Because he is Eric Cantona and French, it is tempting to suggest that there has been some sort of spiritual make-over


It is an act of some devotion, you might think, to undertake the following: on your way from Manchester to Nottingham in order to watch Forest entertain United on Monday night, you determine to eat a curry in every town you pass through (and on the return journey, you let a curry pass through you in every town). Thus in Stockport at 1pm, in Buxton at 2.30, in Chesterfield at 3.45, in Mansfield at 5.30 and finally in Nottingham at 7.15, you loosen your belt a notch and slam down the nan, the poppadums and a plate of ring-stinger. And you do this, not simply in order to ensure you have plenty of personal space in a crowded grandstand, but to raise pounds 250 for a cause close to your heart: to fund celebrations of the third anniversary of Eric Cantona's arrival at Manchester United.

Big Southy, the curry enthusiast, was but one of a dozen Cantona devotees who went beyond the call of duty in their sponsored efforts to fill the celebratory coffers. Between them, the fans have raised pounds 2,000 to buy a billboard which will be posted opposite Old Trafford for this afternoon's game against Chelsea, an item which simply thanks Cantona for "three amazing years".

Some might attest the amazement is principally that the player has lasted that long. When he arrived at Old Trafford on 26 November 1992, Cantona could not be faulted in his efforts in trying to secure suitable employment: eight clubs in eight years was his record. Few imagined his stay at United would be anything other than brief. After his one-man effort to kick racism out of football last January, even fewer thought there was a chance of seeing him again in the ever-changing colours of United. Yet there he was on Monday night, stroking home his 50th goal in 103 appearances. Moreover, since his return after a nine-month suspension, Cantona appears to be playing with the sort of self-control which suggests he could still be strutting around in a red shirt in three years' time.

The manner in which Cantona has suppressed his urge to dispense instant justice has been more profound than even Alex Ferguson can have dared hope. Ferguson has said that many of Cantona's problems stem from an ability to time a tackle, and has clearly issued instructions that he need not bother. Against Forest, a mazy run was ended by a sharp intrusion from a defender, who came away with the ball. Cantona chased after him and every supporter in the ground held their breath, assuming a deranged two- footer was about to be launched. But then he just stopped and let the defender get on with it.

Moreover, this lack of fire seems not to have diminished his game. If lack of fitness dictates he is not playing quite to the level he achieved in United's double year, he has none the less been supplying passes like an expert maitre d' dispensing the silver service (and as yet has shown no sign of frustration at the number of times Andy Cole has dropped the plate). Besides, unlike say, Paul Gascoigne, he was never a player who needed to get wound up in order to perform; his best games for United have always been when there has been no trouble on which he could dissipate his energies.

Because he is Eric Cantona and French, it is tempting, in a way it will not be when Roy Keane returns from his misdemeanours, to suggest there has been some sort of spiritual make-over in Cantona's psyche. It is not inconceivable to suggest he has sorted himself out because, though in the past he may have got away with it, he realises another misdemeanour will finish him from the game he needs. He is particularly keen not to do anything which will jeopardise his chances of playing in the European Championship (although they may not be that good since Aime Jacquet, the French coach, apparently advised by Graham Taylor, has implied he does not want both Cantona and David Ginola in his team).

Cantona's behaviour appears to suggest he has realised that United is the only place for him; an escape to Internazionale, for instance, a team struggling and uncertain, would do him no favours. In France, however, the national press confidently expect his new-found self-control to snap: it is only a matter of time, they smirkingly attest. Thus if he managed to continue for the rest of his career as he is at present, it would be the subtlest way of sticking the boot into his critics.

Not that anything he does would alter the admiration of his appreciation society. Today, they will gather under their poster outside Old Trafford an hour before kick-off for a sing through of the dozen terrace chants created in his honour. But why, you might wonder, does he inspire so much affection?

"I don't think you can expect that cogent an answer to that," says Richard Kurt, a leading voice among the worshippers. "It's a bit like asking a Christian exactly what they see in Jesus."

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