Judgement day for a vision king

After eight months in the wilderness Eric Cantona returns to the game today to answer his critics and inspire United
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HE KNOWS he has to correct his disciplinary faults, he says, and he thinks he has found a solution that works. "Nobody knows about it and I can't explain it, but people will have to notice it for themselves."

Sorry, not an exclusive interview with Eric Cantona - though Manchester United's solicitor Maurice Watkins said that Isabelle Cantona, in turning down a request on Eric's behalf, mentioned that Eric quite likes the Independent on Sunday - but an excerpt from one released by Manchester United on video last year.

The words came after Cantona's stamping on Swindon's John Moncur and another sending-off, less justified, at Arsenal a few days later. Now they take on a new resonance. For the Marseillais, the words of "La Marseillaise" - and not the United fans' setting of "ooh-aah Cantona" to the tune - are apt: Le jour de gloire est arrive.

The day of truth, too. Eight months after "it" happened, during which we have heard the big ban sound and seen an FA hearing, two court appearances, a new-contract negotiation, 120 hours' community service and a flight to Paris and back, the protagonist Eric Daniel Pierre Cantona takes centre stage again this afternoon against Liverpool at Old Trafford's theatre of dreams. Or should that be theatre of the absurd?

Much has changed at United since Cantona so rudely interrupted English football. Out have gone Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis; in have come a bloom of young players. The United manager, Alex Ferguson, says he himself will change: he will "draw the wagons in" and get back to dealing more with players on a one-to-one basis.

The 64 million franc question is whether Cantona can change. This week the Marquess of Blandford insisted that this was positively his last court appearance, though he had said as much before. Similarly, the doubts remain about the Marquis de Sardines. Ferguson was asked last week if Cantona would be especially vulnerable in the next month. "I think he's maybe vulnerable all the time," he replied.

Nevertheless, the next four weeks will be crucial. If Cantona is received back into the game with acceptance, his dues paid, it is likely that he will decide that Old Trafford remains his spiritual home. If not, when Internazionale's persistent president Massimo Moratti calls again, as he surely will when the Italian transfer market opens again for a week at the end of the month, then we could see Cantona considering, not for the first time in his career, whether he wants to remain where he is not wanted.

Ferguson does not see the Inter option; the English game in general and Old Trafford in particular are best for Cantona, he believes. But while he can expect little but adulation there, the more so now that building work precludes visiting fans, away from it, especially at such places as Anfield and Elland Road, he can expect to experience something rather more intense than idolatry. Ferguson will not hold him back from such matches: "We are not going to give in."

The FA's re-emphasising of their campaign to drive racism from grounds last week was laudable but sections will always defy it. Some comments are surely acceptable, but it will be in harsh reality, rather than any ideal, that Cantona will have to survive. Visits to York on Tuesday and Swansea for a testimonial a week tomorrow should not be unduly demanding, though United are likely to assign him a personal minder in their security officer Ned Kelly. Even allowing for Neil Ruddock, who riled Cantona by tugging at his turned-up collar in the corresponding match last season, today's event should not cause the same concern.

Why all the fuss, I was asked by a French television station this week. There is the cultural impact of a Frenchman with a penchant for the arts, the intrigue stoked by his mysterious man-in-black persona, stubbornly defying attempts to rehabilitate his image with PR-instigated interviews. And he is, lest we have forgotten, an outstanding footballer.

Ferguson's initial instinct on the morning after the fight before was that Cantona would have to leave. But in a passage last week that revealed the affection he has for his favourite son, he told why he has gone to such lengths to keep him.

"The impact he has made concerns something we really need to seriously address in our game, the practice and technical aspects," Ferguson said. "Even in the eight months he's not been playing he has still been training and preparing as a player should. There's a real professional attitude in all this. He says, 'This is what I have been brought up to do and I'm going to do it.' "

The manager came into the dressing-room after last season's home Champions' League match against Galatasaray to find Cantona at the tactics board explaining things to a rapt David Beckham and Gary Neville. At first three or four followed Cantona's example of staying behind for more training. "Now they all stay except for Steve Bruce, who needs his rest. On Fridays I have to tell them to come in."

The reservations about Cantona as a player have been that he draws his spirit from a team, rather than giving a team its spirit. Now that Ince et al are gone, how will Cantona react to having to assume more responsibility? "I don't think there needs to be a responsibility for the rest of the team," Ferguson said. He is not a leader, as such, he added.

"If he's playing well, his vision and abilities will improve others, maybe inspire their imaginations. Because of the way we play football here, we lack players of vision, players who can see out of the corners of their eyes."

After six practice matches behind closed doors, most recently against Birmingham City and Preston North End, Cantona is ready, Ferguson believes. The adrenalin will see him through, he says, although a flat period can be expected in a few games' time, as with all players stretching to attain match fitness.

Ferguson also believes that Cantona will cope well with the present profusion of three-man central defences in England. "I played him with Andy Cole against our three centre-backs in training and he gave us a nightmare. He just takes centre-backs into an area where they don't know whether to go or stay. He has an awareness of where he is pulling people. He drifts into midfield, drifts behind a striker, sometimes he drifts out on to the line. But when a cross comes in or something is going to happen in the box, he is not far away."

United could have done with these qualities against Rotor Volgograd. Although their exit from the Uefa Cup had more, at least early on, to do with the effects of the ageing process on Steve Bruce in defence, a touch of subtlety might have eked out the extra goal the bludgeon could not. This knowledge leads Ferguson to continue to indulge Cantona; after all, he told him three weeks ago he would play today, and no other United player would be guaranteed that.

His attitudes may have changed, though. "I hope my reputation doesn't have to be judged on Eric Cantona's life with Manchester United," Ferguson says. "If that's the only blip in my career, I'll accept it and go to the big penalty box in the sky quite happy." Anglo-Saxon attitudes may have changed too. Now begins the examination of the Anglophile's attitude.