When the seagulls …

Saturday 25 January 2020

“When the seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea,”  (Eric Cantona 1995)

I awake to the news that Twenty-five years have passed since Cantona launched himself into the crowd at Selhurst Park” What a story that was! Opinions raged at the time, and still do today, about the jaw-dropping incident and its legacy for football. But one fact is indisputable. Following the kick, that quote and his subsequent return to Manchester United, Eric Cantona secured his place as a legend at Old Trafford.

I am, nominally these days, a Manchester United supporter. In 1995 however things were very different. It was the height of the ‘ABU’ (Anyone But United) era, and the relentless vitriol directed at my home-town team had stirred the tribalism in my veins to a fever pitch. I was a young teacher in Leeds and it seemed that there was no place in the land that Manchester United hatred was stronger. My housemate referred to us as ‘SCUM’. The Saturday night streets regularly echoed to a chorus of ridiculously offensive football chants about the Munich Air Disaster. It was vile and it had transformed me into an obsessive fan. I was glued to radio commentaries. I was encylopedic on fixtures, league positions and transfers. I paced the kitchen like a restless panther on match days. I begged my brothers for a loan of their season tickets. And in the centre of all of this … was Eric. Transferred from Leeds to United in 1992, the charismatic Frenchman had quickly become the talisman. The footballing magician who turned Alex Ferguson’s squad from a good team … into a great team.

So the Kung-Fu kick, and the (fully-deserved) ban were tense times. The seagull’s quote, uttered at a press conference when his custodial sentence, was replaced by community service, left me non- plussed. The 1995 title slipped away and, if media reports were to be believed, it seemed that Eric would too. However, he did return, it’s alleged in response to a piece of managerial brilliance by Alex Ferguson. Whatever the reason, he strutted back onto the Old Trafford turf, lead the team to the 1996 title and the rest, as they say, is history.

I love to read about Eric, I loved the Ken Loach film ‘Looking for Eric’ and a couple of years ago Small Boy and I got to see Eric! The occasion was a Soccer Aid Match at Old Trafford…

Oh Soccer Aid – another occasion when I tried to compensate Small Boy for the daily penance of living in a house of females. We saw the match advertised on the TV and spontaneously bought tickets. We asked loads of other people to come along but got no takers and so, one soggy Spring afternoon, we set off by ourselves. I was pretty nervous and justifiably so, for we were innocents abroad. The traffic, as we approached the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ , was indescribable and eventually we abandoned our car on a dodgy side street, paying some shadowy figure £10 to the privilege of parking on his drive.

Please don’t argue with him Mum!” pleaded Small Boy.

But even I knew better on this occasion. Not entirely sure if I would ever see the car again, we followed the hordes to the stadium. The atmosphere was electric and, buoyed with enthusiam, I bought Small Boy a flag. As we set off for our seats however the security guard had other ideas. With barely concealed contempt he pointed at the flag, shook his head and flicked his eyes towards…a mountain of flag sticks. All fingers and thumbs we added our pole to the pile and then, giggling slightly with our limp piece of flag cloth made our way onto the terraces. By this time, I thought ‘in for a penny…’ and we gleefully blew my hard-earned cash on overpriced junk food and unhealthy drinks. It was great… a true bit of mother-son bonding!

The match was terrific too, a fully star-studded cast of celebrities, Olympic athletes and former footballing greats and then… mid way through the second half a slightly portly but unmistakeable figure ran onto the pitch, Cantona! There was a second of stunned silence before stadium erupted with joy and emotion – I actually saw several grown men cry. We felt for that moment, fully part of the great history of our great team. So I am not condoning his actions but tonight I shall raise a can of…Becks Blue … to Eric. For the memories, for the titles, for the sparkle of magic dust … and for that Soccer Aid match for me and my boy.

“If ever there was one player, anywhere in the world, that was made for Manchester United, it was Cantona. He swaggered in, stuck his chest out, raised his head and surveyed everything as though he were asking: ‘I’m Cantona. How big are you? Are you big enough for me?’” Sir Alex Ferguson.