Around the tables there was much speculation about his acceptance speech. Would it continue the nautical theme of his last public utterance?

ON SATURDAY
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The Independent Online
There are several candidates as a collective noun to describe football writers - a hack, an anorak, a crate - but on Thursday evening at the annual Footballer of the Year award dinner it was clearly a congregation. The flock had gathered in the ballroom of a London hotel to pay their respects to the man they had voted as the finest footballer in the land and, for the second year running, he wasn't British.

Indeed, on Europe Day, as The Sun encouraged its readers to turn their back on Brussels and fly the Union Jack, it was instructive to see the increasingly international texture of our national game reflected by the guests gathered for what the Football Writers' Association chairman called: "the most glittering social occasion in the football calendar" (he obviously doesn't get out much).

Whereas, as recently as five years ago, the only impenetrable accent would have been Peter Beardsley's, everywhere you looked this year there were foreigners struggling with the strange nuances of the English language (and that was before the port). Lennart Johansson, for instance, the president of Uefa, football's European governors, gave a short address. Now Johansson may be well versed in English, but he retains a problem with his Js. Which is fine when it comes to pronouncing his name "Yohansson", but became somewhat unfortunate when he started praising the FA politburo sitting around him for "the tremendous yob that is going into the European Championships".

Even Ruud Gullit, a Dutchman who speaks better English than most of the primary school children in the London borough of Islington, looked lost during the speeches.

The player who has made more capital out of the language gap than anyone else in the game, however, was the evening's guest of honour. Eric Cantona, the only man in the room not wearing a tie, sat in the middle of the top table, his head glistening after an altercation with Vinnie Jones's barber. Around the tables there was much speculation about his acceptance speech. Would it have been scripted by the copy-writers at Nike's advertising agency? Would it continue the nautical theme of his last public utterance? Would Lennart Johansson get any of the gags?

We were to find out after the presentation of the award, a gong few could gainsay after his contribution to English football this season. Actually, several of the gathering did gainsay it. Brian Woolnough, of The Sun, who has fulminated in print against his colleagues for giving their prize to a man he appears to believe is the spawn of Satan, remained in his chair throughout a warm standing ovation, arms folded, mouth set in a scowl, a gesture which it seems unlikely the recipient of his distaste noticed.

When the speech came it was a bit like Bolton Wanderers' Premiership challenge: over very quickly. This is it in full: "Critics say some things. I throw them where they deserve, down the toilet. When people say nice things, I thank them. I wish good health of everyone in the world. That is more important even than the..."

And this is where the confusion set in: it was unclear whether he said "money" or "morning". As soon as he had finished, huddles formed to swap earnest textual analysis. If he had said "money" then this was simply a trite generalisation. But had he said "morning" then this lent the speech all sorts of Blakeian texture. Most observers (though probably not Woolnough) gave him the benefit of the doubt and opted for the latter interpretation: after all, why betray the image we love to believe in of the French footballing philosopher, the import who contrasts so vividly with our own dear Vinnie?.

As this was Europe Day, there had obviously been some Franco-German talks conducted recently, and Cantona had clearly taken some advice from Jurgen Klinsmann. Last year, after Klinsmann scooped the award, he was faced with a queue the length of the Mersey Tunnel of supine, pitiful, salivating hacks seeking his autograph. For over an hour he scribbled away until, by the time I got to the front of the queue, he looked dead-eyed with exhaustion.

None of that for Eric. He left the room immediately after receiving his gong, accompanied, as always, by his minder, Alex Ferguson, the two of them leaving as the after-dinner speaker, Bob "The Cat" Bevan, rose to his feet.

"I'm surprised they've gone just as I'm about to speak," Bevan said. "I can only assume Eric and Alex didn't realise I was up here. Serves me right for wearing grey."

Mind you, I'm not sure Lennart Johansson got the joke.

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