BY TREVOR HAYLETT
Eric Cantona will have a little longer to indulge himself in his poetry, his painting and his philosophy after the Football Association yesterday extended into next season the suspension already imposed by Manchester United for assaulting a supporter.
At Old Trafford they are already writing the "sold out" notices for 1 October, 1995 - the date of the Frenchman's return to the game.
And he will return, or at least his club are confident he will. Fears that another punishment on top of his United ban to the end of this season would see him heading for the Channel Tunnel can be allayed. The United solicitor, Maurice Watkins, said: "We expect Eric to still be with us when the suspension is complete."
Effectively the ban, which extends worldwide, is for six months which will amount to a maximum of 34 games. Additionally he has been fined £10,000, an irrelevant penalty of only one week's wages.
It could have been worse, a lot worse, for consideration was given to banning the United striker from the game for life. Even so his club described yesterday's sanctions as "a bit harsh". Watkins added: "We are disappointed the FA felt it necessary to increase our suspension but we have accepted it. We will not be appealing."
Cantona appeared at the press conference following the hearing but, sitting alongside the United manager, Alex Ferguson, he did not say anything, in English or French. Smartly dressed in a blue suit, he sat back in his chair looking slightly bemused by the media circus that accompanies any large football investigation these days. In yesterday's mood of somnolence, the photographers in the front row had no reason to fear for their personal safety.
At last, though, there was an expression of regret from Cantona for the incident when, following his sending-off for violent conduct at Crystal Palace last month, he launched himself at Matthew Simmons, a south London window fitter, first with his feet, kung-fu style, and then with punches.
"Eric has never sought to justify his action or minimise its seriousness," Watkins said. "He deeply regrets what he has done."
Cantona, who is free to train, to coach youngsters and free to pick up his wages but not match bonuses, still faces the possibility of a prison sentence. An assault charge will be heard at Croydon Magistrates Court on 23 March. If convicted he could receive a maximum six-month imprisonment or a £5,000 fine.
The three-man disciplinary commission consisting of Geoff Thompson, the FA's Disciplinary Committee's chairman, Ian Stott, the Oldham chairman, and Gordon McKeag, the president of the Football League, decided that Cantona, 28, had clearly brought the game into disrepute.
In reaching their decision they took into account his disciplinary record - he had been sent off five times in English football - the provocation he suffered, the prompt measures meted out by his club (which included an additional £20,000 fine), his own expressions of regret and apology and the assurance he gave about his future conduct.
Graham Kelly, the FA's chief executive, said the player had not got off lightly. "When you think of the court case, his bans, the fact that he has lost money and that he has lost the captaincy of France you can't say he has not suffered because of his actions on January 25."
A life ban was considered. "Every aspect was considered," Kelly added, "but we have to bear in mind the footballer's life is shorter than in other careers. He recognises the gravity of the incident.
"Going into the spectators' area was the aspect of the incident that we regard as most severe. It is important players control their behaviour because no one can deny that incidents on the field could influence the crowds behaviour."
The FA are talking to the Commission of Racial Equality and MPs in an effort to limit the level of abuse directed at players by supporters. "It is not acceptable. It is not part of the game," Kelly said.
The news that Cantona is free to resurrect his career after 30 September will be noted in Italy where the Milan club, Internazionale, have expressed interest in signing him. Their new owner, Massimo Moratti, said: "We will move on the international market with caution but you already know we have only one declared passion and that is Eric Cantona. He's a great player and a man of culture, not at all stupid."
THE FA STATEMENT
`The members of the FA Commission are satisfied that the actions of Eric Cantona following his sending-off at Crystal Palace in the Manchester United match on January 25 brought the game into disrepute. Eric Cantona has therefore been in breach of FA rules.
After taking into consideration the previous misconduct of Eric Cantona, the provocation he suffered, the prompt action taken by Manchester United, Eric Cantona's expression of regret to the Commission, the apologies he conveyed to those affected and the assurances he gave to his future conduct, the members of the Commission decided that Eric Cantona should be suspended forthwith from all football activities up to and including 30th September 1995 and in addition fined £10,000.'