Football: A final flicker to tease the memory

Dieu or devil, Old Trafford worshipped the enigma one last time. Nick Townsend shared in the wonder
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The Independent Online
Four earnest, well-scrubbed, Brylcreemed figures stare out of the monochrome advertisement from 1957, reproduced in the Munich tribute match programme, Forty Years On. They are Duncan Edwards, David Pegg, Roger Byrne and Dennis Viollet, the boy-racers of their day, when drop- handlebars were decidedly in vogue. "Busby's Babes on Raleigh cycles - champions all", read the slogan.

You wondered if any of the three who perished on that snow-bound runway the following year - the one survivor was Viollet - were peering down from their heaven as this night's events unfolded. What would those young men, members of the so-called "team of the century", when football was part of an innocent, altogether less cynical and pecuniary-obsessed sporting milieu, have made of Old Trafford's reception to every xenophobe's image of a stereotypical strutting, haughty, sometimes petulant Frenchman? Un grand poseur, or, to put it another way, a Gaul with gall, according to his detractors, whose turned up collar reflected egocentricity rather than eccentricity, and whose conduct has ranged from merely surly to assault on a spectator. A man who walked away from United without so much as an adieu 15 months ago. In several ways, a curious kind of hero to worship, albeit one fabulously gifted.

Yet, as the virtually full house of 55,210 rose as one to serenade him with the "Marseillaise" and swirled their tricolores with such gusto it could have been the Champs-Elysees on Liberation Day, you feel those prematurely departed would have approved. When this revivalist night was all over, Sir Bobby Charlton - dear, avuncular Sir Bobby - a man who is a perpetual link with the team-mates he left behind at Munich and who has become a kind of foster father to so many at Old Trafford, attempted to explain the extraordinary affection for Eric Cantona.

In some respects it is obvious. A bit like TV's Mrs Merton asking Debbie McGhee: "What was it that first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?" But in Sir Bobby's view there is far more to United's renaissance man than the accumulation of silverware. "Eric is now in the folklore of this club," the club director and talisman declared. "We waited so long and then he came along and we win four championships and FA Cups. But they loved him here because they never knew what he was going to do. He was adventurous, inventive, all the things that Manchester United are supposed to be. One wonders whether there'll ever be anyone like him here again."

Manchester United v Eric Cantona's Invitation XI, which raised pounds 1m for the survivors and dependants of the 1958 air crash, was a slightly uneasy amalgam of gravitas and glitz. Mick Hucknall, the Simply Red star, and simply daft about United, sang an unaccompanied and uplifting "Every Time We Say Goodbye..." then came the arrival of Cantona, with his bespectacled son Raphael beside him. A moment's silence, broken only by a few raucous appreciations of the Frenchman, swiftly hushed, was followed by a mighty over-spill of sentiment at his every touch. But then it had been bottled since May last year, when King Eric departed so abruptly for a world where he is more likely to be interrogated by Barry Norman than Des Lynam, and feted by the glitterati of the giant screen instead of appearing fortnightly at the Theatre of Dreams.

The closest he has come to professional football in the meantime is acting with the Chelsea fanatic Sir Richard Attenborough in Elizabeth I. It was for Cantona a facile transition, from leader of Ferguson's red army to luvvy, though whether he could become a successor to Gerard Depardieu is another matter. "I used to dream of other lives," he said in an interview with Studio magazine. "I would put myself in the skin of other characters. I always had the desire to be in film."

Like the lasses at a hen party pouring into their most glamorous glad rags before the onset of middle age, all the Cantona paraphernalia had been dusted down and worn or waved with pride for one final time. One fan's attitude said it all with his replica shirt, which, above the magical No 7, carried the simple inscription, "Dieu". Since his arrival from the despised Leeds, Cantona was always regarded as something greater than a mere mortal and time has only enhanced that perception.

They say you should never go back to scenes of crime or great glory, and while it is unlikely the night will have reignited the imperious, mysterious Cantona's ardour for the game, it will have reinforced just how significant his absence was to United last season. The question for Alex Ferguson is whether Dwight Yorke will be showered with similar superlatives in years to come.

The Stretford-enders who paid homage to every assured pass were rewarded by a player still in near-peak condition. According to Alex Ferguson, that was the result of "playing a bit of beach football in Brazil and Monaco". It was Cantona at a canter during a contest in which even Roy Keane was in benign mood, although there were tantalising glimpses of the lustre retirement refuses to tarnish and which invoked those halcyon United years between 1992 and 1997.

Cantona played for both sides, first captaining his team, containing such diverse characters as Laurent Blanc, Jean-Pierre Papin, Mark Hughes and the Frenchman's brother Joel, once of Stockport County, before switching to a red shirt in which he scored the seventh in an 8-4 "victory".

He has always been a man of such extreme tendency of course. One blessed with a sublime creation and execution of his craft; yet at times sly and brutal, a man who has thought nothing of throwing a ball at a referee, a shirt at his international coach, a foot at an opponent, and a limb at an abusive Crystal Palace supporter. During his eight-month suspension, his limited English vocabulary was extended to include such expressions as court appearance, FA disciplinary tribunal, and community service. In a diatribe against the media he also succeeded in making the humble sardine sexy. This is a man for whom La Rage is a condition only in remission, never fully cured. But, as another supporter's T-shirt summed it up: "Rage was temporary, class is forever."

At the final whistle, there was no rush for the exits. "Cantona vows to break silence" had promised one headline regarding his explanation for departing United so hastily. He did just that, although few were any the wiser afterwards. "It is regrettable that I lost my passion for the game," he announced. "I'm sorry, but I gave you everything for 10 years. I had five wonderful years here, the best of my career, and I love you all."

After his experiences with George Best, Sir Bobby learned that genius rarely comes in neat packages. The manner of Cantona's departure had been no surprise. "Eric was never one that you could make decisions for," he said, as Ferguson nodded assent. "We always knew that one day he wouldn't be with us, and it would be his decision, not ours. We can't complain. We've had our value out of him. He's made his mark here and it will stay forever."