A red devil in control

Eric Cantona is a reformed character, a poacher turned peacemaker who is determined to repay Alex Ferguson's faith
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The Independent Online
YES, you were thinking, he has done quite a few nice things, scored some right-place, right-time tap-ins, and at important moments too. But still he hasn't done anything, well, extraordinary, like the Sheffield United chip or the Wimbledon volley. Then came the dipping drive that beat Arsenal and the chested turn, run and shot to see off Tottenham. The spectacular Eric Cantona, working in tandem with the quietly effective version.

Cantona's season since his return last October from an eight-month ban has followed the format envisaged by the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson: initial adrenalin-charged impact; dips in form owing to lack of fitness; subsequent maturity and consistency. Statistics reinforce the impression.

His 30 appearances have yielded 15 goals, five in the past five purple- patch matches to bring United 10 Premiership points and take them to the semi-finals of the FA Cup, in which they face Chelsea at Villa Park today. The winning goal at Newcastle - when he volleyed home a chance similar to one he spurned in the dying stages there last season - and the last- gasp header against Queen's Park Rangers may prove to be turning-points of the season.

The surge came too late for Cantona again to be voted his fellow professionals' player of the season, but it may yet win him the football writers' award. His is certainly a season, a story, that deserves reward, though the only prize that concerns him will be another Double. United won one with him in 1993-94, lost another a year later and he does owe them.

Beyond statistics, it is the change in the figure himself that has most surprised the spectator, though a former close friend, Erik Bielderman of the French sports newspaper L'Equipe, is sceptical. He points out that Cantona's disciplinary indiscretions have often been followed by "quiet" seasons.

Frustration, he adds, may yet surface if Cantona is left out of the France squad for the European Championship finals. It is unlikely that he will find a place in a team that is settled and successful, but he has had talks with the French coach, Aime Jacquet, and is believed to be optimistic that he may yet find a place in the squad at least.

Those within the game are mostly generous. "His play looks back to what it was," said Gerard Houllier, technical director of French football and instrumental in Cantona's moves to Leeds and Manchester United. "He is more calm, more mature, very self-controlled, a star player but a team player, which is very hard to find. I think this is the normal evolution of a player. He is more experienced now, he has a vision of the game."

His manager sees it only a little differently. "He has got over his fitness blips and his timing improves the more matches he gets," Ferguson said. "He gets stronger as the games go on. He's a big lad who needs to train and to play a lot of games.

"The problem in December when you saw dips in the last 15 minutes of games was that we played so many - eight - and any forward would feel the effects of those. But he is no better than when we bought him three years ago. All he is doing is reaching his capabilities, consistently hitting the form we have seen in periods this season."

Ferguson does see an even quieter, perhaps more mellow, Cantona now. "I'm lucky if he speaks to me," the manager said with a laugh when asked last week if he could arrange an interview (these days an almost extinct species) with "mon genius". He did succeed, though, in getting Cantona to donate a pen-and-ink drawing to a charity auction last week. It fetched pounds 5,500.

The change in Cantona's approach and reaction to potentially volatile situations was probably first apparent on his return to London, at Chelsea in October. When a fracas developed late in the match after Frank Sinclair was sent off for a bad tackle on Brian McClair, Cantona merely awaited the outcome on the fringe. You half expected him to start filing his nails.

"I was unaware of that until I got home and watched it on television," said the referee that day, Alan Wilkie, who also sent off Cantona on the infamous night at Selhurst Park. "I was really pleased to see it because none of us wants to see him in trouble. But then, I have never had a problem with him.

"In the two Manchester United games I have refereed this season," added Wilkie - who also took charge of the controversial FA Cup tie against Manchester City when United were awarded a penalty for Michael Frontzeck apparently grabbing Cantona - "he has been extremely quiet - subdued almost - correctly letting his feet do the talking."

One argument has been that with the hot-headedness gone, the fire in the belly was quelled. Ferguson believes that it has merely been channelled into other directions. Wilkie says: "Perhaps his temperament is more relaxed but in my experience he certainly hasn't lost the desire to win. The only thing missing is him getting involved physically."

Indeed, Cantona has become - almost comically at times - the peacemaker. When trouble has broken out, Cantona has emerged, like an adult in the middle of a kids' street kick-about that has turned nasty, to sort it all out. His theatrical gendarme-on-point-duty gestures to Andy Cole certainly worked when his strike partner was tangling with Julian Dicks at West Ham.

Part of Ferguson's work with Cantona has been to make him finally understand what a bad tackler he is and encourage him not to tackle at all. Only once has he been tempted to an old devilish rashness which brought a deserved yellow card after he spitefully kicked Eddie Newton in the home match against Chelsea.

But why has Cantona listened now when he has not in the past? There was the shock of the jail sentence, reduced to community service where he rediscovered the affection he is held in, and beyond that the knowledge that this really is his last chance in English football, which is his natural home. Beyond even that, Ferguson believes, is the shame that the Frenchman felt seeing himself on videotape executing the kung-fu kick over and over again.

"I was in court with him and spent a lot of time with him around then and I saw just how devastated he was, the effect the whole situation had on him," said Paul Ince, who was once a United colleague and a friend but who has had no contact with Cantona since moving to Internazionale of Milan. "I'm pleased for United and the fans that he has calmed down and I knew he had it in him, but it is still amazing that he could do it in English football, where the tackles are always flying around."

The departure of Ince prompted various rumours in Manchester: pining for his pal, unhappy at the break-up of the team, Cantona would also be off to Inter. We wondered, too, if he might buckle under greater responsibility for the team, as a now senior player in a transitional side containing several young players.

Perhaps these might once have been the reactions of Cantona Mark One. Those of the new model citizen appear more considered. But is it at the expense of the old dynamism? Hardly, given the evidence of the past five matches. Indeed, the man whom Michel Platini once said wanted only to score beautiful goals has added something to his game. This chastened Cantona lurks, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. And how spectacular it can still be.