It was the day before April Fool’s Day when Eric Cantona delivered one of the wackiest quotes ever by a sportsman with the immortal line: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”
Manchester United’s football genius turned poet was facing the world’s media shortly after winning his appeal against a two-week prison sentence for kung fu kicking a hooligan at Crystal Palace two months earlier.
As we approach the 24th anniversary of that cryptic quote from the Frenchman, commentators still debate whether the media were the seagulls and Cantona the sardine.
Today, for the first time, I can share with you never seen before footage of the day Eric The King followed up his sardines and trawlers riddle with a follow up teaser for the world’s media.
It was two days before the 1996 FA Cup Final, and Cantona had just taken the applause of the Footballers Writers Association at their annual dinner. Eric had been voted footballer of the Year after returning from his unprecedented nine-month ban to take Manchester United to the brink of a famous double.
“Pray silence please for Mr Eric Cantona,” instructed the Master of Ceremonies as the room hushed and waited for our Guest of Honour to respond after being handed the Footballer of the Year trophy from FWA chairman Bob Cass.
Flanked by Sir Alex Ferguson, with Liverpool manager Roy Evans to the right of The Boss, Cantona stood up and playfully debated the choice of the words critics and criticism.
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Then out it came: “Some critics mean nothing so I threw them where they deserve to be thrown . . . toilets for instance.”
Clearly mimicking his own famous quote of the previous year, Eric had once again used the word ‘thrown’ in a colourful reference to the media. But this was a crowd of appreciative sports writers, and noting that all journalists are not poisonous he added:
“And some others mean something, so I try to use them to become better. It has been a long year, but what a beautiful adventure.
“To speak about this award I would like to share it with all Manchester United, the players, the staff, Alex Ferguson, Brian Kidd and all the fans. They have all been wonderful and we deserve this award, all together. Now I would like to wish the good health of everybody in the world because, as we know, that is the most important thing. Even more than the money. Thank you.”
Sitting down to take another round of warm applause and handshakes from Ferguson, Evans and Cass, the Guest of Honour was immediately excused along with the rivals managers and they left the room leaving all to contemplate another intriguing soundbyte from Cantona.
Forty eight hours later Cantona was celebrating the perfect end to the season, after living up to all the fanfare and scoring the only goal at Wembley that crushed rivals Liverpool.
Cantona’s late winner saw United make history as English football’s first ‘double double’ winners, repeating their feat of 1993/1994.
After the low-point of that 36 week suspension, this was the perfect response to everyone who doubted Cantona.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s remarkable man-management skills had persuaded his fabulous French superstar to stick around and make his triumphant comeback.
And this was the reward . . Eric the King in his pomp – both on and off the pitch.
There are several footballers in my lifetime who, in my opinion, have been better players for Manchester United – but no-one can match Cantona for his magnetic appeal as King of the Quotes.