Manchester United's summer of discontent took a dramatic turn for the worse last night when it emerged that Eric Cantona, apparently angered by the prospect of further punishment by the Association, had asked for a transfer.
His request was promptly turned down by the United board, and the FA later announced that it would take no action against either Cantona or the club over his appearance in a behind-closed-doors match against Rochdale last month. But the news of Cantona's unrest is sure to alert Internazionale - who made strong overtures to the 29-year-old Frenchman and have already lured Paul Ince from United to Milan - as well as other leading European clubs.
The chances of Cantona leaving Old Trafford appeared to increase substantially when his French lawyer, Jean-Jacques Bertrand, said in Paris that his client would not return to England unless the FA agreed to certain conditions. "Eric Cantona has left England and will not return if the English FA doesn't change, before midnight, 11 August, its decision banning him from taking part in closed-door training matches with his club," Bertrand said. It was not clear last night whether the FA's decision permitted Cantona to take part in future private matches.
However, the latest developments in football's most absorbing soap opera cast the darkest shadow yet over a close season which has seen Mark Hughes follow Ince out of Old Trafford and Andrei Kanchelskis make a protracted attempt to do likewise, to the anger of many supporters.
Cantona, whose ban followed his "kung-fu" attack on a Crystal Palace supporter in January, was expected to learn tomorrow whether he faced another FA inquiry into his appearance in the private practice match against Rochdale.
Instead, evidently in response to reports of Cantona's request to be released from his contract, the FA issued a statement which indicated that it had already accepted United's explanation as to the nature of the fixture, played before a dozen spectators at the Premiership club's training ground. "Yesterday, the FA received a response from Manchester United in regard to our inquiry about Eric Cantona. We are entirely satisfied with their explanation and we have conveyed that to the club," Mike Parry, an FA spokesman, said.
United contended that it was merely a training game, and as such did not breach the terms of Cantona's seven-month worldwide ban. The fact that it was against another club rather than his team-mates complicated the matter, which had raised the possibility that Lancaster Gate would either fine the player and/or United, or even increase his suspension.
That prospect, although now removed, clearly deepened the volatile Cantona's feeling that he is being victimised in English football, leading to his asking to be released from his contract. In a statement on behalf of the club, United's press officer, Ken Ramsden, said: "Cantona was very upset at the recent inquiry by the FA concerning his involvement in the training session of 25 July.
"He told Martin Edwards [United's chairman] that he felt he had little future in the English game and that his career would be best served by a move abroad. The board has considered the request very carefully but is not prepared to agree to it, believing that it is in the best interests of both the club and player that he remains with United."
Meanwhile, the destiny of Kanchelskis remains uncertain after the breakdown of talks between United and Everton. The Merseyside club yesterday faxed a request to the Premier League to adjudicate within a week on the dispute over Kanchelskis's pounds 5m move - so he can play in their Cup- Winners' Cup first-round match.
n Nottingham Forest were yesterday ordered to pay Sheffield Wednesday pounds 2.5m for the 21-year-old midfielder Chris Bart-Williams, a record for a transfer decided by a tribunal. The previous record was the pounds 1.75m Spurs were ordered to pay Ipswich for Jason Dozzell. Forest agreed to pay Arsenal the same amount for Kevin Campbell, plus bonus payments depending on appearances.
Rangers look to Gazza, page 21