Captain corners style victims

Stan Hey salutes the artist who fashioned a famous victory
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The Independent Online
Some player, some pay-back. After driving Manchester United to the Premiership, Eric Cantona completed his penance to the club and to its fans with his rapier-stroke of a goal to defeat Liverpool at Wembley yesterday. The volley, as magnificent in its execution as in its effects, will be one of the few memories which both sets of fans can take home, apart from the statistics of United's second Double.

Cantona's goal, uncannily, had been pre-figured both in his lunchtime interview with Desmond Lynam, and more graphically in the Frenchman's latest advert for the company that supplies his boots.

In this expensive epic, staged in Rome's Colosseum, Cantona is left with a winged monster to beat. "Au revoir," the Frenchman snarls before driving the ball through the beast for a score. The Liverpool keeper, David James, will certainly dive for the off switch next time the commercial comes on, so fundamental was his error in creating Cantona's chance.

It is remarkable to think that this time last year Cantona was in suspended animation on the bench watching his team surrender to Everton in a dour game. Yesterday's final was no more entertaining - "a grinding-out result" Alex Ferguson said afterwards - but Cantona's act of expiation was the game's defining moment. And though this Double compensates for the one United might have won last year had Cantona lasted the trip, there seems little chance of a slackening off in effort. "The great thing about this club," a beaming Ferguson warned, "is that you can't rest here. Nobody gets a rest."

Ferguson, of Clydeside shipbuilding stock, plainly retains his affection for items which are functional and built to last. And in the moment of his greatest achievement, he may reflect that his ability to infuse Cantona with his own Protestant work-ethic is at the heart of his success.

It is ironic that this was once the bedrock of Liverpool's empire. But yesterday, they looked to have reversed roles with United, becoming the under-achieving fops in their ice-cream suits and coloured boots. Two Cup victories over lower division opposition are a poor contrast with United's increasing hoard of football's treasure.

Liverpool's manager, Roy Evans, had already conceded before yesterday that the team's mix had become unusually biased in favour of individuals, so it was no surprise to see him turn in his hour of desperation to the club's ultimate team-player of the last decade and a half, Ian Rush, to replace the more quixotic Stan Collymore, whose link-up with Robbie Fowler failed to materialise yesterday.

Rush, in what was his last game for Liverpool, had boasted a magical record at Wembley - five goals in four appearances, three of them victorious. But even Rush had to yield yesterday to a more powerful talisman.

Cantona's self-discipline since his comeback has not just been applied to his own demeanour, but also to his team's play. There was a telling example of this in the first half when, after finding space in the Liverpool defence, the ball fell to him. His instincts were plainly to go for the volley, but his dedication to the team forced him to pass, albeit to the one United player who looks like excess baggage, Andy Cole.

Cole's inevitable substitution in the second half duly increased the burden of achievement on Cantona, and Ferguson must be grateful that his newly-fashioned Roundhead still retains the impulse to be a Cavalier when it matters.