T HEN it happened. Rather than trudging, head bowed, as ordinary players do in such circumstances, Cantona now strode, erect, seemingly resolved to face dismissal with defiant dignity. He had gone some 20 yards when something in the front row of the Selhurst Park crowd attracted his attention. He turned and paused, then moved on a few yards. Someone else now disturbed him. There was what seemed to be a spasm of anger, and suddenly he launched himself, right foot first, into a kung- fu kick.
Cantona's studded sole landed in the chest of a spectator wearing light trousers, a leather jacket, white shirt and Crystal Palace club tie. Then Cantona fell on to the barrier and on to the ground, before he picked himself up to land a right-handed haymaker, which the spectator returned. The flurry was brief, as punched exchanges are when the adrenalin suddenly rushes through the body to a brain beginning to think better of it. Norman Davies, United's kit man, rushed to grab Cantona with the help of a steward who moments earlier had been urging the fan involved to back off.
"And as Cantona walks from the field," bellowed Capital Radio's stentorian voice of football, Jonathan Pearce, "he's . . . Oh my goodness . . . Cantona has . . . This is quite unbelievable . . . He's . . . And now the crowd are . . . In all my years of commentating I have never seen anything quite like this."
All hell broke loose and players rushed to intervene. Paul Ince, his fiery nature displayed even when there was no ball to be contested, became involved in the scene. Eventually Cantona was bundled away in the albatross arms of the United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, Davies in attendance.
"There was just the sickening sight of a man losing complete control of himself," says Alan Smith, then Crystal Palace manager. "It lasted about 20 seconds, not enough time for me to get there. I didn't want to anyway, though my players said they rushed there because they were worried about friends in the crowd nearby. After that, the whole place was just stunned. We didn't play after that. If anything, United played better than they had been doing."
The United dressing-room was in shock, the players sombre and bemused. Cantona sat in silence, though this was nothing unusual. He often preferred his own company, his own thoughts. What was unusual was that he was still sitting in his kit when the players returned after the final whistle. Ferguson, his face flushed with anger, could barely bring himself to speak. Certainly not to the press. He went for a brief drink to a small private bar in the ground with Alan Smith. "He was just incredibly shocked," says Smith. "He never once commented on the Cantona thing. We talked about the game - he said he thought we would avoid relegation. There was me feeling sick and him thinking, `What am I going to do about all this?' "
"I only saw the aftermath, a punch being thrown," Ferguson was later to say. He thought there might have been fighting in the crowd. "Then I saw Eric lying over a hoarding and I thought maybe he'd been dragged into the crowd or something. I didn't fully understand how serious it was that night, even having spoken to the police." He would do so just before dawn, which is always the darkest time.
"It was only when I got home and my son Jason asked if I wanted to watch the video of it," he told Jean-Philippe Leclaire of L'Equipe. "I said, `I'll watch it tomorrow,' but when I went to bed I couldn't sleep. At 5am I got up and watched it. Jesus Christ. It was terrible. I couldn't believe it. How could Eric have done it?"
Child in the man
C ANTONA grew up in the cultural melting-pot of Marseilles; the environment and sociology of sun and sin was to shape him. Even if not entirely conventional, Cantona's childhood appears to have been almost idyllic, with few signs of the unsocial behaviour that was to surface in his professional football career.
Cantona's younger brother, Joel, recalls Eric being chided by his father one night for his exhibitionism and selfishness. "There is nothing more stupid than a footballer who pretends to be more indispensable to the game than the ball," he said. "Rather than run with the ball, make the ball do the work, give it and look quickly. There is nothing more simple than football." The boy was hurt and chastened and went to bed with tears in eyes. But the words obviously struck home.
If the influences of his father were important to his physical development, the influence of his mother was obviously apparent in his moral outlook. "My son never liked injustice," she said in Le Sport. "I always taught him what was right."
When he was 12, Cantona's junior club, Caillols, had just won the Provence Cup and could also win their league if they avoided defeat in their final match. His team trailed 1-0 with five minutes to go. As he recalls it, Cantona seized the ball in his own half and, his memory has it, went past six players. He was apparently in the act of drawing back his foot to score what he thought would be the title-winning goal when the whistle blew. His laces were undone and the referee demanded Cantona tie them there and then.
It clearly made a strong impression. "I learned about how much stupidity and injustice there was all around," he was to say in his autobiography. That night, he says, he lay in bed gazing up at the poster of his hero on the wall: Bruce Lee,
Two years later, the gateway to a professional career opened. He was recommended to Guy Roux, the legendary patriarch of Auxerre football club, 400 miles from Marseilles.
