the cantona affair: Fans baffled by their fallen idol

the mood in manchester
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The Independent Online
They were buying Eric Cantona paraphernalia in normal quantities at Old Trafford yesterday. No one set fire to his posters and nobody shuffled into the Manchester United Megastore and mumbled a request for the "Eric The King" video like middle En gland looking for porn.

Some were openly defiant, asking for "Cantona" to be printed on the club replica shirts in a manner that dared observers to ask why. Others, less blatant, sheepishly slipped duvet covers and shirts into plastic bags, their embarrassment at his behaviour overcome by the realisation the images they were buying would probably have to last for a long time.

The forecourt at Old Trafford was littered with people with shock ingrained in their features. The universal reason for their presence was "I wasn't working so I thought I'd come down to see if Eric was here." Any other justification seems beyond them - they were like mourners at a lying-in of state.

United employees scurried around them. "Careful what you say" they clucked and then, within moments, their own guards would drop. "I'm in a state of shock," one said to nobody in particular while another on a portable phone was saying: "I bet you laughedyour head off last night. I haven't a clue what they are going to do with him."

The supporters were more sure. A suspension until the end of the season was the minimal sentence imposed by the people's court while the hard-liners, most of whom feared the impact of Cantona's actions on impressionable youngsters, were for a lifetime ban.

Even the 19-year-old from Chorlton-cum-Hardy with a "Dieu" T-shirt brazenly worn over his coat conceded his French god moved in mysterious ways. "I think he's brilliant and he's done wonders for United," he said, "but you can't condone what he's done. Heshould be shown the door. If I hit someone while I was working I'd be sacked." Another supporter, John, drowned his sorrows in coffee in the United Museum Cafe.

"I cried last night," the 23-year-old said, "not because of what Eric did but because of his face afterwards. He knew he'd done wrong. I'm too young to remember the Munich air crash and I can't imagine what it must've been like then. A hundred times worse, I suppose."

Meanwhile, people had gathered around a radio to hear United's former player, Pat Crerand, attempt to defend the indefensible. "The abuse he received was horrendous. . ." the Scottish voice growled from the speaker to the accompaniment of muted cheers. "There was a guy who ran from four seats up to throw something at Eric."

Brian and Paul, both in their 30s, were among those on the forecourt. They had hoped to see Cantona but all they got for their vigil in a freezing wind was a glimpse of United's goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, leaving in a car. The object of their anguish had long since gone.

"I don't think he can stay," one said, "if only for the sake of the United management. Alex Ferguson has backed him throughout and he has repaid that trust like this. I don't think he'll ever learn."

The other added: "I thought he was going to win the championship for us when he got the winning goal against Blackburn last Sunday, now I think he's cost us the title."

Just one dissenter, a teenager in the club's new blue-and-white shirt, could envisage an early return for Cantona.

"Hundreds of mugs like me have bought these," he said, tugging at the fabric. "It's money that counts in football today and United have got loads. Ferguson will bung the FA a million and he'll get away with a six-match ban."

On a day when the bright sun in Manchester mocked the snow-blocked roads not 20 miles away, it was the most bizarre comment of them all - but no more bizarre than what had occurred the night before.