Football: No pride in this prejudice

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The Independent Online
ACCORDING to a citation drawn up more than 40 years ago, there aren't enough terrific reasons why Eric Cantona should be elected Footballer of the Year.

The citation is right off a wall motto. It speaks of idols who never overstepped the mark, launched a late tackle that could not be excused by faulty timing, cursed an official or put profit before honour. It's anachronistic but it's there. Cast in stone: 'By precept and example.'

It is why Cantona, overwhelmingly the choice of his fellow professionals at their annual dinner in London last week, will be shunned by the football writers. My inclination is to vote for the Frenchman, to acknowledge the importance of his contribution to Manchester United's cause, the thrilling extent of his imagination.

If so I'm sure to feel like a guy who has wandered into the wrong party. No matter that Cantona is probably the most accomplished player in the Premiership, that his influence has recently been emphasised by enforced absence. A vote for him is like shouting into a gale.

You see, he has been sent off. Twice. Seems that most any footballer today can collect a red card but the citation defies mitigation. It does not allow for frenzied play, rewards out of all proportion to ability, the curse of television overkill and the more ridiculous instructions referees are required to act upon.

Of course, a case cannot be made for Cantona's darker moods but if you look down the list of past winners, there are some who hardly qualifed for sainthood. One was downright evil.

On the other hand, I would hate to have to come up before a jury of football writers with a noose in the balance. Some of my colleagues are harder to please than a symphony maestro. They are sometimes loathe to reward a player for virtuosity. They prefer one who keeps doing a predictable thing over and over again.

Would you believe that Johnny Haynes, one of the greatest post-war inside forwards, a captain of England, didn't make it to the rostrum. Trouble was that Haynes's club, Fulham, never reached the FA Cup final in his time or prominently figured in the championship. The best player in Tottenham Hotspur's history, Dave Mackay, ludicrously had to share the honour with Tony Book of Manchester City when he was at Derby County.

Getting back to Cantona, xenophobia doesn't come into it. In 1956 the award went to a German goalkeeper, Bert Trautmann of Manchester City, and 25 years later to Frans Thijssen of the Netherlands and Ipswich.

No, in Cantona's case it is the citation that counts and there is a precedent, one that involved me in heated debate.

Back in 1963 there was no question in most people's minds that Denis Law was outstanding in English football. A year later he would be voted European Player of the Year, only the second Briton to be so honoured after Stanley Matthews in 1956.

Law's dazzling feats had helped Manchester United to the FA Cup final, usually a critical factor in the deliberations, but a case was mounted against him. In common with Cantona, he had been sent off and suspended. His only rival was Matthews, then almost 50, whose return to Stoke City coincided with their promotion from the Second Division. When Law's disciplinary record was taken into account, nostalgia prevailed. Matthews won by a distance.

Coming forward a bit in time there was a great deal of fuss when Celtic, the European Cup holders, uncharacteristically became involved in disgraceful scenes during a World Club Championship match in Argentina. As a result, their title of Team of the Year was pompously struck from the records of another body, the Sports Writers' Association.

To help keep sportsmanship alive in sport, to preserve some meaning in the word in an age when sentimental labels are widely regarded as unimportant, is no bad thing. But reality stalks.

If you look around for a player who brings a new dimension to English football, whose name immediately springs to mind?