Cantona's Manchester homecoming

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Manchester United fans have plenty to celebrate at the moment, with a record-equalling 18th league title in the bag and a Champions League final date with Barcelona to look forward to. But few could have predicted that the man responsible for upping their feel-good factor still further would be Ken Loach, the famously uncompromising British film director who made his name with brutally honest, frequently uncomfortable films such as Poor Cow, Raining Stones and My Name is Joe.

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Looking for Eric, which opens on June 12, is not what you might expect from Loach.  For starters, it feature a “celebrity", Eric Cantona, playing himself in one of the lead roles. “Without him there would be no film,” reveals Loach, who has traditionally used unknown actors or real people in his films. A French producer introduced the pair two years ago. He knew that Cantona was a huge fan of the 72-year-old director, who has a large and loyal following in France, and that Loach and his writing partner Paul Laverty were both interested in football (Loach is, after all, the man responsible for Kes, a film that features arguably the greatest football scene in film history).

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“Eric had a few ideas that were all very interesting, in particular a story of his relationship with one fan,” explains Loach, a Bath City supporter. “Paul and I couldn’t really make that work in terms of narrative and characters and development, but we thought it was an interesting area to explore – not only the enjoyment of football and the part that football plays in people’s lives, but also the notion of celebrity and how celebrities are built up in the press and on television: they have a superhuman quality in people’s minds.”

Eric Bishop, played by the little-known but brilliant Steve Evets, is a Manchester postman on the edge of a nervous breakdown. He has stumbled from the wreckage of two broken marriages and we find him saddled with a pair of unruly teenage stepsons (both by different fathers) and a house he can no longer manage. Eric’s life is unravelling – he endlessly circles a roundabout in his van, has taken to stealing weed from his boys and feels invisible among his friends. He is a good man who is at his wits' end, so as a last resort he turns to a poster of his hero, Eric Cantona, for inspiration.

“It’s about friendship and about coming to terms with who you are,” says Loach of a film that succeeds despite the inauspicious “Eric Cantona as fairy godfather” premise. “It’s a film against individualism: we’re stronger as a gang than we are on our own. You can be pretentious about this but it is about the solidarity of friends, which is epitomised in a crowd of football supporters.”

Looking For Eric is a feel-good film, which to date has not been a phrase regularly used in a sentence containing Ken Loach, but that’s not to say it lacks the director’s trademark honesty. The casting, as ever, is immaculate (John Henshaw as Meatballs, a fellow postman, is tremendous), the choice of locations are pure Loach and the undercurrent of social realism is tangible.

Cantona is a revelation too: willing to laugh at himself and send up his media persona. “In the film I am Eric Cantona in Eric Bishop’s mind, in his imagination,” says the enigmatic Frenchman. “That’s the way he sees me. That gives me a lot of distance from myself – how do you say, ‘auto-derision’? – so I liked it a lot…If I play the relationship between a fan and myself very seriously I think it is a bit pretentious, arrogant, and not very interesting. Ken has a very light touch – not in the wrong sense, but he can make things very funny and also real. So in this film there is a lot of humour, a lot of sensibility, emotion…auto-derision!”

Truthful, touching and frequently very funny, Looking For Eric could be the sleeper hit of this summer. More unlikely still is that the return of Eric Cantona to Manchester can be enjoyed by everyone – and not just the gloating fans at Old Trafford.