become.
Mind you, it did give an indication of his individualism. While Chapman was wearing a regulation Leeds United tracksuit, Cantona – all monobrow and slightly shy smile – sported a bright red sweater. He couldn’t possibly have been thinking of joining Manchester United then, could he?
Helm: Eric, you must be very pleased scoring your first goal for Leeds United.
Chapman: Content de la . . . le premier but de Leeds United?
Cantona: Yes. Content.
Chapman (quietly): You’re happy.
Cantona: I’m very happy for . . . for the team.
Helm: Tres content?
Cantona: For the team. For me, after.
Helm: And Leeds, you think a good team?
Cantona: Very good team.
Chapman did go on to try to salvage the interview by declaring that “good players don’t need to talk the same language”.
“Eric doesn’t speak the language,” Chapman explained. “I know what he’s going through. I had the same experience in France four years ago. It’s very difficult for him.”
Cantona, though, would go on to master English enough to give one of the most memorable football quotes of the 1990s. It’s not giving away too much to reveal that it’s a quote that appears at the end of Looking For Eric. The film A la recherché de Lee Chapman, however, remains unmade.
2009 is, it seems, a year for films about enigmatic talent that got away from Leeds United. First there was The Damned United, focusing on a man who lasted 44 days at Elland Road but went on to win two European Cups elsewhere. And then came Looking For Eric, featuring an engagingly self-mocking turn from a man who spent just nine months at Leeds – although he did win a league championship medal in the process – before going on to claim four Premier League titles in five years with their rivals.
Cantona’s willingness to send up his philosophical side is one of the film’s highlights. “He who is afraid to throw the dice will never throw a six,” he says to depressed postman Eric at one point, a statement which only just falls short of ‘Dance as if nobody’s watching.’ His vulnerable postman friend, beautifully played by former Fall bassist Steve Evets, berates Cantona by telling him: “I’ve only just gotten over the sardines.”
Those who have seen the film will have noted the scene in which Justin Moorhouse, sporting an FC United shirt, delivers a polemic against Manchester United’s corporate structure. (Although the rant is nicely undermined for comic effect when, having stormed out of a pub showing an important United game, he races back in again when he thinks they have scored.) Cantona himself, you may remember, spoke out publicly against the Glazers takeover at Old Trafford.
Twelve years after he walked away from Manchester United to pursue new ventures – which would include his acting career – Cantona’s name is still sung at Old Trafford. With Carlos Tevez gone and Cristiano Ronaldo gone, United’s fans could do with some new heroes’ names to chant. (There’s your challenge, Michael Owen.) And they could be forgiven for watching Looking For Eric with a nostalgic glow. Leeds fans seeing the film, though, have probably experienced a different emotion.