The teenager was torn between his roots, his deep attachment to his family, and his desire for a good start to his career. Nice, only some hundred miles to the east along the Cote d'Azur, had spotted him too and invited him along.
The basis for his career decision was not one that might seem important to more mature people, but clearly it meant a lot to a 14-year-old. On a visit to Nice, Cantona was disappointed not to be given club pennants or a shirt. By contrast, he came back from Auxerre "loaded with treasures". Roux gave him a fortnight to think over the move but Cantona was ready with an answer.
His childhood was over. In later life he would say: "Children are drawn to sincerity and authenticity. I don't see any good in teaching them to deny their own emotions for the benefit of the established order."
For the first time, but not the last, Eric Cantona acted on instinct. "I wish I had never had to leave the world of children," he would one day say. Given how fierce a spirit he had developed into, in many ways he never did.
Yorkshire bitter: the leaving of Leeds
T HE Leeds United man- ager Howard Wilkinson decided to drop Cantona for a match in London against Queen's Park Rangers in October. On the morning of the match there was the usual run-out to rehearse set plays.
Those not in the team were expected to act as opposition and were handed red bibs by the coach Mick Hennigan; often the first notice they get they are not in the team. "As a player, it's not very nice at all," says his fellow striker Lee Chapman." Cantona was duly handed the bib. It was more like a red rag. "Eric tried not to show anything but you could tell he was hurting," Chapman recalls.
Practice over, Wilkinson twice attempted to speak to Cantona in the lobby of the team's hotel but was ignored. Cantona skipped the team's pre-match meal and stayed in the room he was sharing with Lee Chapman. When Chapman returned, he found Cantona in what he describes as "loud and leery" clothing, in opposition to the team's match-day attire of collar and tie. The jacket was a bright purple, the trousers light coloured and the socks red. "I knew the manager would take one look at it and go mad," says Chapman, who told Cantona that a team meeting was about to start and that he ought to hurry up.
Cantona arrived 10 minutes late, Wilkinson having waited for him. "I knew there was going to be a confrontation about it," says Chapman. "Howard ripped him off in front of everyone. It was embarrassing because you felt for Eric. He wasn't dressed in the right clothes and that was it. He just sent him home. Sent him off, there and then." Cantona was due to leave for France straight after the game. Wilkinson suggested that an earlier flight might be more appropriate.
When Cantona returned from France, Wilkinson made efforts to talk through the situation. "I even offered him the chance to pick the team himself," Wilkinson says. "He said: `Oh no. That is your job. Leave anybody out but not me. I have to play.' " Cantona apparently added that he was finding it difficult to play up front with Chapman, with everyone looking to set up Chapman as they had done for most of the previous season. Wilkinson decided to give Cantona his head and Chapman was dropped for the trip to Maine Road on 7 November. "I'd had one of my best starts to a season for some time and I was left out. I'd been scoring regularly," Chapman told me. "I was shocked when I found out why later, because I wouldn't be capable of doing something like that. But Eric is very single-minded. I believe he would be capable of going to the manager like Howard said he did." Leeds lost 4-0.
Cantona was not in the side for the next game, a Coca-Cola Cup tie at Watford, which Leeds lost 2-1. He knew he would be left out of the team for the following day's match against Arsenal at Elland Road, which Leeds won 3-0, and was not seen again that weekend. On Monday a fax came through to Howard Wilkinson. Jean-Jacques Bertrand was demanding a transfer for his client. Cantona followed up with one of his own. The marriage had ended bitterly.
La vie en rouge
IN the previous season Howard Wilkinson had pointed out during the run-in, when Manchester United were slipping, that teams need to accumulate points in anticipation of a wobble that will inevitably come. It was not to arrive for United this time.
On 17 April Chelsea were well beaten 3-0 at Old Trafford, with Cantona scoring the third goal. Four days later came a 2-0 win at Selhurst Park, Cantona supplying the cross for Mark Hughes to volley home the first goal. It was a joyous night at a stadium that would come to contain nothing but bitter recollections for Cantona. Four wins in a row had turned up the heat to a level that saw United's rivals boil over.
Against such middling sides as Chelsea and Crystal Palace, Cantona's ability to dictate the pace and pattern of the game had been decisive. No midfield player picked him up consistently, no defender was willing to be drawn out of the back line.
