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Posted by Lucy H on 28th Apr 2020

King Eric: ​Q&A with Wayne Barton

King EricCantona is such a huge personality - do you think King Eric will have an audience among non-football fans as well?  I do believe that Eric transcended football and although I feel that do to the nature of his profession his personality is more inclined to introduce people to certain things the other way around - that is to say, a Manchester lad who didn’t previously read the philosophy of Albert Camus might now be keen to - football being football means it might be difficult to see beyond the sport.

However, if people were willing to listen to a suggestion, then they might well find that this take on the Cantona story includes some social commentary on the changing trends in the media in the early to mid 90s. There is a cultural and societal importance that I think is reflected in the book; I often say that Cantona is an expressionist and for a defined period of time, football was his medium.

Who’s your sporting hero?

Eric! Sorry to be painfully obvious, but that is one of the reasons why I was so excited to write this book. I do have a few heroes from the sporting world, but Eric is up there as number one.

What is it about Cantona that made him such an iconic figure at Manchester United?

He arrived at the club in a period of under-performance and elevated them into the position of the best club. That change was tangible and could be tracked by his influence. His outsider personality only made Manchester fall in love with him even more. Yes, he was successful, but it was his impact in other areas - the lasting impact he had on the club’s economic power, as well as the on-pitch influence he had on the generation of young players coming through at the time, which ensure that he has a legacy unlike any other player.

Where would you rank Cantona in the pantheon of Manchester United’s most important players?

For the reasons listed above, Eric is number one. He transformed the club in terms of style, in terms of success, in terms of economic power and in the generation after he played. That for me makes him the most influential single player in British football history.

How would Cantona have handled playing in the modern era of high scrutiny, social media and big money?

I think he would have found it difficult. Not so much in ‘handling it’ - he has such a strong personality that I don’t think the reception would have bothered him. But today’s world is pious and reactionary, and there is a never-forgive, never-forget attitude which renders apologies useless. For example, if he did today what he did in 1995, he would probably be kicked out of the British game, no pun intended.

Who’s next on your wishlist for a biography?

I honestly don’t know! It’s a very weird industry to be in. I am just fascinated by interesting lives, be it a sporting professional or a creative type. If I am doing a straight biography it would probably be a footballer, but working with someone on their autobiography is such a unique process that it really depends on the story. I have worked with Charles Baker from Breaking Bad and El Camino on his memoirs, and I also know Emma Ridley, the 80s wild child. She is still wild. We’ve talked about working on something but getting her tied down is another matter! My all-time hero is the musician Pete Yorn, we’re good friends, his outlook on life is just so fascinating, he’s a guru.

Who do you think is your typical reader, if such a person exists? Who would you love to read your book?

Obviously football fans for my football books! Anyone who takes the time to read, I appreciate that so much because it is an investment of time. I am a really nostalgic person and I think that comes across in my writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, so if you are prone to being nostalgic I think you would enjoy my work more.

You’re active on social media. Do you often get to meet your readers?

I’m not very social! Because I often work with footballers, if there are events, those are the people of interest. I have attended a couple of book clubs for my fiction work and I have really enjoyed those, I must admit. It’s not very often!

How do you like to unwind? Do you have any other creative outlets as well as your writing? If not, what would you like to try?

I love my family and I’m a homebody so I just like spending time with my wife, my sisters and brother in law and my nephews when I get the chance. I really enjoyed writing and producing the film ‘Too Good To Go Down’ which was based on my book. That was released on BT Sport in December 2018 and was really popular. I’d love to do more things like that.

You’ve written many popular sporting books as well as successful fiction. Which do you prefer?

Is it cheating to say both? It is an indulgence to write, and to be able to write both, and have both published, is a dream, one I never take for granted. Football is my biggest hobby, and I support United, so writing about them and having books published is surreal.

What’s the book you’ve always wanted to write?

Possibly the Eric Cantona one. My novel ‘Peach’ was a story I always wanted to write, as well as the unpublished sequel to it. I always feel that with the United books I’m working on the ‘next thing’ I always wanted to write. I should say that I dreamed of writing a book with Jack Nicholson. I have had a few kind rejections from his agent. Even to be acknowledged is good, I suppose.

Did you always want to be a writer? Who inspired you when you were younger?

It was always my dream from being a child. It was on my school reports as the only thing I wanted to do when I was older. But then life came along and you get jobs and time just goes away. My first book was published at the age of 31.

When I was very young I grew up on Roald Dahl books and even the ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ series. Then when I was into football I read a lot of football books, my favourite football writers have been David Meek, who has sadly passed, and Paddy Barclay, although there are many good young sports writers too.

Some moments of wonderful symmetry - I now do two podcasts with Paddy. In 2018, Peach was launched at the Last Bookstore in LA. There I found an old original copy of Dahl’s ‘Tales…’ Of course I had to buy it.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m actually writing at the moment - so I’m re-reading a lot of older books and autobiographies for research. But in terms of new books, I have Billy Connolly’s most recent which is so funny, and Jeff Tweedy’s is on the shelf waiting to be read.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Probably anything by Roald Dahl, the Twits, which always makes me feel self-conscious for having a beard (that and the constant comments from my mother-in-law, although I hasten to add, she doesn’t call me a twit, or any variation!)… we read and re-read them. He was such a great storyteller.

What would you recommend to someone looking for a new read (other than your own work, obviously!)

If you are looking to read about United history then Paddy Barclay’s biographies of Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson are the best place to start. Even though it’s a book about Middlesbrough, I just finished reading Tom Flight’s recent book about their 96/97 season which I definitely recommend. One I would recommend, although not so new now, is Go Set a Watchman. Like most kids, To Kill a Mockingbird was an important part of my adolescence and my education as a person. GSAW is so compelling because of the controversy around it. The story around both books is just as fascinating to me as the actual stories in the books.

Thank you very much for speaking to us, we wish you every success with the book.