Striking talent for self-destruction : FOOTBALL : COMMENT

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The Independent Online
In more than 30 years of watching football I have never seen anything approaching the scenes I witnessed at Selhurst Park last night. Eric Cantona's actions were appalling, outrageous, shocking and totally unacceptable.

The incident happened almost directly in front of where I was sitting. Having been shown the red card, Cantona, clearly feeling he had been wronged, stood his ground in front of the dug-outs either side of the half-way line as players became involved in heated exchanges over the dismissal.

At Selhurst Park the players' exit from the pitch is in a corner of the ground. As Cantona reluctantly began his long march in front of a stand full of angry home supporters, the crowd began to jeer and taunt him.

Although it remains to be discovered what was said by the fan attacked by Cantona, the behaviour of the crowd generally was no better or worse than one would have expected from any set of home supporters who had just seen their opponents' most illustrious player sent off for a foul. For the most part they simply waved goodbye to the Frenchman - a gesture which you see at matches up and down the country whenever a player is dismissed.

In retrospect, what the situation needed was a cool thinker on the United bench to put his arm around Cantona and escort him off the pitch but away from the touchline. One member of the United coaching staff had in fact anticipated the problem and was making his way towards Cantona, but he arrived too late.

The question of whether Cantona deserved to be sent off is irrelevant. Video evidence in fact confirmed that he had kicked out at Richard Shaw, but even if he had been the victim of a miscarriage of justice there could be no excuse for his subsequent behaviour.

Committing a bad foul on a fellow professional is serious enough, but such incidents pale into insignificance alongside an attack upon a member of the crowd. Professional footballers, probably more than any other sportsmen, have to learn to take "stick" and sometimes abuse, particularly when they play away from home. It may be unpleasant and unfair: but it is a fact of life.

For all its higher profile and commercial success of recent years, football has been having a tough time of late. The Bruce Grobbelaar allegations concerning match-fixing, the Paul Merson cocaine affair and allegations of financial impropriety have cast a shadow over the game.

The Football Association has been criticised for not acting promptly and decisively over these issues, but given their complexity one can see why the game's ruling body has trod cautiously.

Last night's incident, however, should be different. Particularly bearing in mind the clear video evidence, there is no reason why the FA should not act promptly. The heaviest of fines and suspensions should be the minimum punishment; the very question of whether Cantona should have a future in the game here should be considered.

The tragedy is that Cantona has a wonderful talent, for he has been quite clearly the best player in England for the last two years. However, this must not cloud the FA's judgement.

United themselves, and their manager Alex Ferguson in particular, also have important decisions to take. In the past Ferguson has stuck by Cantona no matter how serious his transgressions. His first reaction last night was again to back his man. Immediately after the incident Ferguson gestured angrily at the fan involved and did not appear to say anything to Cantona.

In the cold light of day Ferguson will surely have to agree that this was in a different league from the Frenchman's previous misdemeanours. If Cantona is to return in United's colours after whatever suspension is imposed upon him, it may be in the best long-term interests of both Ferguson and Cantona himself if the club is seen to take its own disciplinary action immediately. As a first gesture, Ferguson should surely decide not to play Cantona in Saturday's fourth-round FA Cup tie at home against Wrexham.

Whatever decisions United and the FA reach one must wonder whether this incident will spell the endof the love affair between Cantona and English football. He is such an explosive character that one always feared his career here would end in tears, as ithad done elsewhere. It may be time to reach for the handkerchiefs.

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