The wayward genius who in a flashpoint of savage temper on Wednesday evening set a new low in player behaviour, first heard that the Football Association is formally charging him with misconduct that would bring the game into disrepute. That decision andall the events which followed Cantona's sending-off at Crystal Palace were discussed at last night's meeting between members of the United board and the manager, Alex Ferguson.
It seemed certain the club would impose their own suspension starting with tomorrow's FA Cup tie with Wrexham. They could even ban him until the FA's disciplinary hearing which will take place after Cantona has been given the statutory 14 days in which to respond to the disrepute charge.
As they gathered at Old Trafford for their crisis meeeting, club officials would also have been aware of the strength of demands for them to rid themselves of the turbulent Frenchman who, in the emotional aftermath of his dismissal, launched himself at asupporter, kicking him kung-fu style in the chest before landing punches as frightened women and children looked on.
The French authorities have already said that it is inconceivable for them to select Cantona, the national team's captain, for their next fixture. Sharing the outrage voiced on this side of the Channel, they said they would impose "draconian measures".
Meanwhile, the police in South London continued their investigation into the violent episode and plan to interview Cantona in the next few days. Criminal charges are likely to follow after Matthew Simmons, the Palace fan involved, filed a complaint . He also intends to sue the player. Paul Ince, a United team-mate and an England international, will also be interviewed after a second supporter, in an independent complaint, alleged that he had been punched by Ince.
The French federation president, Claude Simonet, called a special meeting yesterday morning with the national coach, Aime Jacquet, and the French league president, Noel Le Graet. "The seriousness of the situation forces me to consider this attitude as incompatible with what is expected of a captain in the national team's colours," Simonet said. "Unfortunately I think he will have to be taken off the French team."
The controversy brought severe criticism of Cantona from all corners of the game. Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the players' union, said: "He's the PFA player of the year, he's made a great contribution to the English game and I hope people bear that in mind. But he's obviously in deep trouble. We will do all we can to help him but we cannot condone what he has done."
United's share issue dropped five pence, significantly reducing the value of the club. Cantona, one of United's highest earners on a salary of £10,000 a week, will face financial penalties above and beyond the loss of wages and bonuses from the period ofhis imminent suspension.
The sportswear firm, Nike, who began sponsoring Cantona when he signed for Leeds in 1991, said they were reconsidering their contract. Their public relations officer, Lilian Bours, said: "Eric Cantona is an exceptional talent but what he did was unjustifiable. We have never had any trouble like this before with any of our athletes."
Cantona and Ince were summoned to a meeting yesterday at the club's training ground with a grim-faced Ferguson. Later Cantona returned to his modest home in Manchester He refused to comment other than to tell waiting newsmen: "Be careful what you write."
The FA was hoping for a swift response from United but they were unwilling to respond to any depth in advance of last night's board meeting. Several discussions took place during the day between Lancaster Gate and the United chairman and chief executive,Martin Edwards, during which the club expressed its remorse.
Lengthy bans have been imposed on players for violent conduct towards opponents and referees. The most recent suspension of any length is a 12-match ban for violent conduct imposed on Duncan Ferguson while he was with Rangers, although the sentence has still to be served. In February 1989, the former Nottingham Forest manager, Brian Clough, was fined £5,000 by the FA and banned from the touchline for the rest of the season for striking two spectators who had encroached onto the pitch.
Cantona has served several suspensions - Wednesday was his fifth sending-off for United in less than two seasons - and in February 1993 he was fined £1,000 after spitting at fans of his former club, Leeds, while playing for Manchester United.
Simmons was said last night to be in a hotel in Croydon with representatives of a national newspaper, and was said to be sporting a six-inch gash across his chest from Cantona's studs, as well as bruising to the face.
He now faces the prospect of having his season ticket revoked by Palace. Officials are angry that he left his seat in the 11th row of the main stand and went down to confront the player.
The club believes there is no blame to be attached to their stewards. The Selhurst Park chief steward, Bob Morrison, said: "I'm convinced and happy that my people did what they could to control the incident. Nobody expects a professional footballer to take it upon himself to go two-footed into the crowd. Then suddenly, whoosh, he's done it."
Gordon Taylor said measures may have to be taken to ensure players are properly escorted from the field in such incidents.
"There are players who have low flashpoints with regard to their temperaments and it's a very highly emotional state when you've been sent off," Taylor said. "There was a lot of abuse and the game has to do all it can to avoid explosive incidents like this.
"In future I hope players sent off will be shepherded properly and protected from supporters. With the benefits of hindsight, that would have helped last night. But this has happened, we have to live with it and action must be taken. We can't ever have it happening again and part of the action must include more effective stewarding."
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