Kanchelskis plays the enigma

Guy Hodgson on the Ukrainian who has United's fans wondering if he has the stomach to fight for his place
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It has been some week for Andrei Kanchelskis. On Sunday he was unable to play in Manchester United's Premiership match amid mutterings of dark goings-on in Russia; on Tuesday he was reported to be off to Germany to seek a specialist about a mysterious stomach injury; throughout there has been the under-current of a transfer request.

It would be nice to say this has been atypical but for the Ukrainian, whose flights down the wing have been overshadowed by a tempestuous cloud this season, this has been the norm. It is a troubled 26-year-old who may or may not play in Sunday's FA Cup semi-final against Crystal Palace at Villa Park.

Kanchelskis' manager, Alex Ferguson, would prefer to have him in United's side and to perhaps recapture the majesty of 12 months ago when he ripped Oldham Athletic to shreds in a semi-final replay. A lover of the grand occasion, he would probably like to play as well. Except nothing is that simple with a man who, for all his exemplary demeanour on the pitch, is nearly as complex as his team-mate Eric Cantona off it.

A free spirit whose personality make-up did not go short when stubbornness was handed out, Kanchelskis's four years at United have been punctuated with disputes: first with his country, which led to him missing the 1994 World Cup finals, and twice since with his club. He is, you imagine, not the easiest player to handle, notwithstanding his glorious talent.

His long-standing abdominal injury, for one thing, is perplexing medical minds at Old Trafford and has restricted him to 32 starts in United's 49 matches. "We can't find anything wrong," Ferguson said. "We've had him for scans, we've taken him to the top specialists and they've found nothing. But he feels there's a pain there."

As a consequence Kanchelskis allowed himself to be given eight injections before Russia's European Championship qualifying match against Scotland in Moscow last week, further exasperating his manager, who questioned his player's judgement and that of the medical staff. The phone call from Ferguson to the Russian Football Union, you suspect, was one that would have been well worth the cost of hiring bugging equipment.

Yet if Ferguson is concerned about Kanchelskis's physical condition, it is his mental one that wearies him most. Regular first-team players do not ask for transfers from Manchester United, the ones that do are either too old or insufficiently skilled. The last of comparable stature was probably Denis Law, and even he had to make an embarrassed climbdown when Matt Busby was ready to grant his wish. Kanchelskis's outburst was breaking the mould.

When the story broke, Ferguson was furious, assuming reporters had put words into a mouth that is not yet fluent in English. The truth was that Kanchelskis, unhappy at being made substitute against Everton, had made his statement to the press off his own bat. "I'm always the player who has to stand down," he said.

Ferguson has tried to make his peace with the player but Kanchelskis has been adamant. Even to the extent of saying last week that he would like to play for Rangers next season. Unfortunately for him, the Glasgow club, publicly at least, have said they are not interested.

"You wonder if someone has got to the boy," Ferguson says with a sad shake of the head. "He's been told he's valued here but he seems confused." Not by the manager's response to the transfer request, it can safely be assumed. "He's got no chance," was the strident reply.

Nevertheless, this urgency to leave Old Trafford has severed much of the bond between Kanchelskis and the supporters, a link that many believe persuaded him to stay at Old Trafford last season. Then it was the chants of "Andrei must stay" that helped persuade him to sign a five-year contract just before the FA Cup final last May.

Where the fans could perceive injustice early last season when Kanchelskis had to kick his fleet-footed heels while Ryan Giggs was played out of position on the right to accommodate Lee Sharpe, there is little sympathy this time. In Manchester's pubs the talk now is not of unmerited neglect but whether he is giving heart and soul to the red cause.

The consensus is that Kanchelskis is after the greener pasture of doubled wages on the Continent and that no amount of persuasion will placate him. Meanwhile the loss of the talented Northern Ireland winger, Keith Gillespie, who was the makeweight in the Andy Cole transfer, is being mourned with increasing solemnity.

Likewise Kanchelskis's dynamic thrusts down the flank. When he is fit in mind and body, there is no more thrilling a sight in English football than him charging at a bewitched full-back and even in his troubled state he is still the club's top scorer with 15 goals. He also heads the poll for the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award voted for by United's 120,000 members.

In a team creaking with the twin impositions of an absent Cantona and only intermittent bursts from Giggs, Kanchelskis's appearance on Sunday has taken on a greater significance. Without him, a limited Crystal Palace will feel confident they can contain United who have failed to score in three of their last four League matches. With him, their doubts will grow.

If only the doubts about Kanchelskis's commitment would dwindle in direct proportion. English football, which is running the risk of losing Cantona, is not so well served with talent it can afford his going, too.