Remarkably, Eric Cantona almost represents the threadbare notion that s port can still be synonymous with sportsmanship

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A view held strongly by members of the football writing fraternity in England is that when voting annually for player of the year we are more likely to come up with the right man than the players themselves.

While conceding technical disadvantages, a critical difference, I think, is in timing. With the major issues still to be resolved the players have already chosen Les Ferdinand, of Newcastle United.

This does not necessarily indicate loose thinking on their part but on announcement last month at the Professional Footballers' Association dinner, Ferdinand was experiencing a slump in form and Newcastle's charge at their first major championship since 1927 had faltered.

Football writers, in some moods, like to deprecate the importance of the PFA award as irrefutable proof of accomplishment, although it is naturally impossible to deprecate anything without mentioning it. An admission personally is that we do not wish it to obscure what founding members of the fraternity put forward as a singular honour.

One reason some consider it superior is the citation, "By precept and example", which serves to rule out immediately anyone who does not conform to the laudable principles of fair play and gentlemanly conduct. A personal position on this is influenced by the quite ludicrous refereeing policy that makes it practically impossible today for even the best behaved footballers to avoid a caution.

The citation caused turbulence in 1963 when Denis Law, of Manchester United, who, surprisingly you may think, never won the football writers' award, was unquestionably the most effective and exciting force in the English First Division. He would have walked away with the honour that year but for being sent off along with Arsenal's Ian Ure, and suspended. Instead, the vote went to Stanley Matthews, then in his 50th year, for inspiring Stoke City to the Second Division championship.

A disappointment used to be that, in voting, many football writers could not see past the FA Cup final captains, one of whom had a reputation in the game for viciousness. They were not all bad choices by any means, but it is to the award's discredit that notables such as Johnny Haynes and John Charles do not appear on the honours board and Dave Mackay only shared it.

As the time again approaches there are no doubts in my mind. I shall cast a vote for Eric Cantona who has redeemed himself fully this season. No individual so far has exerted greater influence on proceedings in the Premiership or conformed better to the citation he insulted last year in a moment of madness at Selhurst Park that led to police proceedings and months of suspension.

The irony is as overwhelming as the transformation in Cantona has been astonishing. Since returning to the Manchester United team last autumn the Frenchman has been a model professional, never once causing Alex Ferguson embarrassment while playing a huge part in Manchester United's progress to the FA Cup final and their challenge for the Premiership.

Doubtless, there are those who feel Cantona is beyond forgiveness, that to make him footballer of the year (he was the player's choice two years ago) would insult the memory of such notable past winners as Danny Blanchflower, Bobby Moore, Billy Wright and Joe Mercer.

My own feeling, which nobody is required to share, is that Cantona stands out above all other contenders. A case can be made for Manchester United's brilliant Danish goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, for Robbie Flower, of Liverpool, for Peter Beardsley, of Newcastle. A vote for another foreigner, Ruud Gullit, would be a vote for dignity and intelligence.

What was at the back of my mind when I began, what got me off on this theme, was not the all-round excellence of Cantona's contribution to Manchester United's cause this season, the great goals he has recently scored, but the number of times he has been seen walking away from trouble.

Remarkably, in a curious way, Cantona, the villain of a year ago, almost represents the threadbare notion that sport can still be synonymous with what we used to call sportsmanship.