Football: There's nowhere I would rather be: Eric Cantona made his debut in England one year ago. He talked to his fellow Frenchman, Patrick Urbini, in Manchester last week his love affair with English football

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What were you expecting to find when you first came to England?

From a football point of view?

From the point of view of both football and life in general.

Before I came, I thought that English football might suit me and that above all it could bring out in me what I was lacking: that it could make me more effective, more pragmatic. From that point of view I've not been disappointed. I am naturally a curious person. Every day I need to find something new, even simple things. It's this permanent state of curiosity that enables me to progress. In the end that's what interests me more than my career. Today I feel that I have been enriched.

Do you feel very much a part of things here?

It always works if you make the effort to adapt yourself to others. In England, the further north you go the more warm and welcoming people are. Both Leeds and Manchester United are full of players who were born in this part of the country and there are quite a few Scots as well. So everything is going well.

Does the same apply to your life in Leeds?

If I still live there while playing in Manchester, it's because I like my lifestyle. I've got a house to the north of the city, the Yorkshire countryside is on my doorstep, and I can go shooting or simply walking. My wife works at the university as a foreign language assistant. My four-year-old son is already managing well with his English. We're all happy.

Do you miss France?

Of course you need to know what's happening over there, in football and in every walk of life, because that's where your roots are. I also go over to Paris or Marseilles for the odd weekend. But I can just as well do without it.

Is it a handicap living in Leeds and playing in Manchester?

I don't think so. There's the training, the matches, and from time to time we have meals with everybody, so we spend quite a lot of time together. When I'm too tired to make the 50- mile journey back to Leeds - part of the route back is quite dangerous because of fog - I stay at my hotel to relax and recuperate. Perhaps it's true that I was more inclined to lead a real social life when I was playing for Leeds.

What has changed fundamentally in your day-to-day life?

I am more relaxed. I can go to a restaurant and go for a stroll in the city without meeting someone every five minutes who wants to talk about some match that I've played in. Living normally - the English understand that.

And how are things with the Press?

I am in demand quite a lot because I've been playing for successful teams. I get offered a lot of money for interviews, but I'm not really interested in any of that. For one thing, I don't speak English very well and there are cultural differences. For another, I get the feeling that I talk about things which aren't important to them - the 'artistic' side of the game and things like that. And when I give an interview, the quotes that are used aren't the ones that I would like them to use. They need something sensational at all costs. What matters to me is what I do as a footballer, and how I fit in with the other players on the field. It's the player that's important. But for the rest of the week I can't stop people writing things about me as a person. It's nothing, though, compared with what's writtenabout Gascoigne.

You say you are more relaxed, but isn't there a lot of pressure when it comes to matches?

At Manchester United? I should say so. It's 26 years since they were champions. They've won the European Cup, the FA Cup, the League Cup - but the League championship, no. Every day people are talking about the championship and about the 1967 team. The media take more interest in us than in any other club, but I'm used to that. Besides, last year at Leeds it was just the same: when I arrived, they hadn't won the title since 1974.

You signed a contract with Manchester United for three and a half years. Do you think you will see it out?

If we win the title and if I help France qualify for the World Cup, I would like to retire in 1994, at the end of next season. But those two things must happen. It won't be easy, but it's possible.

Are you simply passing through then?

That's right. I'm someone who will always move on, even though it may be later rather than sooner. I've learnt to live day by day. That helps you to cope with things that might be a problem. We've got 16 matches left in which to win the championship, four in which to win the Cup; after that we'll see. But as for now I feel fine. Besides, it's only when I'm feeling good that I feel I can play well and be useful.

You said recently that joining Manchester United was an opportunity to play for 'one of the world's biggest clubs'. Don't you want to bind yourself to the club more?

What I like in England is this very strong bond that exists between the club and the public, the weight of tradition. You often see someone like Bobby Charlton in the dressing-room on match days and the other day, after the game against Tottenham, I met George Best, one of my predecessors in the No 7 shirt. Stadiums like Old Trafford have a soul and I like that. There is a special atmosphere, a good spirit about the game. Football here is alive and people make you really feel it. That gives me a great feeling. But that's how I function. On the one hand I am very proud to play for Manchester United. I have the feeling that I am experiencing something very different, something I couldn't find elsewhere. I want to win and to make my contribution, but, on the other hand, I say again, I am passing through.

