Stalking the bird man of Croydon

NIFTY man with a metaphor, that Eric Cantona. Journalists as seagulls: not bad at all. Beady-eyed, hungry and inclined to crap on people. And, in the case of the flock that gathered around Croydon Crown Court early on Friday morning, bloody cold.

When we showed up, at 8am or thereabouts, there were four photographers in Dayglo anoraks sitting rather glumly on a bench outside the court. Not much of a turn-out. Then it was pointed out that this was the back entrance.

By the front door, things were more crowded. Ranks of photographers were erecting their little step-ladders. Television technicians ran cables from cameras to support vans. And journalists surrounded the court officer, an earnest, red-bearded chap who was doing a remarkably good job of keeping his temper under extreme provocation. ITN's court artist seemed not to have the right papers, so she was not going to get into the court. "So you're not going to let ITN in?" the artist's companion blustered. "A national network?" "That's right," the official replied.

Over the road, another TV operator was in trouble. The man from the new cable station, Channel One, was arguing with his producer about his pay- off line. Fully miked and earpieced reporters can look very funny in these situations, as they seem to be arguing vehemently with themselves. Finally the reporter said: "Look, why don't I say, `That's the situation in Croydon at the moment'?" and that seemed to shut his producer up.

The reporter started his piece to camera. "There are lots of Manchester United supporters here today," he declared. "Indeed some of them have travelled all the way from Manchester to be here." So that's one myth knocked on the head. A red-shirted supporter gave his first of many interviews: "Well," he began, "I blame the magistrate on this occasion . . ." No surprises there.

A lady passer-by stopped and asked us who it was that everyone was waiting to see. We told her. "Oh, I will stay to watch him," she said. But, we protested, he's not going to appear for 40 minutes at least. "I will stay anyway," she said. "I am from South America." Fine.

A middle-aged gentleman in a dark blue pork-pie hat appeared with a placard stating "Littlewoods is the biggest criminal in football no legal action why?" A local newspaper reporter swooped on him, demanding details.

Other reporters painstakingly estimated the distance that Cantona would have to travel from his hotel to the Crown Court. "I think the line is `It was no more than a 40-yard pass from hotel room to court room this morning for Eric Cantona . . .'" "Oh good. Very good. Can I use that? I'll give you a credit."

At 9.30am there was a flurry of suits at the hotel entrance. The snappers raced up their ladders, TV cameras swung, reporters readied their microphones and the gaggle of Manchester United supporters waved their scarves and Cantona appeared, walking swiftly amid a phalanx of police. Everyone went potty, flashguns popped and that was it. He was in court.

And the seagulls - or at any rate, the vast majority of them - were not. This is the time in the journalist's existence that equates to soaring around in a fog bank with nary a skiff, let alone a trawler, in sight. We watched he courthouse. People in the courthouse watched us. Neither was very interesting.

A number of sad folk seeking to get themselves on television did their stuff: a bad, loud rap singer, fans in Manchester United shirts and, bizarrely, a couple of second rate pantomime dames. The Croydon council hospitality van dispensed coffee - "It's good for the image of the place," the staff confided. Then a gull's mobile phone trilled and he whooped "120 hours of community service". The 11 television cameras swung again and the air was full of babble: "Eric Cantona today won his appeal . . ." "Aujourd'hui Londres, Eric Cantona . . ."

Then the man himself reappeared and the mad dash was repeated, with even more ferocity than before. The crush was like the opening day of the Harrods sale, and a photographer went flying from his step-ladder ("Harry's down!" cried his colleagues). Cantona was infiltrated into the hotel, and the waiting began again, as the quote-hungry gulls packed the press conference, and eventually got their reward: more of a stickleback than a sardine.

PERPLEXING times in Carlisle, where United fans dialling the new Red Fox Information Line for news of their team's progress in the Autoglass Trophy received the advice: "When giving oral sex, don't blow. It can be dangerous." A club spokeswoman said: "We realised there was a problem and have now sorted it out. It was simply a typing error."

DAVID COULTHARD still has a little to learn. When his broken-down Williams stranded him out on the circuit during practice for the Brazilian Grand Prix, he took the opportunity for a much-needed Jimmy Riddle. But he had forgotten that he is a star now, and that Eurosport follows his every move. Every move.