Game needs to win back respect : FOOTBALL

Ian Ridley, football correspondent, argues against calls to ban Eric Cantona for life
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ERIC CANTONA may be flawed but there is no convincing argument for him to be floored. Falling for the beat of the big banned sound insisting he be drummed out of the country and the game should be resisted.

To seek to defend Cantona after le drop-kick and the bout of fisticuffs would be pointless perversity and Manchester United's swift suspension for the rest of the season and fine of some £20,000 was a sound start in punishment to fit the crime.

One only hopes that the belief of Martin Edwards, United's chief executive, that Cantona will still be playing reserve-team matches was just a knee-jerk reaction to a question he had not previously considered. The Football Association, under whose auspices all competitive matches are played, should quickly disabuse United of the notion that Cantona will play in any match before August at the earliest.

It is they who must consider how much further the matter must go. They were swift to comment and charge Cantona with bringing the game into disrepute, and they will do well now to use wisely the 14 days they have given Cantona to respond, time they need to see if any criminal proceedings may develop. This is a case for owls, not hawks or doves.

They have already made noises about this "stain on the game" and the image portrayed to youngsters by their role models. It is, though, such a rare event - "unprecedented" was their own word - that it is more a stain simply on Cantona. Besides, the use of professional sportsmen as role models for real life, with which they often have only tenuous connection, is dubious.

When the FA do consider their own verdict, they might also ponder another message to youngsters. If adults ultimately cannot forgive, what sort of role models are they then likely to be? Cantona deserves to be punished - and money and long absences not playing are the main worries of professional footballers - but he also merits another chance, as Brian Clough was given after striking a supporter.

The FA might, too, with the foresight they displayed in the Paul Merson case, advise Manchester United that Cantona receives some expert counselling for his temper. While anger can be a legitimate motivation in any sport, it is the constructive rather than destructive channelling of it that brings the true edge.

Merely saying "That's Eric" will not do. He may even become a more empowered, rather than emasculated, player, more able to perform in the biggest of matches, something he has not so far done conspicuously well. There can be no allowance made for Cantonahaving been provoked. A generation of black sportsmen has borne, largely with dignity and without violent response, worse racist abuse than any to which the Frenchman was subjected at Crystal Palace last Wednesday night.

But the fan involved, one Matthew Simmons, is scarcely less culpable, the stream of loud, foul-mouthed abuse and lack of restraint an equally sad example to other Selhurst Park fans. Palace's ban on him is just. Subsequent events have indicated another worrying possibility, not just for football: that of the nonentity seeking notoriety and, in these days of the public getting wise to the ways of the media, then making money with a kick-and-sell story. Mr Simmons is believed to be receiving £20,000 from the Sun.

Last week should reinforce the need for personal responsibility rather than encouraging any ideas about increased stewarding or - heaven forbid after the giant leap forward of the Taylor Report - fences going up again, even if this time the aim would be to protect the fans from the players.

Some 30 years ago, this correspondent was gloating at the non-League team it has been his lot to follow accumulating a 3-0 half-time lead. He then made his way to the players' tunnel to question, rather too loudly, the quality of the visitors' defence. The 10-year-old boy received a punch in the stomach from their centre-half for his views.

He has since acquired - apart from a distaste for Romford - a respect for performers and opposition and was uplifted to encounter it among fans at last summer's World Cup finals. When he is not required to be neutral, he believes that his entrance money should allow him to get close to the action but not intrude on it, to voice opinions but not to issue forth personal, racist remarks. In return, he expects respect from the participants for his role in the event.

The so-far silent Cantona and Alex Ferguson, the United manager, might begin the player's and continue the club's rehabilitation with public apologies that might render real, rather than lip-service philosophy, the affinity they claim to have with their huge following. Normally vociferous supporters' associations might also care to denounce Mr Simmons's beha- viour. Perhaps then the game will start to rediscover its mutual and self-respect.