United rocked by Cantona's abdication

Maverick king's exit opens way for Juninho
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A maverick to the last, Eric Cantona took his leave of Manchester United and football yesterday by having his retirement announced in his absence while he enjoyed a holiday with his family.

The messiah's five-season reign at Old Trafford ended as suddenly and dramatically as it began. As several hundred stunned supporters gathered outside the stadium, Alex Ferguson informed a press conference that the player he unexpectedly signed from Leeds for pounds 1.2m in late 1992 was quitting "with immediate effect".

The United manager explained that Cantona, who is believed to have flown to Paris on Saturday morning en route to his native Provence, wanted "to get out at the top" and pursue interests outside the game.

Ferguson said he had told his captain he was ending his career prematurely, but to no avail. Cantona will be 31 on Saturday and had a year left on his contract.

Both Ferguson and United's chief executive, Martin Edwards, prefaced their remarks by insisting that they were not prepared to discuss the Frenchman's possible successor(s) as the link between the champions' midfield and attack. Yet Cantona's abrupt exit is certain to heighten speculation that United are about to lure Brazil's Juninho from Middlesbrough.

In a statement handed to the media, Cantona said: "I have played professional football for 13 years, which is a long time. I now wish to do other things. I always planned to retire when I was at the top and at Manchester United I have reached the pinnacle of my career.

"In the last four and a half years I have enjoyed my best football and had a wonderful time. I have had a marvellous relationship with the manager, coach, staff and players, and not least the fans. I wish United even more success in the future."

Ferguson revealed that Cantona first informed him of his intentions last Wednesday, barely a week after United had sealed their fourth title in five years. "I knew deep down that no matter what I said, Eric wasn't prepared to take it on board," he said. "The fans will obviously be disappointed, but they'll have great memories of him."

He admitted that he felt Cantona ought to have made his decision at the start of next season, rather than at the end of an arduous campaign. He knew that the player had taken United's European Cup failure particularly badly.

However, Cantona's contribution to United's domestic dominance outweighed any negative feelings. "I don't feel let down," Ferguson said. "This is the longest Eric has played for any club - a third of his career - which is a measure of how he regarded United. There's absolutely no recriminations on my part. At pounds 1m we've had unbelievable value out of him, so we wish him well.

"We've got six trophies for that money. Arsenal signed a guy for the same sum last week who has never played a first-team game. That puts it in perspective."

Describing Cantona's influence on United's recent history as "phenomenal", Ferguson went on to characterise him as the catalyst who had helped a gifted, developing team make the breakthrough to the championship for which United had waited 26 long years. "I think we could have done it anyway, but Eric was the final piece that gave us the vision and composure at vital times. He was also a scorer of crucial goals."

He added: "It'll be a big task to replace him, but we've got a young team and we're quite capable of progressing further. We'll learn from our experiences last season and get better still."

Nevertheless, the United hierarchy were clearly shaken by Cantona's departure. Ferguson, indeed, may feel inwardly dismayed that the individual to whom he remained loyal throughout an eight-month suspension for assaulting a spectator in 1995 should have walked out on him.

For his part, Edwards could not recall a player leaving Old Trafford voluntarily before his contract was up. "That's a shock in itself," he said.

Edwards insisted there had been no offers for Cantona, contrary to speculation linking him with Real Zaragoza or a return to Marseilles. United would retain his registration and if Cantona changed his mind about retiring - as he did between leaving his last French club, Nimes, and signing for Leeds - he would be welcomed back with open arms.

Despite collecting an English championship medal for the fourth season in five, his form since Christmas was mediocre by the standards he set when "Ooh Aah, Cantona" resonated around the ground. He looked slower in thought and movement, prompting some critics to theorise that he had burnt himself out the previous season when trying to make amends for his indiscretion at Crystal Palace.

In his last game for United, Friday's testimonial for David Busst at Coventry, Cantona scored both his side's goals. And now, unless he has second thoughts, his artistry will be confined to the easel if, as expected, he devotes more time to his passions for painting, drama, poetry and music.

As his great idol Jim Morrison once sang: "This is the end." The fans who were still milling around hours after the announcement were reluctant to believe it, though the name Juninho was on as many lips as that of Eric Cantona. The King is gone, but the boy king may well be in waiting.

Eric Cantona's decision to walk out on football after five glorious seasons at Old Trafford stunned many associated with United.

Even the former United manager, Tommy Docherty, was "surprised and disappointed". "Eric is such a great player and I will certainly miss watching him," Docherty said. "But nobody is irreplaceable, not even Eric Cantona. The view has to be `The King is dead; Long live the King'. Somebody will always come along."

The Football Association's chief executive, Graham Kelly, admitting he was stunned by Cantona's decision, said: "Eric Cantona has a unique talent and vision, and has played a significant part in the development of the young players who have come through at Old Trafford. Four or five England footballers are all the better for that."

Andy Walsh, the secretary of the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association, said: "I don't think there has been a player in my lifetime who has had a greater rapport with the supporters. Eric was one of us - he loved the game. He has been tremendous not just for this club, but English football in general. He brought a touch of magic to the pitch and has been one of United's greatest ever players."

Who can replace Cantona

Paul Scholes The most likely candidate within the club. Natural goalscorer, comfortable playing in the hole, good passing vision. But lacks experience.

Matt Le Tissier The most obvious English contender. Wonderful passer with excellent goalscoring record. Ice-cool penalty-taker. But lazy by the standards of United's work effort. Happy at The Dell. How about Teddy Sheringham?

Juninho Magnificent player, already adapted to English game. Available. Pele in favour of move, Gary Pallister a possible makeweight. But Boro prefer to sell overseas. Wants to play in Spain.

Roberto Baggio Unlike Raul, Zinedine Zidane, Gianfranco Zola and Dennis Bergkamp, he is available. Plays in the hole, has experience at the highest level and, although 30, still a great talent. But wages would shatter United's pay structure and could foster resentment. How committed is he? Another Milanese possibility is Dejan Savicevic.