So what has he been doing all this time?

A coaching session here, an ad campaign there. Guy Hodgson on the enforced isolation of Eric Cantona, who returns on Sunday; `The important thing was that the children understood that he was being punished'; `Normality has been an alien concept as his exile has been played out before an audience'

On the television screens the incident was being played over and over again. Eric Cantona walking slowly off the Selhurst Park pitch, anger, bewilderment and shame bubbling inside. The face of a man about to lose control.

In the Manchester United Megastore the morning after the fight before, talk had been virtually suspended on any other subject. "He's gone too far this time," supporters said repeatedly and mournfully. "He'll never play for United again." Then "he" walked in through the door in search of a replica shirt for his son, Raphael.

"It was just the normal Eric," a member of the store staff said after mouths had stopped gaping. "He was cool as a cucumber, you would have thought nothing had happened. He walked around as if he didn't have a care in the world."

It was an illusion, a masterpiece of sham. From the moment Cantona snapped the normal tethers of restraint and assaulted a Crystal Palace yob on the night of 25 January he had more than enough cares to carry on his proud, wide shoulders. The eight months of suspension that come to an end on Sunday have been purgatory.

The Frenchman's domestic changes alone have seen more than enough upheaval in normal circumstances. His wife, Isabelle, gave birth to a daughter in the summer and has been living in France while her husband, who was forced from his Boothstown house by the end of a lease and the intrusions of the media, has searched for a new home. In the interim he has been living the nomad's existence, moving from hotel to hotel.

Normality has been an alien concept, however, as his exile has been played out before an audience. When he began his 120 hours of community service dozens of reporters, photographers and film crews were outside United's training ground, The Cliff. When he returned from his escape to Paris in August he smashed his car into security gates at Old Trafford, so anxious was he to avoid the cameras. When he went racing at Haydock loudmouths abused him and he had to leave.

Yet, conversely, for a man seeking to escape the cell of notoriety it is the denial of his stage that has hurt most. When Cantona talks of football being his passion - "It's what I love most" - he means it. The United players were amazed by his ability when he arrived at Old Trafford in 1992 but more so at his enthusiasm for training. Their duties done, they would go home while he would hone his talents further with the juniors.

Without a match to work for he has been lost, and it was the FA's initial query about practice games United had arranged to keep him fit which made him run to Paris and ask for a transfer. Without them he knew his focus on 1 October, the day his suspension ends, would be hopelessly optimistic. Only when the authorities hinted at relenting did he return.

"It has been eight months of nightmare for him," Peter Schmeichel, who shares a room with the Frenchman on away trips, said, "and the press haven't done him any favours. It's made it more difficult for him. He's an emotional guy and he's taken the ban very, very hard. He left the country because of little, stupid things but he's changed. You'll see a new and better Eric when he comes back."

Surprisingly it was his punishment as much as the blandishments of an improved contract and the lucrative advertising deal with Nike that encouraged him to stay at Old Trafford. Faced with 732 children aged nine to 11 over 60 coaching sessions, he discovered he was not a total pariah. He was still wanted.

"They were typical Salford kids," Susan Wildman, head of public relations for the Greater Manchester probation service, said. "They weren't overawed at all and kept asking him, `are you staying at United?' I'm sure it had an effect. The important thing, though, was that the children understood that he was being punished for an offence.

"He had to face different children every session so he didn't have a chance to build relationships. It was repetitive, hard work that was demanding and stressful and I'm sure the novelty soon began to pall. Like everyone serving these orders there comes a time around the middle and three-quarters point where it becomes very difficult.

"It was, however, a model sentence in many ways. Eric Cantona was punished but Salford, which is a deprived area, benefited hugely."

The community service and the waiting are over and the attention is turning. Notoriety may be despised by Cantona but he knows it has a value, too, and last year's advertisement emphasised the point. "I have been punished for striking a goalkeeper," he said. "For spitting at supporters. For throwing my shirt at a referee. For calling my manager a bag of shit . . ." A pause, a half-smile. "I thought I might have trouble finding a sponsor."

Yesterday Nike posters began to be put up around the country with the message: "He's paid for his mistakes. Now it's somebody else's turn." On Friday, a television commercial shot in London on Monday, will be screened.

Meanwhile the other kids of Salford, United's first team, have prospered in his absence, fulfiling their manager's hope that they would be in touch with the top of the Premiership when the man who has already masterminded two championships returns. "They will run all day for him," Alex Ferguson, said, savouring the prospect of Gallic know-how being allied to Anglo enthusiasm.

Schmeichel, too, anticipates great things. "We want Eric to come back nice and easy and produce what we know he is capable of. I think he is among the best five players ever in the world and to have him back is an extra bonus that will add to the confidence of the younger players in the team.

"In Eric they will have one of the best stations to pass the ball to and he'll never lose the ball. They will learn enormously from playing with him."

The question is, has Cantona learned his lesson too? "Genius," he said once, "is about digging yourself out of a hole you sometimes find yourself in." He has fallen into his private canyon, and eight salutary months later he has the chance to excavate a way out.

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