`When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea'

BY SIMON MIDGLEY

Eric Cantona footballing genius, poet and cod philosopher king was as gnomic as a sphinx yesterday morning after winning his appeal against a two-week prison sentence for kicking an abusive footballer spectator in the chest in January.

On learning that he would, instead, be spending 120 hours of community service teaching Manchester youngsters how to play football he broke his silence and made one delphic utterance to the assembled media.

"When seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea," he said darkly before striding out of the press conference.

Sardines? Trawlers? The media circus was stunned. Some roared with laughter, others giggled uncertainly.

Were we the seagulls? Was he a sardine? What could he mean? As an aphorism it was worthy of Camus, nay Sartre.

It was deep.

A hapless Maurice Watkins, legal director of Manchester United, and Jean Paul Bertrand, Cantona's French lawyer, were left to attempt to decipher this essential gobbledegook.

Mr Watkins said: "It was an obscure thing to say. He just does not want to stay here and meet you and answer questions because he has had enough...I think he has been under tremendous strain."

The words became the subject of debate. Where did they come from? The assumption was that they were another example of the Frenchman's flair, but Fabrice Ousselot, London correspondent of Liberation, suggested he was not being totally original.

"This is something I've heard before. I think it's clearly relating to the media and all the people on his back all the time, but you never know with Cantona. Maybe he got mixed up."

Cantona's performance was the highpoint of an extraordinary day. The media circus had gathered early outside Croydon Crown Court, which was crammed with journalists or bescarved football supporters.

Shortly after the prosecution began detailing the facts, Sebastian Pennells, 13, from Sevenoaks - bedecked in Manchester United's blue-and- white third strip - passed a good-luck card to the hero in the dock.

After Judge Ian Davies announced the appeal was won, there was applause from supporters. Cantona shook hands with severaland raised his arm to others. They responded in kind. Girls burst into tears and one kissed the hand of his defending QC, David Poole.

Judge Davies concluded Cantona had been subject to the kind of provocation that would provoke the most stoic of men. He accepted defence counsel's argument that he should not have been made an example of because he was famous.

A week ago, magistrates jailed the player after he admitted common assault on Matthew Simmons, 20, at Selhurst Park, home of Crystal Palace Football Club, on 25 January. He was later bailed on a £500 surety by a Croydon Crown Court judge.

Quite what the young will make of his seafaring metaphor remains to be seen. It is to be hoped he will be more transparent next week when he starts teaching youngsters to play ball.

Cantona may still go, page 48

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