United fear end is nigh for Cantona

`They are all out to get him and I can tell you he won't stay. People are trying to make Cantona disgusted with England'
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The Independent Online
As Eric Cantona ponders his future this morning, his club, and indeed all those who care for the English game, are left to wonder whether a Croydon magistrate has managed to achieve what the best defenders in the Premiership, the Football Association hierarchy and their referees have failed to do: bring an end to Cantona's brilliant but controversial career in English football.

That is Manchester United's fear after Cantona was sentenced to two weeks in jail yesterday. He may have been released, eventually, on bail, but the punishment has left both club and player stunned. There will be an appeal, in a week's time, but already there are indications that Cantona has had enough.

Last night Jean-Jacques Amorfini, Cantona's agent, said on French radio: "They are all out to get him and I can tell you, he won't stay in that country a lot longer. I think people are trying to make Cantona disgusted with England and, obviously, I believe he is going to have to leave the country."

There was even the suggestion from Amorfini that Manchester United were partly to blame for his client's plight. "We are dumbfounded and absolutely shocked because Manchester United's English lawyers advised a guilty plea so English justice would show clemency."

At Old Trafford these words would have been greeted, as was the verdict, with horror. Martin Edwards, the club chairman, said: "This is a shock. The whole thing has got out of hand. He has been punished three times for the same offence."

Cantona may, on appeal, be spared a spell at Her Majesty's pleasure. He will also not be able to play for anyone until 30 September, due to the FA's ban, extended worldwide by Fifa. By then emotions may have cooled.

He has been, until now, genuinely happy in England. His brother Jol, interviewed in the Independent earlier this month, said: "Like me, Eric thinks English football is the best. He loves Manchester United and he loves Britain. Eric sees his whole future in Britain and wants to stay with Manchester United. He's one of the Reds. He knows he owes a great deal to England and Manchester United."

Cantona, always a quixotic character, may now feel that debt has now been erased. Should he want to leave, there will be no shortage of potential buyers, with both Internazionale and Barcelona linked with him already this season.

If he goes, there will be rejoicing in Leeds, and across much of the rest of the country. But it will be no cause for celebration. For all the damage he has done to the image of the game recently, Eric Cantona has enriched both English football and the lives of those who have watched him play in it.

Cantona has a rare capacity to surprise, to step outside the constraints footballers both accept from managers and impose upon themselves. This is the core of his genius, this is what has made him the country's most captivating player. This is what we would miss.

And the fault is, partly at least, with us. With the spectators who abuse players like Cantona and Jrgen Klinsmann, and those who tolerate it. Although Crystal Palace have belatedly taken steps to eradicate such abuse, it remains at many grounds. At Tottenham, on Wednesday, Neil Ruddock endured a tirade of abuse by the tunnel. Stewards and police were within 20 yards but did nothing.

Yesterday the usually moderate National Federation of Football Supporters' Clubs called for such supporters to be ejected and have their season tickets revoked - with no refund. Absolutely.

United get more abuse than most. It comes from envy at their success, resentment at their pervasive commercial presence, and anger at their snarling on-field image. It has spawned a bunker mentality and a "fight one, fight us all" ethos which, unchecked, can lead to Cantona's assault, and Paul Ince's alleged reaction.

It is a mood Alex Ferguson, the United manager, needs to rein in, without losing his team's competitive edge. A difficult task at any time, possibly an impossible one now, even for him.

Ferguson is the first manager to both recognise, and indulge, Cantona's need for freedom. If Cantona does stay, Ferguson must attempt to tame the beast without lessening the player.

The United manager was too upset to comment yesterday. By unfortunate coincidence he was collecting his CBE at Buckingham Palace at much the same time his most gifted player was having a rather less enjoyable brush with the British establishment. It should have been a day to cherish. Instead, with news of Cantona's sentence coming on top of that of Davie Cooper's tragically early death, it will be one to forget.

That news, as Gordon Taylor of the players' union noted, put things in perspective. English football, Manchester United and their supporters may have lost Eric Cantona to Europe; the Scottish game, Clydebank fans, and his family, have lost Cooper for good. It was a sad day for the sport, in many respects. FOOTBALLERS WHO HAVE BEEN SENTENCED TO JAIL

March 1995: Dennis Wise (Chelsea and England) released on bail after three-month sentence for assault on a taxi driver and causing criminal damage. July 1993: Mickey Thomas (Wrexham and Wales) 18 months for passing forged bank notes. Sept 1991: Terry Fenwick (Tottenham and England) four months for failing to give a breath test and driving while disqualified. Dec 1990: Tony Adams (Arsenal and England) four months for drink-driving offences. Nov 1990: Peter Storey (former Arsenal and England) 28 days for attempting to import pornographic videotapes. Previous conviction for counterfeiting gold sovereigns. Sept 1990: Tony Kenworthy (former Sheffield Utd and Mansfield) nine months for attempting to pervert the course of justice. Oct 1988: Jan Mlby (Liverpool and Denmark) three months for reckless driving. Jan 1987: Mick Quinn (Portsmouth) three months for two offences of driving while disqualified. Oct 1986: Ricky Otto (now Birmingham) four years for robbery. Dec 1984: George Best (former Man Utd and N Ireland) three months for drink-driving, assaulting a policeman and jumping bail. Jan 1965: England internationals Peter Swan (Sheffield Wednesday), Tony Kay (Everton) and Bronco Layne (Sheffield Wednesday) among 10 players jailed for match-rigging.