On Sunday 2 May Aston Villa lost their penultimate game, 1-0 at home to an Oldham Athletic side fighting for their Premier League lives. Suddenly United were champions. Alex Ferguson heard the news on a golf course; Eric Cantona while lying on his bed in his Manchester hotel room. The telephone rang; it was Steve Bruce inviting him to a party at his home in Bramhall. Cantona arrived to hear the Queen song "We are the Champions" blaring out.
The following night, for the final home match of the season, against Blackburn Rovers, Old Trafford was raucous with relief and celebration. The crowd went through its repertoire of songs: "Simply the Best", "We are the Champions", "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life". And of course, for the benefit of their messiah, "Ooh-aah, Cantona" to the "Marseillaise".
Blackburn took an early lead through Kevin Gallacher but United were not to be denied a sixth consecutive win (a last-day 2-1 success at Wimbledon would make it seven) and responded with goals by Ryan Giggs, Paul Ince - supplied by Cantona - and Gary Pallister, the one player bar Peter Schmeichel who had not previously scored that season. Cantona also desperately tried to lay on a goal for Bryan Robson. The garish new Premier League trophy was jointly held aloft by Bruce and Robson, but the lasting memory was of the venerable Sir Matt Busby, beaming proudly. The long wait since his team last won the championship for United was over.
Cantona had clearly made the difference, as Ferguson was to acknowledge. "Without question, he was the catalyst in us winning the championship," he said, choosing the right word. "We had some tremendous young players just emerging and Eric came at the right time for them. He brought the sense of big-time thinking, the vision and imagination and general play. Players like Paul Ince, Lee Sharpe and Andrei Kanchelskis all responded."
"An artist has no homeland," wrote Alfred de Musset but, outside of his, Cantona had finally found a home. Old Trafford can make players, but it has also broken many, especially strikers. Peter Davenport, bought from Nottingham Forest, springs to mind; Alan Brazil used to be physically sick in the dressing-room before games, so onerous did he perceive the responsibility of scoring goals for Manchester United to be. Cantona had quickly settled as if to the manner born.
"Eric just swaggered in, stuck out his chest and looked around," Ferguson said. "He surveyed everything as though he were asking: `I'm Cantona, how big are you? Are you big enough for me?'"
The last chance
O NE senses a hardening in the manager's atti- tude at Old Trafford. He has indulged his star man, almost enabled him to behave as he did, with his desire to allow him to fulfil his talent. Now, having gone out on a limb for him, he could no longer afford to be let down. The very future of Manchester United depends on it, and the psyche of a team is threatened. Now it's time for a little tough love.
Many times, it has been Cantona who has held the upper hand in relationships, been in control, like he so relishes. Managers have been frightened that he would simply walk out and the club's investment would be wasted. Any fear is probably now Cantona's: his next serious disciplinary offence is likely to be his last.
Ferguson may have been less afraid than most. "I think if he is here today, tremendous. But if he is gone tomorrow, we just say, `Good luck, Eric, thanks for playing for us'," he once said. Cantona in turn had always spoken of "just passing through". But the parameters have changed. Where could he now walk out to? Internazionale, perhaps, but the Italian transfer system allows only for a window in November. Besides, United remains his spiritual home.
When Ferguson flew to France to persuade his star to stay during the close season, Cantona needed an arm round his shoulder; for the manager to tell him again how wonderful he still was and bring him back to the centre of attention he so craves. Cantona was also probably just as concerned as United fans by the departures of Hughes, Ince and Kanchelskis, especially that of his friend Ince, who had so eased the pressure on him by winning the ball in midfield and supplying it to him.
Perhaps Ferguson, the most audacious of transfer dealers, as he showed in signing Cantona and Andy Cole, was able to reassure him. For the moment at least, he would give it another try, though the episode illustrated how fragile now was the bond between Cantona and English football.
Contradictions abound in Cantona: torn between what he says and what he does. He wants to be treated as just another player by the footballing authorities, and as an ordinary person by the courts, but as a special one by clubs. He is a spontaneous person, but has shown himself calculating when the occasion requires. This is the key to his personality and perhaps it can be his source of strength.
As a player he has the capacity to lift us above the ordinary, though without Ince, Hughes and Kanchelskis it will be interesting to see if he can assume more responsibility for the whole team, or whether this is a serious flaw in his whole make-up. But as a person, from all the conflicting testimony and behaviour, I can only conclude that on balance he is a good man, a good thing.
Cantona has shown in his decision to face England again that he has courage, that he is a strong man. As person and performer, he deserves his shot at redemption.
`Cantona: The Red and the Black', by Ian Ridley (Victor Gollancz, pounds 14.99) will be published on 12 October.