Cantona sends his apologies

Stan Hey sees a brief display of French reserve at a packed Old Trafford
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The Independent Online
THE rehabilitation of Eric Cantona took another twist at Old Trafford yesterday - or the Frenchman's right knee did, to be precise. His "sharpener" in a Pontins League reserve game against Leeds United lasted no more than 18 minutes. The injury - a minor knock - occurred when he slid into a tackle on the edge of the Leeds area, and he stayed down as play moved on.

Although in no obvious pain, Cantona glared at the knee suspiciously before rising to give it a few experimental waggles. By this time, the United reserve physiotherapist was on the touchline, calling Cantona over to him. The Frenchman lay on the turf for several minutes, with the knee apparently being checked for lateral movement, before being probed for any signs of damage. Then came the rolling hands signal for a substitution and Cantona trotted briskly down the touchline, giving the fans an apologetic wave while they responded with an ovation.

In the absence of the manager Alex Ferguson, away on a short break, it was left to the assistant manager Brian Kidd, sitting in the stands, to assess the damage. By half-time the club Tannoy was announcing the verdict that "the knee injury was not a serious one and Eric has been taken off simply as a precaution".

The announcement added: "Eric sends his apologies to you all." As well he might, with an astonishing crowd of 21,502 - the biggest crowd at a match in England yesterday - very nearly filling the three available sides of the stadium. Indeed, shortly before the 2pm kick-off, extra turnstiles had to be opened. By 3pm, more fans had arrived, having failed to clock the early start, and we were left, as sometimes happens on Saturday afternoons, with a wedding without a groom.

Cantona's appearance in the reserves had been provoked by the decision of the French Football Federation not to call him up to their national squad for their vital European Championship qualifying game in Romania on Wednesday. The French team manager, Aime Jacquet, had apparently not even considered Cantona fit enough to train with the squad.

This is a reminder that another team apart from United has suffered the consequences of Cantona's moment of madness. In the four internationals he has missed because of his ban, France have dropped points with draws against Israel and Poland. The Poles may yet deny English supporters the sight of France here next summer.

But while there may still be recriminations in Cantona's home country, there are plainly none in his adopted city. Cantona, having claimed the nameless No 7 shirt, delighted the fans with a back-heel that nearly sent in Brian McClair, the reserve team captain. Indeed, any notion that Cantona would be a sardine among sprats was disabused by the additional appearances of Lee Sharpe and Paul Scholes for United, while Leeds boasted a first team attack of White, Masinga, Wallace and Whelan.

Touchingly, despite Cantona's early departure, the crowd stayed on to see out the game and they were rewarded by late goals from Graeme Tomlinson and Terry Cooke to seal a 2-0 victory. They will hope that Cantona can test both his knee and his temperament to the full in the Mancunian derby on Saturday.

David Ginola yesterday pulled out of the French squad to play Romania in the European Championship on Wednesday. The Newcastle forward suffered a thigh strain in training.