The WhatsApp message landed at 7.08 on Friday morning. A link to tickets for a gig. Eric Cantona, Liberty Hall, October. That is, Eric Cantona playing guitar and singing, in Liberty Hall, in October. “It’s a date,” came the accompanying message from my friend. “Ha! You’re on,” I replied.
We were both 14 when Cantona signed for Man United. We were 16 when he jumped into the crowd in Selhurst Park. We were 17 when he scored the winner to beat Liverpool in the ‘96 FA Cup final. We’ll be 45 when he picks at his six-string in October. The tickets are €55 apiece – considering nobody has heard him sing yet, most of it is hero tax.
Ah, we’ll probably pay it all the same. Some bits of your life will always be able to reach you on their own particular radio frequency. When we were teenagers, nobody was cooler to us than Cantona. Collar up, chest out, unapologetic to the last. We hadn’t a clue what he meant when he talked about the seagulls and the trawlers but we loved the bones of him for it. You tell ‘em, Eric.
It is presumably no accident that Cantona has popped up in this of all weeks. Or that his latest incarnation as a three-chords-and-the-truth merchant has had its grand unveiling two days out from a United appearance in the FA Cup final. And not just any FA Cup final – the one to stop Man City doing the treble.
There’s already a strong whiff of nostalgia in the air among United fans, for whom the game is nothing less than a defence of their own 1999 treble. Cantona’s people have clearly decided it’s well worth throwing up his kite to catch a gust.
Memory is such an elusive, mysterious thing. Back then, I could rhyme off United’s modern cup victories in my sleep. Ray Wilkins against Brighton in ‘83. Norman Whiteside’s curler in ‘85. Lee Martin scoring his only ever United goal to win the replay in 1990. Eric’s two penalties in the hammering of Chelsea in ‘94. His late volley to beat Liverpool two years later on a day that Roy Keane was immense. Scholes and Sheringham in that wild treble week in 1999. This was stuff I knew without ever having to think about it.
That was – sweet Jesus – 24 years ago. It’s fair to say my level of fandom and interest has withered considerably in the quarter-century since. Without checking, I couldn’t make even a vague stab at how many FA Cup finals United have been in since then. Wikipedia tells me it’s five. Apparently their last one came in 2016, when a Jesse Lingard extra-time winner was enough to beat Crystal Palace. I have zero memory of this.
Somewhere along the way, United stopped mattering all that much to me. I’ve often wondered why. I think partly it’s because nothing was ever going to top the treble. Matt Dickinson’s brilliant book last year brought it all back. The impossible comebacks, the insanity of the cup semi-final against Arsenal, the two corners in injury-time in Barcelona. As Dickinson wrote: “Another English team will win the treble one day. But they cannot possibly win it like this.”
Partly too, success just became so routine. There was no struggle, no heroics. United won because they were the best team with the best manager and the most money to buy the best players and keep the cycle going. For whatever reason, the magic drained out of it.
I became a lapsed-Catholic type of fan. If someone asked, I half-offered them up as my club but in a way that made it clear my heart wasn’t in it. If you were a Liverpool supporter and you wanted to get into a slagging match, I was no use to you. You’d be playing handball against a haystack.
And as for the FA Cup? Good luck. Life became way too short to be spending any time watching it or even thinking about it. Too much to do, too many other sports on the go, too many actual things to be at that actually had consequences. The idea of sitting down to an FA Cup match has been laughable to me for at least a decade.
Yet here we are. FA Cup final day 2023 and suddenly I’m 15 again. Some dormant United gene buried deep down started replicating through the week and now it’s the most important cup final ever. Can’t lose this one, lads. Have to win. Inter aren’t going to do the business next Saturday, that’s for damn sure. No, it has to be United and it has to be today.
It’s so stupid. I feel like such a fraud. I have United-supporting friends, genuine fans, for whom this properly matters. Whereas on some level, I know that I’m essentially playing at being a United fan again. At yet, there’s something real about it as well.
It was the Cantona WhatsApp that reminded me what it was. There was a time in our lives when this was the thing that brought us the most joy, that we made the most effort to immerse ourselves in, that saw us all the way from when we were kids to adulthood. All the way from Robson to Hughes to McClair to Cantona to Keane to Scholes to Stam to Solskjaer.
In my imagination at least, the treble was the culmination of all that. And so I’ll tune into the FA Cup final hoping that Erik ten Hag can preserve that unique achievement for me. Not even for me, in fact – for the version of me that got so bound up in it back then.
I know it’s ridiculous. Can’t imagine I’m the only one, all the same.