Football: Cantona's silent movie

The director has a new script. Ian Ridley argues that United supporters deserve at least a farewell appearance
Do stop us if you have heard this one before: Eric Cantona has had enough of football and has decided to retire. Bear with us, though; there does seem to be one difference this time.

When Cantona quit Nimes six years ago after a disciplinary dust-up, Michel Platini travelled to the Camargue to dissuade and direct him towards England. When Cantona fled to France 18 months ago as a result of the Football Association's initial insistence that his Selhurst Park ban be extended to practice matches, Alex Ferguson was not far behind offering reassurance.

While there have been odd requests for Cantona to reconsider, now no respected, high-profile figure has felt moved in the last week to journey to the South of France to beg him to stay. When Cantona informed Ferguson of his decision 10 days ago, it seems that the Manchester United manager soon realised that there was nothing more he could say to make him change his mind.

Or perhaps wanted to? On a personal level, Ferguson will ever be grateful for the contribution of the man who made them champions and led them to four titles and two FA Cups in five seasons; on a professional footing, perhaps the time had come to replace his on-pitch persona. After Cantona's tutelage, the kids are ready. The time is right to move on from domestic dominance to European excellence. Whatever the sentiment and desire to do the right thing by Cantona, the knack of management is knowing how and when to replace players.

Cantona probably sensed it himself, jumping before he was pushed. He had wanted an extension to his contract, which has a year to run. United were reluctant. The adulation of Old Trafford had been modified to acceptance that this aspiring theatrical director no longer ran the show. Doubts have also lingered about Cantona's effectiveness at European level. Last autumn a poster appeared outside Old Trafford. "Where is Eric?" it wondered. It was advertising the opening of United's Red Cafe but might have referred to some of their Champions' League matches. In a rare interview after one match six months ago, Cantona himself confessed that he did not realise he could play so badly.

The talk has been of David Beckham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, of Juninho as replacement. Cantona revels in being the centre of attention, on the pitch at least, and was no longer. He is of the Wildean school, you feel; only one thing worse than being talked about ...

Noticeable in the tribute television programmes has been the change in Cantona's appearance. How much older his more jowelly features look now than even a couple of years ago. His weight then was listed in handbooks at 12st 10 lb while this season it was 14st 3lb. Was there a boxer's tiring struggle to make the weight with the onset of age? How appropriate that Cantona is this summer to make a short film about the sport with one of his heroes, Mickey Rourke. (Sample dialogue: "I coulda still dun it, Mickey. I coulda bin a contender. And all I got was a one-way Eurostar ticket to Provence.")

How in keeping with character, too, was the manner of Cantona's departure. Not a public appearance, not a word beyond a prepared statement presented by Ferguson, manfully again taking on the burden of responsibility himself, as explanation to fans who have bought the shirts, the books and the videos.

"When there is nothing left to say, you go," Cantona once said. It may fuel the strong, silent man-in-black myth from which he has profited but it is not adequate postscript or repayment. He gave much to Old Trafford. It too gave him the stage and script to fulfil his talent and career. The supporters will naturally forgive him, as he has always been forgiven, but if this is the end, the least the United support deserves is a farewell appearance. Perhaps the friendly against Internazionale at Old Trafford on 30 July is the opportunity.

Once the feet get itchy with more than just sand between the toes, Cantona could come to see his decision as premature. He may deserve a break and need to indulge his artistic nature for a while, but come autumn his first love of football may beckon again. By then, United will probably have replaced and restructured but at 31 - yesterday - Cantona still has much to offer. Form may be temporary but class remains permanent. The pace, never searing anyway, may be waning but the power allied to deft touch that made him such a potent and rare figure in the English game should not yet be sidelined.

Japan springs to mind. In the J-League, whose season starts next February, he might find echoes of the idolatry that Old Trafford bestowed. His size, literal and metaphorical, would guarantee him attention, and probably not the questioning of his ability he has received this past season. His sponsors Nike, one eye on the World Cup of 2002, would doubtless light up with delight.

Miffed he may be at a personally mediocre season amid United's title triumph and at the press camped out at his refuge in the South of France, but Cantona should soon realise anew the affection in which he is held; that the long lenses are a sign of his attraction. His has been a towering influence, the silverware only the statistics of a charismatic career with Manchester United. His was a galvanising presence, a contribution at once subtle and strong. The goals will be recalled as glorious, the passing as sublime. His passing will be lamented.

It will be a close vote when Old Trafford comes to vote for its player of the century. Best, Charlton, Cantona? The first two will surely surpass him when it comes to greatness as player but for effect as a figure?

Today Cantona plays in a testimonial match in Lille. It will be a poignant day for him. It was at Lille, playing for Montpellier, that he once threw his boots into a team-mate's face after taking criticism. He was at the time playing up front with Stephane Paille, his partner in an outstanding French Under-21 team and who also left Britain last week but in some disgrace after his sacking by Hibernian after a drugs ban.

Will the day convince Cantona that he has made the right decision or will he question what he is giving up? Is he the retiring type? As ever with him, just the way he likes it, there are more questions than answers. You may also have heard this before, but one senses that we haven't heard the last of him.