Eric Cantona
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Life must go on without the Gallic genius

Eric Cantona
Robin Parke

AS he did so often during a tempestuous career, Eric Cantona caught the football world by complete surprise when he decided to end it last week.

Manchester United's multitude of fans and English football at large will have to come to terms with life minus the brooding Gallic genius, who paved the way for the influx of foreign legionnaires who have transformed the English game.

Two weeks ago in this column I said that United's season mirrored that of Cantona, and suggested that there could be no logical transfer of the Frenchman from Old Trafford.

It has emerged in the wake of Cantona's decision to retire from the game that approaches had been made about an extension of his contract, which still had a year to run.

There was apparently no undue haste by the United management to get his name on a new deal, which would have come into operation when Cantona was over 31.

Alex Ferguson is pragmatic and Eric Cantona proud.

Despite the Scot's obviously sincere tributes to Cantona in the wake of the resignation, a team manager at his stratospheric level of the game does not remain there by being sentimental.

Cantona in the season just past had his days, but he was not the power that had galvanised United in previous seasons.

New young lions were taking over the mantle, and Cantona was slowly but surely being edged off centre stage.

Cantona still had much to give to United, but even a brief glance over his career record suggests that being at the core of a game means everything.

Blessed with sublime skills, his frequent brushes with authority were as much to do with his own perception of his place in the game as anything else.

He walked out on Sheffield Wednesday after a week's trial when the club wanted the period extended. It must have been one of the most costly mistakes made in the club's history, and Ferguson's snatching of Cantona from Leeds United when he began to find Elland Road confining was one of the signings of the decade - and there have been a few good ones.

When Cantona arrived at Old Trafford he found his natural home and a sure stage for the talents that had flourished at much lesser venues.

Cantona, variously 'L'Enfant Terrible' and 'Le Brat' in his native France, was simply too big for the game there. To suggest that any player is bigger than the game is tantamount to committing heresy, but in the case of Cantona and at that time in the French game, he basically was just that.

And it was no real surprise that successive French coaches cold-shouldered Cantona, despite his superb performances for United.

The last French manager to appreciate his brilliance was Michel Platini, although he basically failed in the position.

I saw Cantona in a drab game in Sweden during the 1992 European Championship. It was against England in Malmo, and Cantona relieved the tedium of the afternoon with some incredibly deft touches. For a big man, his touch was as delicate as any rapier thrust and the close control skills were something at which to marvel.

His time with United, barring the disgraceful kung-fu episode, was totally fruitful and it has to be considered extremely doubtful that any other club would have ultimately got so much from Cantona.

This was a marriage made in a footballing heaven.

But it is now over and suggestions that Cantona will change his mind, as he has done in the past, seem misplaced. What he ultimately does remains in the realms of conjecture, but his brooding image would certainly not be out of place on the screen.

The captain's reins will be handed to Roy Keane, but he would not be everyone's idea of an ideal leader. Cantona was petulant in his various brushes with authority, Keane is almost primeval. Some of his red cards come from on-field assaults and he is no role model for youngsters.

As Sir Bobby Charlton, currently in Hong Kong and one of United's greatest servants, has said, there is no immediate and obvious replacement for Cantona. It is, of course, difficult to replace genius and Cantona came very, very close to that exalted description.

Juninho, almost certainly heading for Spain, is another type of player entirely: one who would undoubtedly be of immense use to United, but not in the role that Cantona made his own.

Sadly, Cantona left the stage when he still had enough to contribute to the Reds to see them through a season where those precocious younger talents would have had the extra time to mature.

Better, of course, to leave early than overstay a welcome. And Cantona's position in Old Trafford folklore and the affections of the fans is secure.