Exclusive: “Don’t Be Like Everyone Else”

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In an exclusive extract from his new book Bursting The Bubble: Football, Autism and Me, John O’Kane remembers the impact of Eric Cantona at Manchester United.

My next opportunity came in January when I started against Sheffield United in the third round of the FA Cup at Bramall Lane in a more or less full-strength side.  I always remember Peter Schmeichel pecking my head and giving me bits of advice before the game. It was a little bit patronising and didn’t help my nerves. In fairness he was probably trying to help me but I just wasn’t that sort of player. Pete was another winner and I remember whenever I chipped him in training, he’d go mad. Scholesy used to do it to him all the time and get chased across the pitch.

You block a lot of stuff out from keepers because to be honest a lot of them are absolutely mental. I know a lot of the first team didn’t really get Peter’s personality but maybe it was just down to cultural differences. He was a world-class goalkeeper though and his reaction saves were something else. He could kick and throw a ball without any problems too.

I always felt that whenever I came into the squad, my perceived fragile mentality meant that a lot of the senior players would come up and try to reassure me. I get what they were trying to do but I just wanted to be left alone to get my head in the right place to go out and play with my tics under control. I got nicknamed ‘The Spaceman’ because I sometimes seemed a bit detached or like I was on my own planet. Everyone has their own way of dealing with the nerves and the pressure and with me being on the spectrum my brain was wired up differently to everyone else’s.

The best piece of advice that day came from one of the quieter players in the dressing room – as we were heading out Eric Cantona just looked at me and said, “Don’t be like everyone else.”

It was one of my most enjoyable games for United and they ended up making it into a film, When Saturday Comes with Sean Bean. It was really windy and there were crisp packets and other rubbish flying everywhere. It was cold, raining and the pitch was awful but I remember feeling really comfortable for the hour or so that I played and then I was brought off!

I’d started getting a bit giddy bombing forward. I was living in the moment and it was one of those games where I just felt free. I was just used to attacking and probably lost a bit of discipline so the gaffer brought me off for Lee Sharpe after just over an hour because it was still 0-0. I think he was worried about me overlapping and leaving space for them to hit us on the break.

I was a bit gutted but we won it late on when Sparky put us ahead before Cantona scored a superb chip over the keeper a couple of minutes later. I remember Fergie jumping into my arms and I caught him. I’ve still got the picture and look a little embarrassed in it. It was a tough game and they fought hard after having a man sent off but we battled through it and outclassed them in the end because we had better players.

Two weeks after the Sheffield United game, Cantona jumped into the crowd at Crystal Palace and booted that fan – the infamous kung-fu kick. Eric was a genius but often they have a flipside like George Best and Gazza did. He was given a nine-month ban and it was one of those times around the club where we kept our heads down because we didn’t want to get in the way of the boss or Eric whilst they were both dealing with the implications of the situation.

I played in some of the behind closed doors matches that the club organised for him to keep him interested until the FA put a stop to that as well. Fergie would have done everything to help him and keep him on side and it was justified because he was his best signing. He was the cherry on the cake. Eric was temperamental and you never knew what you were going to get from him. He’d never settled before he came to United or had a manager who believed in him and people underestimate how important that is. He chose the right person at the right time in Fergie because if the boss believed in you, then he would stick by you.

Eric’s influence had changed the culture of the club; before he arrived we’d be eating sausage, chips and gravy for dinner thinking it was great but that all changed soon after he came in. The theory was that we’d run off the mashed potato, Yorkshire puddings and custard and sponge for afters – there just wasn’t the same knowledge about diet in English football that exists today. He had a more continental outlook on food and they soon introduced pasta after that to bring us a little bit more in line with what they were doing in other countries.

That said, it didn’t change overnight and in the morning before training we used to go for a cup of tea and a bacon sarnie but Eric would already be outside, kicking balls up in the air and controlling them. He had such a good first touch. So after a while everyone was out on the pitch an hour before we were due to start.

As a person he had that aura about him and I loved him. He wasn’t an ordinary human being, look at the stuff he’s come out and said, he makes you think. He didn’t say much but if he looked at you and smiled you were on cloud nine. He was never a sheep or one to follow the crowd and it was one of the highlights of my career to have had the pleasure to share a pitch with him a couple of times for the first team.

It was the same when he shocked everybody and quit the game at the age of 30 a couple of years later. He went out on his own terms and could easily have had another three or four years but he knew the time was right for him to finish. They say there’s a fine line between greatness and madness…

Bursting The Bubble: Football, Autism and Me is due to be released on 13th September and is currently available to pre-order on Amazon for £10.49, also available on Kindle.

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