SPORT / Forget the rest, who were the best in '93?: Football: A French artist paints town red - Eric Cantona

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The Independent Online
THE abiding memory of Manchester United's ill fated trip to Istanbul this season is not their elimination from the European Cup, or the trouble that followed, but of Eric Cantona sitting by the banks of the Bosporus, utterly absorbed in a game of chess, writes Joe Lovejoy.

No brag or pontoon for the thinking man's footballer. Vive la difference.

The fans sing his name to the tune of the Marseillaise, Alex Ferguson calls him mon genius. On reflection, they are probably better judges than the majority of the Fourth Estate, who should have elected Cantona Footballer of the Year for 1992-93.

The Frenchman is, by a distance, the most accomplished player in the country, blessed with touch, vision and divine distributive skills, as well as a propensity for scoring important goals.

Ryan Giggs, the sorcerer's apprentice, pointed up Cantona's value when he said the most unpromising situations could be transformed in an instant by a touch from the magician's wand. 'Often when Eric gets on the ball you don't think the pass is on, but you know you must get beyond a defender because he will thread the ball through, or flick it through. You always have to take a gamble with Eric, because he is always able to pull something off against the odds.'

Never one to underestimate his own worth - he is the best-paid player at Old Trafford - Cantona basks in this appreciation of his talent.

At Leeds, he may have been a hero on the terraces, but in the dressing- room they prefer their musketeers to be of the one-for-all mentality. All for one? Anathema to Howard Wilkinson. Regarded as a maverick at Elland Road, this freeest of free spirits could never be sure of his place, yet, such had been his contribution to their championship year, that it was to universal surprise when he was allowed to move for a curiously low fee of pounds 1.1m.

Curious seemed curiouser still as his wit and Gallic flair proved to be the catalyst United needed to turn a team of gifted individuals into barnstorming champions.

Cantona scored nine goals after his introduction 12 months ago, including four in his first five games, to tip the scales in United's favour. Impressive stuff, but bare statistics do scant justice to his decisive impact.

Apart from the goals, his perceptive, penetrative passing brought the best out of Mark Hughes, his attacking partner, and provided a focal point for United's wingers.

Effectively, Ferguson got two players in one - a productive striker who is equally adept at calling the shots from deep. An upmarket Peter Beardsley - with goals.

If Cantona is Ferguson's best signing, the satisfaction is mutual. A turbulent, nomadic career saw feckless Eric labelled the enfant terrible of French football before he found fulfilment and peace of mind, at last, in a United team prepared to allow him full expression.

Like most Frenchmen, he can speak better English than he is prepared to let on, and when the 'Comprend pas' mask slipped recently he described Old Trafford as his spiritual home.

It was a rare public pronouncement from a quiet sophisticate who prefers the verse of Rimbaud or a chessboard, to conversation. His thoughts remain his own but, observed at close hand, he seems happy enough with the good life on pounds 10,000 a week.

He would be happier - and richer - still had France not come an unexpected cropper in the World Cup, taking just one point from their last two qualifying ties.

For Ooh Aah read Ooh-er. The finals will be the poorer for his absence.

(Photograph omitted)