Football: The elan in Elland Road: 'Ooh Aah' is the cry that rings round Leeds these days. Matthew Sturgis reports from the home of the champions on l'effet Cantona

Click to follow
The Independent Online
YORKSHIRE heroes used to have names like Sidebottom and Grimshaw. Or at least like Michael Parkinson or Norman Hunter. But the latest figure to accede to the Tyke pantheon is called Eric Cantona. Where once 'Ee ba gum' was the exclamation upon every lip, the cry is now 'Ooh Aah Cantona'. Cantona, 26, born in Marseilles not Morley, is Leeds United's darling.

Throughout the city you can see 'Ooh Aah Cantona' emblazoned on car-stickers, on posters, on sweatshirts. It is chanted by the 14-year old girls who gather to watch him train. It is the cover-line for the latest edition of the Leeds fanzine, Marching Altogether (temporarily renamed Marchons Ensemble in his honour). It is even the chorus of a novelty record to be released this week. Not since 'Nice one Cyril' has a player enjoyed such a distinction.

Cantona only arrived at Leeds in January, on loan from the French club Nimes. He has since helped them to their first League Championship in 18 years, signed a three-year contract with the club, scored a hat-trick at Wembley in the Charity Shield, won the unstinted admiration of the Elland Road faithful, and made the name Eric 'cool' in Yorkshire for the first time since the Viking invasions. It has been a busy year so far, and apart from the disappointment of being in the unsuccessful French team at the European Championship finals, a happy one.

If Leeds has taken to Cantona, Cantona has also taken to Leeds - the players, the place, the people. 'All the players have helped me to settle in,' he says. 'There is a cameraderie at the club such as you do not find in France. I do not speak much English, and they do not speak much French, but football is a global language.' On the pitch he can let his feet do the talking. Off it he can speak with his hands.

He lives in Roundhay to the north of the city with his wife and young son. He relishes the Pennine countryside, the fresh air, and even the bracing locals. 'Everywhere I have been people have made me feel very welcome. I didn't know that the people of Yorkshire had a reputation for being cold and blunt, and having met them my experience has been the complete opposite. It only goes to show that reputations can be misleading.'

Cantona speaks with feeling. He arrived in England with a reputation of his own. He had just announced his retirement after receiving a two-month suspension for throwing the ball at a referee and then roundly abusing the disciplinary committe when they reprimanded him. It was only the last episode in a problematic career in France which had seen him change clubs six times, often under a cloud. In 1988 he had been banned for a year from the French national side for calling Henri Michel, the then-manager, an 'incompetent'. As Cantona remarked, 'I am sometimes unable to judge the effects of my actions.'

He did, of course, also have a reputation as a brilliant, if erratic player. He had scored 12 goals in only 21 appearances for France. He had been transferred for sums as high as pounds 2.2 million. But at 25 he still remained what Howard Wilkinson, the Leeds manager, tactfully describes as a 'precocious talent'.

It was not Wilkinson, however, who first tempted Cantona to England, but his Yorkshire neighbour Trevor Francis, playermanager of Sheffield Wednesday. Francis invited Cantona over for a week's trial but felt unable to come to a decision because of the weather. Heavy frosts confined training to the artifical pitch and Francis wanted to see his player on grass. He asked Cantona to stay on for another week, but the Frenchman took offence. He had not, he said, had to play in a trial since he was 15. He went home.

This minor contretemps alerted Wilkinson. He had seen Cantona play - not on grass, but on video. He had been impressed. He was also in dire need of a replacement striker after Lee Chapman had broken his wrist. Wilkinson rang Michel Platini, the then French national manager, and Glenn Hoddle, who had played against Cantona in France. They both told him to forget what he might have heard about Cantona's disciplinary record. Wilkinson duly forgot it, and signed Cantona on loan until the end of the season.

Not fully match-fit, thrown into the welter of English First Division football, playing in an unfamiliar set-up, unable to speak the language; it might all have gone rather wrong. Happily it all went rather right. Perhaps the most fortunate occurrance was Chapman's swift recovery. Wilkinson quickly realised that until he became familiar with the English game, Eric was best deployed as a substitute, coming on after the initial hurly-burly had died down, when he had more space in which to use his skills.

His strike rate was fair but unexceptional. In 15 appearances he scored three goals - most of them against tiring opposition. But it is not statistics that create stars. Cantona had style. It was the chic, the elan, the aplomb of his contributions that impressed.

One goal, against Chelsea, saw him dribble into the area, flick the ball over a defender and then volley it emphatically into the net. (After that one they nearly sold out of 'Ooh Aah Cantona' sweatshirts in the Leeds United shop.) Wilkinson has likened him to Rodney Marsh, only 'quicker and better in the air'. Others have cited Duncan McKenzie and Tony Currie. Cantona is that rare thing in the English game, a crowd- pleaser.

To the Elland Road crowd he was especially pleasing. The club's successes in the early 70s were always salted by the team's general unpopularity and reputation for ruthless pragmatism. So it was exhilarating to find themselves back on top of the League and playing such attractive football.

Timing is important in any sport, and certainly that was true of Cantona's arrival at Leeds. 'Whenever you bring quality into a club it has its effect on the players and on the fans,' says Wilkinson. 'As long as it proves itself in performance.' Cantona, in his way, performed.

His advent gave a great fillip to the club as they entered the final third of the season. While Manchester United stalled, consumed by self-doubt, Leeds seemed to be buoyed up on the wave of Cantona enthusiasm.

Wilkinson claims not to have been unduly surprised by the way the fans took to Cantona. 'Nobody knows what makes a star,' he admits. 'But it's like in films, the camera just loves some actors.'

The Leeds fans loved Cantona on sight. They loved his bad-boy reputation ('He's a bit like Vinny Jones, but with class'); they loved his haircut (an 'exuberant mop of black Gallic hair on top, with just the right amount of messiness, and then those amazing side- burns.'); they loved the fact they he preferred them to Sheffield Wednesday; they loved him for being French ('Well, it's a bit different isn't it?')

Cantona may be only the second Frenchman (after Didier Six of Aston Villa) to make a name in English football, but this is only a part of what makes him different. For a professional footballer he has a rich life outside the game. He paints brooding abstracts, he writes verse 'about liberty and the search for personal freedom', he even produced his own idiosyncratic sports magazine, Yes Sport. And it is perhaps this sense of his own differentness that has sometimes led him into trouble. He once complained that, 'players are so boring. They are robots who are not supposed to think for themselves.'

Howard Wilkinson, however, has a high regard for individuality. 'I don't mind people having strong personalities and their own point of view. It provides a basis for communication. You can then either work out a compromise or else you can get divorced.' At the moment the former option looks the more likely.

Cantona has benefited from Leeds' rigorous pre-season training programme. He now understands better how the team functions, which as Wilkinson puts it, 'leaves him freer to concentrate on expressing his own skills.' Whether he can impose his self- expression over 90 minutes of our 'back yard' football remains to be seen. But the challenge excites him. Vive la difference.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments