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James Robson

HE is one of Manchester United's ultimate icons and was once voted by supporters as the greatest player in the club's history.

But in his memoirs, former FA executive director David Davies, reveals how United were ready to turn their back on Eric Cantona following his infamous kung fu kick in 1995.

In his book, FA Confidential, Davies claims former Old Trafford chairman Martin Edwards was prepared to ban Cantona for life after the incident at Selhurst Park.

United later softened their stance, and were even incensed by the FA's decision to hand the Frenchman an eight month ban. But Davies' revelation shows how close they came to jettisoning a player who was so pivotal to their success in the 90s.

Sir Alex Ferguson even flew out to France to convince Cantona not to turn his back on United when he threatened to quit English football altogether, with the striker eventually returning to inspire back-to-back titles.

But Davies claims such a meeting would not have been necessary if the club had stood by their initial stance in the immediate aftermath of the incident.

"The interest in Cantona's transgression was massive," he said. "Swift contact with United was vital to co-ordinate our response.

"Tracing Martin Edwards to the Royal Lancaster Hotel, I found United's chairman talking tough. `We're thinking of an indefinite suspension for Eric,' Martin said. `Banning Eric altogether.'"

How Ferguson would have reacted to that will never be known, but Davies suggests the United manager played a big part in convincing his chairman to be more lenient with the club's prize asset at the time.


"Martin realised the seriousness of Eric's conduct but, when he returned to Manchester, he softened his stance," said Davies. "'Eric will be banned until the end of the season,' Martin announced. Not indefinite. Not altogether.

"United had had an emergency meeting somewhere in Cheshire and Martin must have spoken at length to Alex Ferguson.

"Martin was clearly feeling the heat from Ferguson, who understandably wanted his best player in action."

United were infuriated when the FA extended Cantona's punishment beyond the end of the season, but Davies reveals how the enigmatic player did himself no favours when asked to speak at his disciplinary hearing.

"God, I thought," said Davies. "Prepare for fireworks. I recalled a previous French FA hearing when Cantona smacked an official in the face.

"Anything was possible here. In perfectly good English, Eric delivered the most astonishing speech I've ever heard.

"'I would like to apologise to the chairman of the commission,' Eric began. 'I would like to apologise to Manchester United, Maurice Watkins and Alex Ferguson. I like to apologise to my teammates. I want to apologise to the FA. And I would like to apologise to the prostitute who shared my bed last night.'

"Had I honestly heard that? At least two members of the commission certainly hadn't grasped it. Cantona was taking the Mickey. He had to be.

"His apology to a non-existent prostitute was, I think, a prelude to his remark later about `when the seagulls follow the trawler.'


"The commission continued, eventually punishing Eric with an eight-month ban and £10,000 fine. Ferguson went nuclear. United thought the suspension was too harsh, the media deemed it too soft, maybe it was just about right."

While Davies thought Cantona was justly dealt with, the same cannot be said of Rio Ferdinand, who was banned in 2004 for missing a mandatory drugs test.

The decision to ban the England defender - also for eight months - derailed United's title defence. They were top of the table when he played his final game for the club that season - and cost Sven-Goran Eriksson one of his best players at the European Championships.

Davies describes how in a later conversation with Ferdinand, he expressed his regret about the FA's handling of the affair, which he felt was harsh.

At one point there was even the suggestion that England's players would go on strike when Ferdinand was told he would not be allowed to take part in the European Championships qualifier against Turkey.

"He was devastated," said Davies. "My recollection is that he showed a quiet dignity. He was in tears, fearful for his future. Maybe because I'd known Rio for a few years, he didn't go ballistic. Insults never flew across the table.

"When the (England) players gathered, the mood soon turned mutinous. Sven was caught in the middle. Employed by the FA, Sven's loyalty lay with his players. `Can you come and see if there is any way through this?' he asked me.

"I was informed Gary Neville was leading the charge against the FA. Somehow, this news did not surprise me. Gary was a leader, who cared passionately about those who sat alongside him in the dressing room.

"Some at the FA were stunned by the scale of the revolt stirred up by Red Nev. The new director of communications, Paul Barber, went in to talk with Gary and was almost knocked back by the strength of feelings.


"No Rio, no game, came the message from Gary Neville. The players' desire to stick by one of their own was understandable, but the idea of a strike was far-fetched.

"Some players confided to me they would never turn their backs on England. At one of several meetings, David James stood up and urged everyone to consider the ramifications if they went on strike. Their vilification in the press was already at fever pitch.

"The impasse was broken when Rio told the players not to boycott the game. Just in time. If Red Nev had persuaded the squad to strike, the FA would have instructed Sven to call up new players. The FA were simply not prepared to forfeit the game.

"Bonded together, they withstood a brief Turkish storm to qualify for Euro 2004. That was the one positive to emerge; relations between England players and the FA sank to an all-time low."

Davies though believes Ferdinand has ultimately benefited from the experience.

He said: "Adversity makes people stronger and Rio is now respected as one of the world's leading centre-halves.

"The missed drugs test may have acted as a wake-up call to Rio. Perhaps some good came out of it after all.

"People praise Rio's new maturity these days. The whole saga also showed the FA's drug-testing programme worked. Since the Rio fiasco, I am not aware of anyone missing a drugs test."

One incident for which there was never a satisfactory outcome was the controversy over United's decision to pull out of the 2000 FA Cup when they were the reigning holders.

United always maintained they were pressured by the authorities to go to the World Club Championships in Brazil, as European Cup holders. It was seen as crucial to England's hopes of staging the 2006 World Cup ahead of Germany.


But their decision to pull out is often cited by their detractors as an example of the club's arrogance and contempt for what are perceived lower priority competitions.

Davies though insists United never wanted to withdraw from football's oldest competition.

"Supporting the Club World Championship was vital to keep FIFA sweet," writes Davies. "That message was reinforced by FIFA executive Chuck Blazer, who made it clear that if United didn't represent Europe in FIFA's major club competition it would be impossible for the FA even to dream of hosting 2006.

"United were completely torn, agonising over the decision. They seriously considered entering their youth team to defend the Cup. But the view of some of the coaches was that if United drew Liverpool at Anfield and got stuffed 5-0, some of their kids might never recover. United also felt it would demean the Cup.

"Right from the start Fergie was shocked about even the thought of forsaking the Cup for a season. His respect for the Cup ran deep - that famous Wembley victory over Crystal Palace in 1990 may even have saved Fergie's job.

"I did feel I was betraying the FA Cup by giving United the option of withdrawal. Even though I'd spent my life besotted with the Cup, I couldn't see any other way out.

"Even now, nobody has presented a way out we didn't consider."


Wow its a revelation indeed..Anyway i hate Martin Edwards with passion, glad that he is no longer around...Imagine if he proceed with his initial plan of banning Eric..i wonder how sir alex will react to that..

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