Football: Cantona off as United falter

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The Independent Online
Swindon Town. . . . . . . .2

Nijholt 36, Fjortoft 83

Manchester United. . . . . 2

Keane 13, Ince 62

Attendance: 18,102

WITH Swindon Town licking their many wounds after that seven-goal hammering at Newcastle last week, who would have gambled that they would recover their bottle to the extent that the Premiership leaders, Manchester United, would be grateful to leave Wiltshire with a point?

United may also remember this rare visit to these parts as the day they put their title in real jeopardy. Besides the loss of two points, which for an hour seemed in the bag, the precise moment came in the 65th minute, when Eric Cantona was sent off for violent conduct in a tackle with John Moncur.

The visitors had just taken the lead for the second time two minutes before the dismissal and had looked set to take their foot off the accelerator and coast to another victory.

Cantona's moment of madness changed all that. Swindon were immediately galvanised and harried a United defence, now bordering on panic, into the kind of confusion that allowed Jan Age Fjortoft to sweep in an equaliser eight minutes from time.

It had all looked a bit different when United ambled into a 13th-minute lead. Cantona's quick, stabbed pass to Mark Hughes saw the Welshman swivel past the veteran Brian Kilcline and cross for the advancing, unmarked Roy Keane to head sweetly past Fraser Digby.

Perhaps Swindon saw another hammering looming, and their response was, to say the least, robust. This may have been the tactic that saved their day, as their opponents have one too many players who enjoy a ruck. Whatever, Lawrie Sanchez got himself booked in the 24th minute, to be followed by United's Denis Irwin nine minutes later. The acrimony that had by now seeped into the game built up until Cantona's petulant, vicious aberration in the 65th minute.

The mood may have been set by an unusual incident in the 23rd minute, when Mark Hughes chased a ball under challenge to the right touchline, where he was bundled into the advertising hoardings by a Swindon defender. As the United forward picked himself up to get back on the pitch he suddenly swung towards the terraces, where it appeared that he had been struck by a spectator.

There was a large dollop of luck surrounding Swindon's first equaliser, in the 35th minute. A loose ball ran from the United penalty box to Luc Nijholt, who decided to try his luck from all of 30 yards. Peter Schmeichel had it covered but the shot took a cruel deflection off the cluster of defenders and the big goalkeeper could only watch it change direction and sail into the net.

Paul Ince, a willing contributor to the more physical aspects of the afternoon, put United back in the lead in the 63rd minute when, in a similar position to Nijholt's in the first half, he hammered a low shot past Digby. Two minutes later Cantona was heading for the early bath with the knowledge that he will certainly miss the crucial game against the challengers Blackburn. And, Swindon were back in the hunt.

Their reward came eight minutes from time. Uncharacteristically, Schmeichel's punch to Shaun Taylor's cross was weak, and the ball was swiftly returned by Adrian Whitbread to the danger zone, where it was eventually pushed on to Fjortoft, who turned to sweep his shot wide of the big Danish keeper.

The Premiership leaders may have started in the role of the irresistible force, but as the game progressed, and especially in that pulsating last 20 minutes, Swindon surprisingly had been transformed into something approaching the immovable object.

The heart of United's manager, Alex Ferguson, must have sank when he learnt that today's match official would be Mr Hill, of Market Harborough. Twice in the last couple of seasons Mr Hill has been the man in the middle in United matches which ended with them feeling more than a little aggrieved at certain decisions. Ferguson must have had forebodings that with Mr Hill in the middle yesterday controversy would not be far behind. He would not have been wrong.