Gasps as a rebel is sent to prison

Steve Boggan on the moment when the mask slipped

The existentialist rebel lost his cool just once, but when he did he let slip the mask of arrogant indifference that has become his trademark. Eric Cantona, footballing genius, poet and the darling of millions of adoring fans, had just been told he was going to prison.

There were gasps around the court masking a signal shout of "yes" from a lone Crystal Palace fan in the public gallery. The rash kung-fu kick had brought Cantona to the shabby Court No 1 at Croydon Magistrates was irresponsible, crass and shocking. Cantona himself said in a statement read out in court that he "deeply regretted" what he had done. But no one thought it would come to this.

The sentence read out by Jean Pearch, the chairman of the bench, had been interpreted paragraph by paragraph for Cantona and concluded: "You are a high-profile public figure with undoubted gifts and as such you are looked up to by many young people. For this reason, the only sentence that is appropriate for this offence is two weeks' imprisonment."

No translation was necessary for the last words. Cantona rocked on his heels, looking plaintively towards his counsel, David Poole, QC, and his fellow Manchester United player Paul Ince. For a fraction of a second it appeared that the volatile Frenchman might say something, do something, but he was simply led away by a portly prison officer. He looked dazed; his fans in the public gallery were speechless, several bursting into uncontrolled floods of tears. "It's disgraceful," said Jillian Priest, 39, an office worker who had taken the day off. "They're using him as a scapegoat. He's a genius. We should be able to watch him on the pitch not in the court room."

It had begun promisingly for the 28-year-old. He strode into court surrounded by hundreds of Manchester United fans. Wearing a pale blue jacket without lapels, a grey T-shirt and black jeans, he appeared unflappable.

In a statement Cantona had told the court: "I accept it was wrong. I am deeply upset and angry about the consequences." The consequences yesterday involved three hours in the cells, giving Cantona the opportunity to sample a prison meal of minestrone soup, roast lamb or sausage and onions with roast potatoes, cabbage and chips.

Within three hours, however, a judge had granted bail on a £500 surety pending an appeal against sentence on 31 March. Cantona was free, striding through a posse of photographers, escorted by harassed policemen to his nearby hotel, ignoring pleas for comment, the mask of indifference firmly back in place.

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