In Ken Loach’s ‘Looking For Eric’, a Manchester United-supporting postman, also named Eric, is searching for a guardian angel. This angel arrives, in the form of a broad-shouldered Frenchman, who provides spiritual guidance and general life advice. During such a discussion, postman Eric says: “It’s funny innit. Sometimes we forget that you’re just a man.” The guardian angel replies: “I am not a man. I am Cantona.” The guardian angel holds a straight face for a few seconds, before they both start laughing.
This was a joke, told in a work of fiction, but it was also true. To many Manchester United fans in the 1990s, Eric Cantona wasn’t just a man, or even a football player. He was a symbol, a myth made flesh with the No.7 shirt on his back. He was a brilliant player, but United have had plenty of them. Cantona was something else, half footballer and half aura, partly defined and loved because of his play, and partly by his other actions.
Which included launching himself over the advertising boards at Crystal Palace in January 1995, placing his boots into the chest of Matthew Simmons, a young scamp who claimed only to have politely informed Cantona that an early bath awaited him. Of course the truth of Simmons’ words was rather spicier, involving instructions for Cantona to return to his country of origin, delivered after making his way down from his seat, high up in the Main Stand at Selhurst Park. A friendly send-off after he was sent off, it was not.
Cantona’s subsequent suspension for the last few months of the season, a season that United lost the title to Blackburn by a single point, didn’t seem to matter to their fans. Arguably it only added to the myth, and when Cantona appeared in court a few months later, a 13-year-old fan called Sebastian Pennels passed him a card, a verse written on it, which said: ‘Eric is an idol, Eric is a star, and if my mother had her way, he’d also be my pa.’ Excellent cadence from the would-be John Cooper-Clarke.
The trouble with mythologising a living person is that you can ascribe deep meaning to things that are essentially superficial. In short, it’s easy to overthink things. So when Cantona was sentenced to 120 hours of community service by Croydon Magistrates Court, escaping a two week jail term, in turn after the suspension United had already placed upon him by the FA was doubled (“I don’t think any player will get the sentence he got unless he killed Bert Millchip’s dog,” was Alex Ferguson’s response to that one), people were always going to read plenty into his reaction. And boy did they.
It’s probably the sip of water that makes it. Cantona sat down at the press conference following the announcement of his sentence, and began his statement. “When the seagulls,” sip, pause, “follow the trawler,” pause, hint of a smile, “it’s because they think,” pause, “sardines, will be thrown into the sea. Thank you.” And with that, like Keyser Soze, he was gone.
Reaction in the room ranged from laughter to confusion, not least with the United contingent who were left sitting behind a table with cameras flashing in their face. “It was an obscure thing to say,” said Maurice Watkins, United’s lawyer and director. “He just does not want to stay here and meet you and answer questions because he has had enough…I think he has been under tremendous strain.” Well, quite.
For years this has been regarded by some as one of the great philosophical statements of our time. What profound meaning could this have? Where did he get such a statement? This latest intellectual from France has bewitched us rosbifs once again! ‘Were we the seagulls?’ the Independent solemnly reported. ‘Was he a sardine? What could he mean? As an aphorism it was worthy of Camus, nay Sartre. It was deep.’
The Guardian, under the curious headline ‘Fish-quoter Cantona clucks the cells’ commented that the statement ‘required urgent clarification.’ For years after it was called a ‘riddle’ in various headlines, and was the subject of a scientific study by boffins from Exeter university. A couple of years ago Shia LaBeouf repeated the line to a press conference in Cannes while promoting the film ‘Nymphomaniac.’ Whether he had any understanding of the context of his prominence is unclear. He may just have been, well, being Shia LaBeouf.
“This is something I’ve heard before,” French journalist Fabrice Ousselot said at the time. “I think it’s clearly relating to the media and all the people on his back all the time, but you never know with Cantona. Maybe he got mixed up.”
As it turned out Cantona actually workshopped the line a few moments before saying it. Before going out to face the press, the ever-present, moustachioed former military man Michael ‘Ned’ Kelly, who was United’s head of security and a pseudo bodyguard for Cantona around this time, was in a room with Cantona, his agent and Watkins. They were searching for the right words in English, so Kelly was asked what another word for ‘fishing boat’ was, what the birds that flew over the sea were called and an example of a small fish. Thus, trawler, seagulls and sardines. “I felt proud I had contributed to the translation for perhaps the most famous footballing quote since Ken Wolstenholme said: ‘They think it’s all over… it is now,’” wrote Kelly in his book, a few years later.
“Eric went on writing then showed me what he wanted to say,” Watkins told the Daily Mail. “Everyone thinks because of the expression on my face that I didn’t know what he was going to say. But I did and I often wonder what happened to that piece of paper.”
So what did it mean? Well, it’s probably one of two things. Either it’s exactly what it sounded like, a reflection of the press pack staring back at him, desperate to gobble up any sort of morsel he would throw their way. If you do insist on delving for meaning, that definition seems relatively obvious, but the other explanation, made by Cantona himself, was that it was nonsense, a meaningless statement that he concocted just to amuse himself, like John Lennon writing ‘I Am The Walrus’ when he heard schools were analysing Beatles lyrics.
“Hundreds of journalist were there,” said Cantona a few years ago. “They tried to make this very serious, but I don’t think football is so serious. The lawyer said to me ‘They wait for you to say something’. I could say ‘No’ and go home. But these words, this line, it means nothing. After that, everybody tried to analyse the words, and I loved it.”
A quote that has been thought of as a great mystery, was of course nothing of the sort. If you insist on searching for something, don’t look too far. But if not, just listen to Eric, and don’t think about it too much.