SPORT IN '95: AN ALTERNATIVE VERSION

As another intriguing 12 months draw to a close, Jim White and Matt Tench consider how it could have been all so different
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The Independent Online
WHAT IF

Eric Cantona had suffered a bout of flu in late January?

It was a brave virus, the flu bug which laid Eric Cantona low on the night of 25 January 1995. Not a lot gets between Eric and his football without being called a "shitbag" or having a pair of size nines, all studs up, shoved into their face, but flu managed it, keeping him out of the Premiership game against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park; and there is nothing existential about being stuck at home with a towel wrapped round the head and your face in a basin full of Vic.

Alex Ferguson, the United manager, was unhappy at the time: Cantona had been flying until then, in the midst of a run of form which culminated in him scoring the winner the previous week against Blackburn; Ferguson was disappointed not to be able to pair his new signing, Andy Cole, with the man he assumed would supply him with the chances to convert. But young Paul Scholes stepped in and scored the winner in an unattractive 2-1 battle, striding past Palace's Richard Shaw, who looked a bit confused about who he should have been marking on the night.

Cantona returned to the side a fortnight later to lead United through a season of unprecedented success. He was everywhere; passing, prodding, scoring, picking up his own double - the PFA Player of the Year and the Football Writers' Player of the Year - as United positioned themselves to win the double for the second year running. Nothing seemed to stand in their way: with the League won by an astonishing 11 points (Cantona scoring all four in the 4-0 home win against Chelsea which sealed it), United faced Everton in the FA Cup final. And it was there that things went pear-shaped...

It was midway through the second half, with United trailing to a Paul Rideout header, that it all went wrong for Cantona. Enraged by a verbal slight from Duncan Ferguson, the Frenchman detonated like something in Mururoa and head-butted the Scotsman, an action which led to a 21-man on-pitch brawl (Lee Sharpe sat it out - as with most things concerning United, he assumed he didn't need to get involved). Cantona was sent off, only the second man (and incidentally the second United player) to be dismissed in Cup final history. But, just as Trevor Brooking was wondering how it was that a player of Cantona's sublime skills could allow themselves to be compromised by temper, worse happened. His attention drawn to a foul-mouthed and racist remark from the stands, Cantona, on his way back to the dressing-room, launched himself feet first over the perimeter fence. Unfortunately his Nikes did not make contact with the intended target, but with the groin area of the Prince of Wales, temporarily out of his seat after returning from a visit to the gents.

As Cantona was tried for treason, the reaction was extraordinary: Sir Nicholas Soames, in the House of Commons, called for the player to hang; John Sadler, in the Sun, suggested hanging was too good for him; Pat Crerand, interviewed in the Manchester Evening News, said: "You can't condone what the lad did, but you have to wonder what the royal was doing so far from his box in the middle of a game"; and Princess Diana asked for the Frenchman's mobile phone number. The consequences for United, as Cantona began his three-year sentence for assault on the royal prerogative, were significant: they were stripped of the title, Blackburn took their place in the European Cup. And they were crap...

The Princess of Wales had taken a shine to Brian Moore instead of Will Carling?

Yesterday, England's most-capped hooker talked for the first time of the extraordinary relationship he had forged with Wales's leading Princess. The pair met, he said, when Diana happened upon the wine importers where Moore, the erstwhile wine critic of Today newspaper, does most of his pre-match training.

"She was looking for something crisp and light," he revealed. "But I was able to steer her in the direction of something a little more full- bodied." The relationship soon flourished, with secret liaisons at his local Oddbins.

"Within weeks I was advising her on ports," he claimed. "And I'd introduced her to Australian, even Chilean vintages. Which was something of a whole new world to her." But it was not all one-way traffic.

"The Princess likes to help those less fortunate than herself, particularly the physically scarred," Moore continued. "So she said she found me a challenge. Frankly, after my experience in the England dressing-room, I just found it a comfort when someone was prepared to listen to me.

"Also, thanks to her contacts with Princess Anne, she was able do wonders for my Scots-people phobia."

Soon, the Moore became much the merrier, until eventually he was photographed leaving a Thresher wine store 30 seconds after the Princess. But in the end, he was forced to call a halt to their relationship.

It was not so much the man-to-man chats with the skipper, Will Carling, or the pressure of the paparazzi, or even the constant mobile phone calls ("her pet name for me was Scrummy," he revealed). It was a dispute over rugby.

"She was tactically very naive," he said. "Her second phase possession was scrappy, her line-out was a mess and frankly I never received any clean ball."

Shane Warne had been English?

The year began promisingly for Shane Warne. His exclusion from the England tour party to Australia had caused the odd rumble of discontent, but most commentators found it hard to disagree with Raymond Illingworth's pronouncement that "playing an untried wrist spinner is just the sort of gamble those boogers would love to see us take - and I know a thing or two about spin bowling."

So Warne was dispatched on the A tour of India, where to general surprise he proved highly successful. In the first Test, he took 14 wickets and had the locals drooling. The Indian manager's declaration that "he could be the best spinner of his generation", considered a little OTT even by his English admirers, was greeted with a raspberry from Illingworth. "Anyone can take a few wickets on a good day in India," he said, "and I know a thing or two about spin bowling."

Warne followed this up with hauls of 11 and 13 wickets in the other two Tests and returned to England a national hero. Which was more than you can say about England after their 3-1 humiliation Down Under. John Emburey, the spinner with over 20 years more experience than Warne, played in three of the five Tests, collecting 10 wickets at an average of more than 40. Illingworth, however, refused to countenance the possibility of a mistake. "If Warne had played, it would have been even worse. And I know a thing or two about spin bowling."

Warne, of course, had been touted for international recognition ever since he took a record 135 wickets as a 19- year-old for Derbyshire seconds in 1989. His prodigious haul soon attracted media attention with the posher papers eager to laud an Englishman who appeared genuinely capable of spinning the ball, while the tabloids concentrated on the rather less genuine colour of his peroxide locks.

With his county beached in mid-table in the County Championship, there were calls for Warne's elevation to the first team, but as the clamour grew, the committee issued a statement saying: "Shane agrees that it would not be in his best interests to rush him at the moment, but we are sure he will be an exciting part of Derbyshire's future."

A local newspaper report that Warne had confided over a pint that we would "love a crack at the first-class nancy boys" was met with a somewhat contradictory denial a few days later.

His progress into the first team the following season was impeded by rumours of club concern about his attitude, which they insisted amounted to more than an aversion to the gold stud Warne had had inserted in his left ear. By the end of the season, though, Warne was a fixture in the Derbyshire first team, and proving virtually unplayable.

As the 1995 summer tour by South Africa got under way, the calls for Warne's inclusion in the full Test side reached gale force. Illingworth began by insisting he would not be rushed into anything, but then picked Warne for the first Test, insisting: "I'd always thought this would be his year. And I know a thing or two about spin bowling."

However, he failed to make an impact: alternatively the victim of under- use or being called into service when the batsmen were in full flow. After three unproductive Tests, Illingworth grumbled about his attitude, and wondered aloud whether he had been rushed into Test cricket too soon.

He was dropped for the final Test, but was chosen for the tour of South Africa after another all-conquering county season. However, after two more productive Tests, Warne was dropped, with Illingworth letting it be known that Warne had as much chance of playing in the final Test as Phil Tufnell. Meanwhile, Mark Ramprakash, a fixture in the Australian side since his debut as an 18-year-old, averaged 53.55 in another prodigious year of Test cricket. But that's another story...

Michael Schumacher had been in the best car?

He would have won all 16 races in the Formula One season.

Monica Seles had won the US Open?

Every other woman tennis player would have retired.

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