Eric Cantona did many extraordinary things on the football pitch – and one just over the edge of it. But his greatest feat since his feet stopped doing the talking must surely be to get Ken Loach to direct a comedy.
It is 40 years since Loach slipped a treasured football cameo into his film 'Kes'. Renowned for his searing portrayal of working-class life, he has allowed his latest film, 'Looking for Eric', to show how the people's game lets them dream and gives them hope.
The eponymous Eric is not Cantona but a postman, played by Steve Evets, who is haunted by the fact that he left his young wife 30 years ago. His Old Trafford idol, Cantona, appears when he smokes his stepson's dope and the Frenchman dispenses gnomic advice incessantly until his exasperated disciple tells him: "I'm still getting over the bloody seagulls."
Loach loves his sport and is heavily involved with Bath City FC. When he and Cantona visited Old Trafford to watch a match last year, Cantona brought Sir Alex Ferguson up to meet Loach at half-time and Fergie, an avowed socialist, heaped praise on his 2006 film 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley', about the fight for Irish independence. It was not, presumably, just because the owner of the legendary hair-dryer was so impressed by the wind that shook the barley.
This is not just a film for United fans. Most of Eric's fellow workers support FC United, the breakaway club formed out of resentment at Malcolm Glazer's megabucks takeover. Loach is deeply concerned with the concept of community and he says: "The idea of a group of people who club together is lost. The sense of identity is split between the people who treat it as a club and those who treat it as an investment and a brand."
Unusually, Loach's purpose seems purely to entertain rather than preach. Cantona – who has done a dozen films since his nine-month ban for attacking a fan, though no kung-fu movies to date – is engaging and funny. But there is still a strong sense of camaraderie, as Cantona says: "You must trust your team-mates, always." He told Loach this when asked about his greatest moment on the pitch: it was not a goal but a pass.
Loach teases a performance out of Cantona that Ferguson would have been proud of. But it is the team ethic that stands out. "He has no ego at all, he was just one of the lads," said Loach. "I think that's one of the things that sport teaches you. You are only as good as the team around you."
Loach likes to keep his own dedicated team on their toes, not telling them about what's in the next scene until it's time to shoot, in order to heighten the realism. He didn't even tell Evets that Cantona was in the film. Evets thought he was only a producer and when Cantona first appears on set, his shock is genuine. This is real fantasy football.