In my youth, I saw an incredible aura around professional footballers. I only occasionally went to games, where they were separated from me by touchlines and advertising hoardings, so they were TV personalities, faces on posters and stickers, names on Championship Manager or Sensible Soccer. I’d get Pro Set cards with unknown names such as “Brett Angell – Southend United” and a biography, and imagine how exciting their lives must be.

Growing up in Surrey, which produced more rugby players and cricketers, I first met people who knew footballers when I was on holiday, being impressed when a man at a caravan park said he knew the Blackpool striker Dave Lancaster – and dazzled by two friends of Preston legend Tom Finney. It was only when I started meeting footballers in my summer job in World Duty Free at Gatwick Airport that I began to see them as people, and the division integral to my childhood fandom began to dissolve.

On my first day, I was asked to move a man who’d lined up four chairs outside the shop and fallen asleep. This was Matthew Le Tissier: I couldn’t disturb the patron Saint of provincial footballers, and told my manager he’d leave shortly. Paul Gascoigne, who’d enchanted me with his 1990 World Cup performances, visited in 2003, unable to buy tax-free booze as he was flying within the European Union, when his failure to return to Gansu Tianma in China was causing a diplomatic incident. I didn’t talk to him, just watched him exit, confused: like much in Gascoigne’s life, it made me sad.

The more I encountered players, or read about them, the more football appeared as a job, often mundane, involving more travelling than anything else. Gary Imlach’s book My Father and Other Working-Class Football Heroes suggested that footballers’ lives had become easier since his dad’s 1950s heyday – no more summer jobs as plumbers, or paying their own expenses to play in the World Cup – but reminded me that they were ordinary even when they’d achieved extraordinary things.

With saturation coverage of football, let alone the advent of social media, it has become harder for players to retain their mystique. One who did was Eric Cantona, due to his audacious vision, uncommon intellect, inscrutable outbursts of violence, and retirement at his peak. Many have broken football’s fourth wall, jumping into the crowd to celebrate, but no one ever did so as spectacularly as Le Grand Eric when he hilariously and correctly kung-fu kicked Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons, who had raced down eleven flights of stairs to hurl racist abuse at Cantona after a red card.

I went to the Barbican last summer to see an exhibition about Marcel Duchamp devised by French artist Philippe Parreno, co-director of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, but ended up watching the spectacle of people unexpectedly sharing the space with a genuine legend. Before the dance performance, choreographed by Merce Cunningham, Cantona sat next to me. People kept coming over, ostensibly to read the text above our heads but obviously to check that it was Eric, smiling as they realised it was but saying nothing, clearly as star-struck as I was.

As the dance ended, my friend Zakia asked my thoughts. I said I didn’t have the critical knowledge for an informed opinion, then took my phone and typed, “That’s Eric Cantona, isn’t it?” She nodded.

“You’re dying to talk to him, aren’t you?”

“Yes! But I don’t know what to say!”

Cunningham was a non-starter: I’d spent the whole time thinking, “That’s Eric Cantona!” Perhaps I’d ask about the film he made with Ken Loach, Looking for Eric, or his appearance as the grotesque king of Poland in Alfred Jarry’s iconoclastic play Ubu Roi. Or if it was true that when he joined Leeds United, he named Arthur Rimbaud as his favourite poet and got a flood of Sylvester Stallone videos from their fans?

Then I realised, pathetically, that what I most wanted to ask was why he kicked Norwich defender John Polston in the head during an FA Cup tie in 1994 before scoring Manchester United’s second goal, because I was still furious about it. As he left, after twenty minutes of my silent company, I congratulated myself on being self-aware enough not to berate him over a two-decade grudge, and realised that what had maintained the chasm between player and fan was not Cantona’s demeanour, still less his brilliance, but my childish inability to care about anything he did beyond the pitch.