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Exhaustive work that echoes its subject's flaws
on 3 February 2010
Phillipe Auclair is a widely respected French football writer and author, and long term resident of London. In combining an outsider's perspective of the Premier League with an insider's view of its French stars he is one of the most interesting voices on contemporary football. In many ways he is the natural person to write a biography of Eric Cantona.
By and large he does a good job in this lengthy and exhaustive work, but "Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King" - like its subject - is far from perfect.
For a start its tone is rather uneven, and while parts are elegantly written other sections can be plodding and prone to Auclair's digressions. He is also fixated with the factual errors in Cantona's English autobiography, but really he should look closer to home before criticising other authors.
For example Cantona was not the first foreign player to win the English league and FA Cup double, that was Jan Molby - and for Manchester United Cantona shared the feat with Andrei Kanchelskis, which merits no mention. Mickael Madar's stay in England was not as inauspicious as Auclair makes out: indeed he practically saved Everton from relegation in 1997/98. He also seems to get the year of the Hillsborough disaster wrong.
He uses the example of record numbers of Daily Telegraph readers removing Cantona from their fantasy football teams after the kung fu kick on Matthew Simmons as an example of fans adopting "the moral high ground" ("a comfortable place to be," he sneers), but weren't they just protecting themselves from his inevitable ban?
Although the author is a long-time resident in England, his contacts seem to be mostly French. This is fine up to a point, but the blow-by-blow account of Cantona's career in Ligue 1 becomes boring very quickly. The reliance on French sources also limits the insights from Cantona's British colleagues, which are mostly recycled from old interviews. To a Premier League fan this would be fascinating, but the views of his Elland Road and Old Trafford team mates are frequently overshadowed by French voices.
Around half of this lengthy book is devoted to Cantona's time at Manchester United, which is by far the most interesting period of his career and when Auclair clicks into gear. There is plenty of new information about Cantona's curious life in Manchester - how he lived at a motel, while his family remained 25 minutes down the M62 in Leeds; or his habit of drinking in down-at-heel pubs with Basile Boli's brother. Some of the insights garnered from Ken Loach's film "Looking for Eric" - such as his habit of referring to himself in the third person ("I am Cantona") - are confirmed.
Some of Cantona's less obvious contradictions are also exposed. He apparently cares nothing for materialism, but jealously guards his image rights and is fixated by his sponsors Nike.
This is a long book but it ends very abruptly - at the end of the 1996/97 season when Cantona retires - his "death" - as Auclair dramatically puts it. His reasons for ending the book here are rather tenuous - it is meant to be a footballing life. But surely one of the most interesting things is how Cantona reinvented himself as an artist and actor afterwards?
Yet for all its flaws, this a cut above the bog-standard football biography. Few have been crafted so meticulously in my memory - Leo McKinstry's books on Alf Ramsey and the Charlton brothers spring to mind - and Auclair should be applauded for his diligence. There are plenty of new insights and the French perspective is interesting having been used to the bog-standard Mancunian hagiography over the past 18 years. A good read, if not quite a tour de force.