Let's get back to the English game itself. What lessons have you learnt in your first year here?

At Leeds, I learnt to be realistic. Or rather Howard Wilkinson, the manager, made me think only about that for 10 months. At Leeds there was no place for imagination. I don't think that I would have been able to play for Manchester United now if I hadn't had my time at Leeds. I also learnt a respect for tactics and I discovered that I could play matches every three days without saying: 'Hang on, I can't take this.' In France, people make a great fuss about things like that. Here nobody talks about it. It's not ideal, but it's normal.

And does all of that suit you?

I've done well, even if the style of play has been the long-ball game, in which you need to win the ball in the air to regain possession. It's different at Manchester United. We play a more constructive game. But whether you want it or not, the game here is basically geared towards the spectator and you can never get bored. It's physical, committed, more tactical than people think and always attack-minded.

Can you expand on that?

Well, the other Sunday I was watching Lazio play Juventus live on Channel 4. There was Baggio and three other players who made up a so-called super- team. I've rarely been so bored. Then I switched the television over on to the BBC to watch Norwich play Tottenham in the Cup. I really enjoyed it and in one hour I learnt a lot about the game. When I'm 40 and going along to watch matches I won't go to Italy. I'll come here. To enjoy yourself, to really live a football match, England is superb.

Nevertheless, these days the place where you need to be in order to be recognised as a great player is Italy.

In order to be a great player in the eyes of the media, yes. But I get the impression that in Italy it's the crowds that make the occasion great - I read Klinsmann saying that recently. I could watch an Italian match live on television every Sunday, but no thank you. And if you took away all their foreign players, what would they have left? The English game is self-sufficient. Sometimes that is its weakness, but it is also often its strength. They don't need anything extra, anything artificial, in order to thrive. They don't need foreign players here.

Having said that, the English game isn't exactly very inventive.

Yes, that's true - even if you see more and more teams with players who are comfortable on the ball and they all have a solid grasp of tactics. But they're like that: they believe in their football, they persuade themselves that they're the best and only then will they concede that there are others who can play as well. They like players with imagination, but only in small doses. They have players like this - Hoddle, Waddle, Gascoigne - but they are always the exception.

Was this what Manchester United were lacking - a bit of imagination?

I think that that is really why they brought me here: to do things that nobody is expecting. That pleases and satisfies people a lot. But you can only get the message across when you're getting results.

Did eveything fall into place immediately?

The players here naturally complement one another. There was a system in place before I arrived: I fitted into it quite naturally. At the front there's Hughes, who is the player we try to get the ball to. He is one of the best forwards in Europe with his back to the goal. He holds the ball up very well. I play just behind him. On the flanks there are two very quick players (Giggs and Sharpe) who dribble and take the ball either down the wing or towards goal. I distribute the ball and we have a good time . . .

And what if there comes a time when that doesn't work?

We will see. If you lose three games in a row, it's always the foreign player who is first in the firing line.

Is there one match, one goal, one move that you recall above anything else since your arrival here?

No. What's important is the whole thing.

Not even the three goals you scored against Liverpool at Wembley last August?

People would say that that was special.

An opponent, or a team then?

No, not that either. The teams are all a bit similar. But that's not a weakness. At least it's possible here for two teams from the First Division to reach the Cup final. In Italy it's simple - a team's standing is proportional to the value of its foreign players.

Has anything that managers have said particularly struck you?

I've never heard anyone say: 'Today you'll have to battle it out and give everything you've got.' Here, that's taken for granted. And I've never seen anyone take vitamin pills. The priority given to tactics in England allows you to concentrate on the rest of the game and to work harder and for longer.

What is it that you like so much about the English?

Everyone knows their place, and that's true at all levels. The chairman runs the club, the manager manages, the player plays and the switchboard operator answers the phone. It's healthy. Even money doesn't cause as many problems here.

One last question. Manchester United go to Leeds on Monday. What will that mean to you?

It's a match that we have to win, that's all. I will only score two goals out of respect for everything they did for me and they will let me score them out of respect for what I did for them . . .


(Photograph omitted)