Football: Cantona the King returns to crown poignant evening

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The Independent Online
THE GHOST of Manchester United's past darted and danced across Old Trafford last night. Some, like the monochrome giants cut down at Munich, were present only in the misty eye of memory and imagination, but Eric Cantona returned in the flesh to bid au revoir to his still-adoring public.

Cantona played half a match for either side as United overcame his European Invitation XI 8-4. He even scored their seventh goal, although the figures that mattered were the attendance - 55,1210 - and the pounds 1m raised for the "Busby Babes" who survived the air crash of 1958 and the dependents of those who died.

Afterwards, Cantona came to the microphone for the farewell he never gave when he left United 457 days earlier. "It's a special night for me," he said. "I lost my passion for the game and I'm sorry about that. I gave everything for 10 years and had five wonderful seasons here, the best of my career. I love you all."

The evening would have been a sell-out whether or not Cantona had agreed to come out of retirement, yet there was no doubt who the spectators had come to see. It was a night for digging out old replica shirts - and heaven knows, United have had enough of them - emblazoned with the Frenchman's old No 7 "Dieu" or "The King".

One T-shirt, a relic of the time Cantona returned from the eight-month suspension imposed after the "kung fu" incident at Selhurst Park, declared: "Eric is back... with a vengeance." Such sentiments may have seemed inappropriate on an evening of fond remembrance, although Cantona, in a brief message in the match programme, sounded a curiously sour note himself.

After expressing his happiness about being able "to share with you all a last great moment", Cantona ended with a hint of a paranoid: "I know many things have been said since I left, but my presence here tonight means more than all these lies."

When the teams appeared, it was quickly apparent that United's opponents were only an Invitation X. Then, with the loudspeakers booming out. "He's been away far too long", the great man made his re- entrance hand in hand with his eight-year-old son, Raphael.

A huge roar reverberated around the stadium and hundreds of French tricolores waved; the tradesmen in Sir Matt Busby Way had obviously been busy dusting down old stock. Flashbulbs twinkled in the stands and the chorus of the Marseillaise, with its famously revised lyric of "Ooh Aah Cantona", must have given even Laurent Blanc goose pimples.

Cantona, nowadays pursuing a career as a film actor, looked slightly portlier than in his prime but no more out of shape than his colleague for the night, Paul Gascoigne. His first touch was an imperious pass to another compatriot, Pascal Vahirua, and he still managed to saunter where lesser mortals merely strained.

Ryan Giggs put United in front early on, but the match was becoming too tame for some tastes when Pascal Olmeta decided to enliven things with the first of many mazy dribbles. When Olmeta went walkabout again, the fans behind his goal sang: "Fergie, Fergie, sign him up." In the space of two minutes, Jean-Pierre Papin and Blanc put the "Europeans" ahead only for Paul Scholes to equalise before half-time.

For the second half, Cantona finally donned the red and white once more. Martin Dahlin and United's own Mark Wilson scored for the guests, before United ran away with the game. Jordi Cruyff, Phil Neville, Alex Notman (2) and Nicky Butt all scored, with the goal the crowd craved arriving 12 minutes from time. Although the defending was not what it might have been as Cantona waltzed through before chipping home, Old Trafford celebrated as if he had clinched the Double again.