Eric Cantona was always more than a footballer. To his teammates, he was a blessing. To Manchester United fans, a sort of maverick messiah. To all, an enigma. But ask Cantona himself, and I’m not sure what he’d tell you. The great showman of 1990s football has always styled himself as a renaissance man: off the pitch, he’s lunged into everything from modelling, to acting, to poetry, to oil painting. When he was banned from football for kung-fu-kicking a Crystal Palace fan, he took up the trumpet, listened to jazz. Now, on a bleary Friday evening in Manchester, the cult of Cantona gathers to witness the birth of Eric the singer-songwriter.
As cultists go, the crowd at the Stoller Hall are of the tame, plain-clothed variety – more cardigans than football shirts, though there are a few of the latter around. The sleek, upmarket auditorium seems like an odd venue for what you would assume is a gimmick act. From the first ominous hums, though, it’s easy to see why Cantona picked it. The music starts without him; he walks on the balcony above the stage, emerging in a spotlight like Tom Cruise in Magnolia. It is, as the French might say, une entrée grandiose. Cantona wears a fedora and a black trench coat, along with gaudy red tracksuit bottoms. He looks preposterous.
At least there’s consistency, because once he starts singing, the red-trousered devil sounds just as daft. Flanked by a depressingly assured duo of musicians – cellist on his left, Ryan Giggs-style, and a pianist on his right, his Beckham for the evening – Cantona proceeds to tunelessly bark his way through a setlist of dirges, many of which are his own banal compositions. “I’ve been heroic, I’ve been criminal. You hate. You love me. I am only judged by myself,” he grunts on “I’ll Make My Own Heaven”, one of the songs that appeared on his recent EP.
“From the Theatre of Dreams to another theatre of dreams,” he jokes, though the punchline is thrown off by a round of applause for the mention of the Manchester United home stadium. On the pitch, Cantona was always pure box office, in a way that few players ever manage. Here, his mannered gestures come off a little stiff; he is out of his element and it shows. His best trick is actually his whistling, which he showcases a few times over the evening. Lips pursed, he manages to achieve a vibrato that makes it sound like a theremin; if only he had this modicum of control over the rest of his vocals.
Towards the end of the set, Cantona loses the coat, settles for a white shirt, open rakishly to the fourth or fifth button. He continues to shift through musical gears: an upbeat Latin number, mostly in Spanish; a funereal lament for lost friends. The crowd follow him, applauding warmly, though you suspect they would much rather he launch into a dozen-round rendition of “The 12 days of Cantona”. Patience starts to strain towards the end of the evening – like so many footballers, Cantona appears adamant on playing the full 90 minutes. He should just be thankful he’s from the days before VAR – the thought of having to watch this night back is harrowing.
The performance finally ends, and the crowd breaks into a rollicking chant of “Ooh ah Cantona”. The man himself stands at the front of the stage, arms out in a Christ pose. He reaches out to shake hands, has his photograph taken with a small child. This is a night where the music is largely irrelevant; punters are simply here to see their idol made flesh.
Often, when non-musicians turn to music, it’s with a sort of musty, preening desperation; Cantona, however, has always worn his ego on his sleeves, like a bold-print tattoo. Cantona Sings Eric isn’t so much a vanity grab as a continuation of the great, lifelong Cantona project. All the world’s a stage for this man – even, it turns out, an actual stage.