Shame and sorrow but no surprise

Jim White believes Wednesday night's self-destructive act was almost in evitable
The Cantona affair Wednesday night was one of the most depressing of my life. I sat at Selhurst Park and watched the player who had given me more pleasure than any self-destruct. Around me the United fans shared the same emotions: shame, disappointment, sorrow. We always knew in the back of our mind that we had the most volatile player in United's history on a short-term tenancy rather than freehold, and we sensed, as he slugged it out with some wobbly jowelled south London xenophobe, that the tenancy was over. We felt bereaved: as in all bereavements the sorrow was not for the person who has gone but for ourselves, those left behind to face life without him.

None of us, however, were surprised. The very genetic characteristics that make Cantona a genius as a footballer are those which make it almost certain he will implode.

When, in November 1992, he arrived at an Old Trafford which had not seen the championship trophy for 26 years, there was a long tradition behind him of purchased forwards who had been destroyed by the expectations of the place. So stomach-wrenching was the nervous anticipation of the task ahead for Alan Brazil, for instance, that he threw up before each of his games for United. Cantona felt no nerves on arrival. Why should he? He had an unswerving conviction in his own ability. Immediately he played with an audacity which was breathtaking: his first pass as a United player was an outrageous defence-splitter. He won us over with that touch, changed overnight from being a one-eyebrowed Leeds git into a demigod.

Over the next two years Cantona became the King. With no fear of the consequences of his actions, he would try things other players would not contemplate, whether for fear of ridicule, for fear of failure, or for fear of the manager's fury. And when those things came off, he added a dimension to the team that had not existed before: a Double-winning dimension.

But the man who did not worry about messing up a back flick equally did not concern himself with what might happen - sending-off, suspension, fines - should he exact revenge on an opponent with a stud. He just did it. n This is the conflict within Cantona: the temperament that allowed him to succeed as a player is fundamentally unsuited to a sport which requires its practitioners to abide by the rules. One minute he was inspiring his team-mates with a goal, the next he was jeopardising their efforts with a kick. Alex Ferguson, the best man-manager in British football, knew this about Cantona: the one came with the other. You could not legislate for someone who did not think before he acted, so you swallowed hard and got the best out of him while you could. Two and a half years of Cantona was more than anyone else has managed.

Thus it was no surprise to those of us who loved him that, three days after we thought he had won us the championship with a wonder goal against Blackburn, he would do his best to lose it by removing himself from the competition. After near-misses with the crowds at Swindon, Leeds and South ampton, he finally stepped through the invisible curtain which separates fan from player. When confronted by an ugly, foul-mouthed yob yelling abuse three feet from our chins, most of us would like to lash out. But we don't.

All sorts of filters and checks come into play: we worry he might hit us back; we worry we might get arrested; were we professional footballers we might worry that our boot sponsors would disown us should we use their product in that way. So we would walk away. Cantona has no checks: he simply acts. There is a nobility, a purity, a heroism about someone who behaves so absolutely.

Of course the filters which control us are the cement which binds society: some might call them the mechanisms of civilisation. If we all went around administering the drop-kick that prats richly deserve, chaos would ensue. Nevertheless some of the comments about Cantona have been ludicrous. Roy Hattersley, on Newsnight, said his assault was the worst thing that has ever happened in a British football ground: you can be sure the families of the 93 Hillsborough victims would not agree. We have to have rules and Cantona has to be punished for transgressing them: a rest of the season ban, and a charge of actual bodily harm seem appropriate to me.

And until, should it happen, the day he reappears again in a red (or black or blue and white with bits on) shirt, we have to take comfort in the gag circulating in Newcastle at the moment. It was lucky it wasn't Andy Cole who launched a drop-kick at thatfan, the Geordies reckon. Because he would have missed.