Football / FA Cup Final: Cantona's mercurial class: Trevor Haylett on the Frenchman who took his time before seizing his chances

FOR an hour at Wembley before he was able to leave his spectacular imprint on the 113th FA Cup final, Eric Cantona was again a man apart. He has been so often this season but now Manchester United were concerned, their mercurial one confined to the margins of a stage he would later come to dominate.

We found Cantona where we could not find the ball, a lonely figure out of step with a contest that was steadily assuming a deep shade of blue. By no means alone in his struggle, he was the most conspicuous because we expected so much more.

Alex Ferguson revealed afterwards that Cantona had a sciatica problem that might have forced him off before he began to play. His other problems were partly of his own making, partly the result of his team not functioning and partly because the tenacity and discipline that put a shine on Chesea's first-half efforts denied him the ball and, when it did arrive, the space to use it to effect.

To Chelsea's surprise Cantona spent most of the first hour alongside Mark Hughes rather than as the deadly foil positioned just behind and poised to find red with his trademark flicks and casual passes angled beyond and between their markers. With Chelsea's midfield forcing Paul Ince and Roy Keane deeper than they are used to, Cantona was detached from his normal lines of supply.

When he did withdraw, which was all too rare, things hardly improved. Struggling to establish any rhythm, United's passes were going astray through their own uncertainty or because there was always a blue shirt shutting out the daylight. Frustrated of France became isolated in the centre-circle, his involvement a poor return from so much talent.

The second half began with Cantona still too advanced to take the telling hand his supporters were demanding. But gradually order and urgency penetrated United's play. For the first time we saw Cantona darting across the penalty area on a meaningful search for space and this time the ball found him. The cross was cleared but United's belief was all but replenished and a minute later an interchange between Denis Irwin and Ryan Giggs brought United's first penalty.

It was dispatched by Cantona with cool aplomb. So was the second five minutes later. Nervousness is not something he can comprehend. 'If you are nervous about taking penalties you should change your career,' he later declared. 'This was a game of football not a war.'

With United suddenly and stunningly out of reach we saw Cantona at his best, willing to come deep to collect and bring Andrei Kanchelskis to the fore. Now the subtle passes and back-heels were hitting the target and at last he looked the player of the year. For Chelsea it was another reminder of how cruel the game can be.

(Graphic omitted)

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