Football: Cantona is best since Best

Eric Cantona's rehabilitation was completed yesterday without him kicking a ball - or indeed anything else - when he was elected Footballer of the Year by the Football Writers' Association. His 36 per cent of the vote was comfortably ahead of his nearest challengers, Chelsea's Ruud Gullit and Robbie Fowler of Liverpool.

The award is given not only for achievement on the field but also for contribution off it. Thus, along with Cantona's pivotal role in helping Manchester United to the brink of the title and the FA Cup final, is recognised his exemplary behaviour since he returned to action last October after an eight-month ban for his kung-fu kick on a spectator at Selhurst Park in January 1995.

Cantona is the 49th winner of the award and follows such names as Sir Stanley Matthews and Bobby Moore. He is also the first Manchester United player to win since George Best in 1968, and the fourth in all.

It even prompted him to issue a rare statement from his weekend break in France to the writers who have voted for him but to whom he has refused all interviews in the last 15 months.

"I am very proud and privileged to have been voted Footballer of the Year," he said. "It is a tremendous honour for me and my country and it is a great tribute to my fellow players at Manchester United."

"This award proves the value of British justice," his manager Alex Ferguson added. "It is well deserved because there is no doubt that Eric Cantona has been the best player in the country this season."

Cantona has scored 17 goals this season, many of them decisive in tight games, but just as importantly has brought a huge influence to bear on a United side in transition. His perceptive linking and passing from his deep-lying striker's position has also impressed his fellow professionals though his main impact, as he has got stronger by the month, came too late for him to earn their award. That has gone to Les Ferdinand.

All this has been achieved with no apparent loss of the fire in his belly, despite what seems a dousing of a once hot-headed temperament. Cantona, 30 next month, has been booked only once this season and indeed has acted as peacemaker on a couple of heated occasions.

Clearly Cantona has taken his punishment after Selhurst - the eight-month ban, fines of pounds 20,000 and 120 hours of community service - and returned chastened, determined to confront the criticism and confound. He has duly done so. For their forgiveness and open- mindedness, the maligned old football writers for whom Cantona shows distaste deserve a little credit, too. He certainly had this member's vote.