Angry Cantona may still take flight to Italy

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The Independent Online
Allusions to seagulls (not to mention trawlers and sardines) are all well and good, but the probability that Eric Cantona will now take flight from these shores and English football has increased, even though a judge yesterday substituted his two-week jail sentence by community service.

Under the terms of his new punishment, Cantona must spend a total of 120 hours coaching aspiring young footballers in Manchester, but before very long he could be imparting his sporting wisdom to the new generation of Milanese who follow Internazionale.

His French lawyer, Jean-Jacques Bertrand, said that Cantona's love affair with the game in this country will never be the same, while the Italians reaffirmed that they are still willing to pay £5.5m for him. "Our interest is as firm as it has ever been," the Italian club said.

Despite the quashing of the prison term, the Manchester United cult hero remains angry and perplexed by his treatment from the authorities since he took issue with a Crystal Palace supporter, boots and all.

He despises the media circus that has attended his every public move since that tempestuous night at Selhurst Park. That explains his steadfast refusal to offer the smile the photographers were demanding yesterday, as well as his bizarre metaphor alluding to seagulls and sardines.

According to Bertrand, Cantona will still view the 120 hours as a sentence he should not have to serve, because in his eyes he was wronged by Matthew Simmons who, in a separate court case, is pleading not guilty to two public order offences in connection with the player's assault.

The lawyer said it would be wrong to imagine that yesterday's events would bring about a significant change in how Cantona views the issue that must now dominate Old Trafford hearts and minds: Will he stay or will he go?

"Eric is thinking very hard about his future," Bertrand said. "He still has the suspension by the Football Association, as well as the sentence of the court. Today is better, but it is still a sentence.

"Eric's love affair with England has been affected by all of this. It will never be the same again because of what has happened. Can you blame him? As for Italy, I know the answer to that, but I can not say what it is."

Inter acknowledged the sentence, and expressed pleasure "for the player and his club." Their spokesman added: "Our position with regard to this issue has not changed." Sampdoria, who next week face Arsenal in the Cup- Winners' Cup semi-final, will also be interested. Their president, Enrico Mantovani, is keen on English football, and wants to court an English sponsor for his Genoa club.

Maurice Watkins, the Manchester United legal director, said they were confident Cantona will remain at the club after his suspension ends on 30 September. "People have said that Eric is disillusioned with Manchester United, but I don't think that is the case at all," he said. "All his actions have been to the contrary."

However, what the United manager, Alex Ferguson, and Martin Edwards, the club's chairman, have to face is the inevitable consequence of the last two months, namely that when Cantona reappears at away grounds, he will be the subject of even more vehement abuse than has been the case so far. Taking everything into consideration, a £5m-plus proposal for a player who will be 29 in May might become irresistible.

n Cantona has been nominated on a six-man short-list for the Professional Footballers' Association "Player of the Year" award, to be announced on 9 April. He could become the first player to retain the award.

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