United step in the right direction

Credit to Manchester United - and also to the Football Association. Its hand is behind United's decision to suspend Eric Cantona for the rest of the season.

It was suggested yesterday by a former United manager that the club had shown its stature by banning their player after the FA had "passed the buck". While this response is indicative of the loyalty Manchester United imbues, it is also mistaken.

Unlike his club, the FA cannot suspend Cantona until after a hearing. Thus, while United may well have decided to suspend Cantona by themselves, they were clearly given a strong lead by the FA on Thursday. At the back of their mind - though the FA insists it was never discussed - will have been the memory of their points deduction after a brawl between United and Arsenal players five years ago.

United's indisicipline has not improved. Cantona has been sent off five times since September 1993; Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Paul Parker have also been dismissed this season; Peter Schmeichel and Hughes, again, last season. In addition Nicky Butt has already gone close to his first red card and Roy Keane and Steve Bruce are regularly booked into the charge sheet.

United are a marvellous team to watch, but they can scrap with the worst of them. Part of this is their esprit de corps: one for all, etc, which is one of the reasons they are such a successful side. But they sail close to the edge and, too often, overstep it.

Alex Ferguson, their manager, makes it a matter of policy never to criticise his players in public. So far, even on this occasion, he has been as conspicuously silent as Cantona. At Aberdeen, Ferguson deliberately inculcated in his players a them-and-us mentality, directing it against the "old firm" of Rangers and Celtic. He says he has never done this at United because he has never needed to - "they know it," he said.

Maybe now it is time to tone it down. United are, undoubtedly, strongly disliked, even hated, by many football supporters and it is easy to see where the "siege mentality" comes from. This is partly pure envy at their success and wealth. There is also distaste for a commercial operation so successful that earlier this month even sports shops in Blackburn carried banners proclaiming "order your new United third kit now".

The season in which United had points deducted, their opponents - who were also penalised - still went on to win the title while making the mass protest to referees an art form.

But that season was an exception. Most of the title-winners in the last 20 years - Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Everton - have practised good discipline.

So might this year's champions. Compare Blackburn Rovers' record to United. Even before this latest suspension United had suffered twice as many suspensions (22 matches to nine).

Rovers had no one sent off last season while this year both culprits were unlucky; Henning Berg was wrongly sent off against United and Jason Wilcox harshly dismissed against Nottingham Forest for back-heeling the ball away at a throw-in after being booked for an innocuous foul. No one could accuse Blackburn of being soft. They are a hard side, but their aggression is controlled. That freedom from suspension is one reason why they have used 15 players this season and United 25.

One they will not be using again is Cantona, although it is rumoured that he may play for the reserves. That would be unwise. However, he will be present around the club. Although he is not a big influence in the way Steve Bruce or Paul Ince is, he does have an undeniable presence.

Ferguson admits that "there are certain rigid disciplinary codes that apply to everybody at United, but I have never purposely, or separately, asked Eric to stick to our rules."

Maybe it is time he did. Cantona's wayward streak, and his violent explosions, are hardly the example United would wish to set to their many promising young players.

An apology by him, especially to the woman, Kathy Churchman, who was beside Matthew Simmons when Cantona attacked him, should be his first action. A more general apology and some humility might also be a good idea. United's swift and strong response yesterday should merely be the beginning of the rehabilitation of their fallen star.

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