Cantona returns triumphant

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The Independent Online
There have been better ones, though not many. There have been more successful ones, though not many. But no foreign player has made a greater impact than Eric Cantona. And, pending the result of Bruce Grobbelaar's match-fixing charges, none are likely to, though new ones arrive with every tide.

Apart from inspiring Manchester United to their first championship for 27 years, and then the Double (and providing a timely spark for Leeds United's title), Cantona was at the core of English football's best-known event since Geoff Hurst's hat-trick. It made him the most recognisable footballer in the land, even more so than Gazza. And it almost drove him away.

On Saturday he returned to Selhurst Park, the scene of the crime, a year and a fortnight after going off, and over, the rails. The experience could not have been more different.

It was not just the result, a 4-2 win for United, or the opposition, Wimbledon rather than Crystal Palace, it was the whole atmosphere of the day. Cantona, it seemed, was among friends.

This was partly because it was a home fixture for United in all but name. Wimbledon mustered barely a quarter of the gate - the biggest since United's visit two seasons ago - and those who did turn up seemed determined to show up their landlords by behaving themselves.

The club had set the mood, inviting Albert Cantona, Eric's father, to join Tony Blair and family in the directors' box. They also gave Ned Kelly, Cantona's ubiquitous minder, the run of the ground. For most of the afternoon it seemed they had accorded Cantona the same honour on the pitch.

Hardly anyone kicked him for 37 minutes and, though Steve Talboys then provoked a promising retaliatory back-kick after chipping away at the Frenchman's ankles, Wimbledon then left him alone again. This may have been partly because of the absence of Vinnie Jones, who was not considered after asking not to play at Middlesbrough last week - in the event, no one played, the game was postponed. But it was also because Joe Kinnear, the Wimbledon manager, opted not to man-mark him. "It is unfair to the punters if you nullify the game like that," he said.

He could have added that, if you man-mark Cantona, it still leaves half a dozen others. This season Cantona is a more peripheral influence. During his ban United developed other options and they no longer look automatically to play through him. As Kinnear noted, "he drifts in and out of the game, but he is still very effective."

This is because he now pops up unexpectedly, deep, forward, on either wing, usually in space. He is also getting into the box, ghosting in to head United's third from a one-two with David Beckham.

His second, a penalty after an unlucky handball against Kenny Cunningham, gave him nine goals in 22 appearances this season (Andy Cole has nine in 25, Paul Scholes 10 in 15).

After the first he again went to the Selhurst crowd, but this time it was to be acclaimed. There were also cheers, rather than jeers, when he left the field, exchanging mutual applause with spectators.

Cantona's goals each deflated prospective Wimbledon revivals. A dull deadlock had been broken by two late first-half scores. First Cole headed in Denis Irwin's smart volleyed cross, then Chris Perry headed into his own goal - aided by a strong nudge in the back by Roy Keane.

United relaxed, a dangerous thing to do against Wimbledon, and Marcus Gayle, then Jason Euell, gave the Dons hope. Each time it was quickly dispelled by Cantona.

He was, curiously, one of only three foreign players on the pitch - only Anfield had a smaller contingent in the Premiership programme. This is partly because United and Wimbledon, the biggest and smallest clubs in the division, both put great emphasis on developing their own players. Ten of Saturday's players were youth products - a figure only bettered at Maine Road. United have used 12 youth team products this season, Wimbledon 10 with two more - Dean Blackwell and Stewart Castledine - nearly available after injury.

Impressive, but will it last? In the post-Bosman rush to buy overseas, Wimbledon could decide to emulate West Ham, and Manchester United ape Newcastle. Both could ponder - for opposite reasons - the sense in ploughing money into youth schemes when a player is free to go when his contract expires.

Fortunately, the personal commitment of Kinnear and Alex Ferguson means neither club will abandon their youth programmes in the near future. "They have been outstanding," said Ferguson of his young players. "People said they could not sustain it but they have. They do not get nervous - they have all been with us since they were 13 or 14 and it is not strange to them to pull on a Manchester United shirt."

One hopes other clubs, in and out of the Premiership, follow suit. There is a place for the foreign players. Cantona, and many others, have given much to our game, but they should be the spice, not the main ingredient.

It is not as if Wimbledon and United have trawled the country for their youngsters - only David Beckham, of the 10, was not born within a few miles of his respective club. As the performances of Perry and Euell, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville showed, the talent is there, on every club's doorstep, it just needs finding and nurturing.

Goals: Cole (41) 0-1; Perry (og, 45) 0-2; Gayle (67) 1-2; Cantona (70) 1-3; Euell (75) 2-3; Cantona (pen, 81) 2-4.

Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Reeves, Perry, Kimble; Ardley (Goodman, 76), Talboys, Leonhard- sen, Gayle; Holdsworth (Euell, 73), Clarke. Substitute not used: Pearce.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Irwin, Bruce (Beckham, 16), G Neville, P Neville; Giggs, Keane, Butt, Sharpe; Cantona, Cole. Substitutes not used: Scholes, Coton (gk).

Referee: P Durkin (Portland).

Booking: Wimbledon: Talboys (50).

Man of the match: Keane.

Attendance: 25,380.