When Inside United went looking for Eric in Norway
Lyngdal, southern Norway. Population 8,500. You could take every last soul who lives in its 391 square kilometres and seat them all in the Stretford End.
It seems a world removed from Monaco. That’s where Eric Cantona was last spotted. Up on stage in the glare of the spotlight, collecting the UEFA President’s Award, riffing King Lear in his acceptance speech. Yet one week on from Cantona’s star turn in one of the most glamorous locations on the planet, we hear that he’s here. In small-town Norway. Somewhere.
Inside United has had a tip about an appearance Cantona is said to be making. Better than a tip, in fact – an invite. Details are sketchy, but we’re assured that the man himself will be present – some time – and it’ll be well worth our while.
After a flight to Kristiansand and an hour’s drive west along Norway’s stunning, fjord-pocked south coast, we find ourselves inside a bastion of United support some 500 miles from Manchester, and a local institution: Little Old Trafford Pub.
LOTP is the brainchild of Norwegian Red Jahn-Eric Birkeland – and we’re in his basement, effectively. A basement, but not as we know it. A basement transformed into a United-themed pub, gathering space and place of Reds worship.
Jahn is the man who has organised this secretive event, and his place is already filling up with guests – all Reds, all in United shirts and all here for a private audience with the king. There are burgers on the go out in the flag-draped front (complete with replica Old Trafford ‘smoking stand’), beer is served in the pub down below, and there’s a growing party atmosphere and sense of anticipation.
As IU mingles and gets to know the locals – all of whom, it seems, have a great personal United story to tell – Jahn-Eric calls everybody together and makes an announcement.
“Everyone, I’m here to tell you that the King is in the building. He’s here in my house, he’s happy, he’s enjoying a meal with my family and his brothers. He is going to come down to the bar to meet you all later, about 9pm.”
So he is here. Probably 20 metres from where Jahn-Eric addresses his guests, in fact – but, for now, behind closed doors. Confirmation of his presence, though, is all that anybody needs. Now, there are three hours or so to wait. Perfect – what better way to spend it than in Little Old Trafford Pub, surrounded by fellow Reds. This special private party ramps up a notch or two.
Around 8.45pm, with the party at full-tempo, a new face enters the basement. Not the King, not yet – but maybe the court jester. Pete Boyle – the renowned United fan, terrace character, songsmith and all-round Red, who has been heavily involved with Jahn-Eric in organising Cantona’s visit – bowls in to a hero’s welcome to provide the warm-up.
Taking centre-stage, Pete leads the boisterous partygoers through a medley of United songs in trademark Bishop Blaze bellow. Everyone joins in with gusto, especially for the Cantona-themed Eric the King.
And on cue, there from the back of the room, Eric Cantona emerges into the pub area, flanked by his two brothers Jean-Marie and Joel.
To great cheers – tempered, though, by a palpable sense of respect and reverence – he makes his way slowly through the room towards the front, shaking hands, smiling, nodding, greeting.
When he reaches Boyle at the front of the assembled crowd, there he stands – barrel-chested, bearded, unmistakable. The King is here.
As surreal as it is for the inhabitants of a small town in Norway – not Oslo, not Bergen, which would be one thing, but Lyngdal – to have Eric Cantona walking among them, they are not going to miss this opportunity. They hang on his every word as he answers a few questions from Boyle in a short Q&A. And when it comes to the next part of the appearance – signings – they are ready.
Out come favourite shirts, sacred scarves and personal pictures, all to be offered up to the Cantona pen to be inscribed indelibly with the mark of the man himself.
There is no jostling, though, no elbowing – the most orderly of queues is formed and each fan savours their personal moment with the King in the most respectful way, their eyes wide as he signs for them and smiles slapped right across their faces in the ensuing photographs.
When everyone has had their private piece of Eric, he modestly takes his leave – slowly walking through the room once more, to more handshakes and cheers – and then he’s gone. Just like that.
Spirits are now higher than ever as the party rolls on. This is United nirvana. There is even an in-house tattoo artist, who is making permanent the felt-tip signatures that Eric scrawled on various parts of various fans’ bodies.
And the best thing is that this is just the start. Eric is still in town tomorrow. He’s scheduled to make another appearance. And this time Inside United is aiming for a private audience with the Reds legend…