Double double, toil and trouble

 

GREAT OCCASION, lousy match. The huge Irish contingent that flew home on Saturday night pretty much felt the same. Great to have been there. Shame about the game, much of the match was already an unmemorable, indistinguishable blur - save for Eric Cantona's goal, Roy Keane's vintage Man of the Match performance and whatever little nuggets some would have taken from it.

Not that the occasion was without its blemishes or the match without its high points. Invariably, Eric Cantona was to the forefront of both.

When non participating club captain Steve Bruce declined Cantona's invitation to collect the trophy the Frenchman was clearly spat at by not one but, it seemed, two Liverpool fans as he climbed the 39 steps to the Duchess of Kent.

All day there had been a nasty smell in the air, not just from the pungent odour of alcohol. The enmity between the rival fans is bitter. It manifested itself in a few minor scuffles at the end of Wembley Way before the match and the sight of one supporter in shock being escorted by police with his head encased and blood seeping from wounds all over his face.

Less violently, but more embarrassingly for the Wembley authorities (who will study video evidence to identify the perpetrators), was the distasteful attack on Cantona. He simply turned, glared and walked on.

When Alex Ferguson followed his players he had to duck a Liverpool fan's outstretched hand, before turning on his aggressor with almost angry intent.

Afterwards, both men played down the incident. Ferguson quipped: "If someone had a swing at me he obviously doesn't know how good I am at fighting."

Cantona, whose response was indicative of a remarkably changed man, said: "It was not a problem as far as I am concerned. I know there is a rivalry between Liverpool and Man United, that there can be trouble, but it didn't matter to me".

Why should it? He's had the last laugh on all the racists and all his critics now. Once again he was the difference between the sides. Few of his 19 goals in a truncated season have been unimportant, but of his seven match winners this ranked as the best, leading United to an historic second double and on course for what he called "a treble double".

Cantona's supremely controlled volley was his piece de resistance, not only of the match but of the season. It underlined his seemingly flawless technique and was the reward for the extra voluntary hours he put in on the training ground, sometimes concentrating purely on volleying.

Cantona admitted: "It was more like a chess game than a football match, but the script idea I had in my mind was for me to score the winner at the end of the game. I always believed in our chances, always thought during the long season that I could succeed with my pals, but that was a historic day".

He added: "It has been an extraordinary end to the season for me. Now I hope there are more such days to come. I have ambition and everybody else at this club has it too. We are a great club and I am just happy to be here. But now we have to go on and do it next year, which is very important for us.

"What we must aim to do is try to win the Champions' League. We have big expectations, everybody in England will look to us and we must do our best. But when you look at the young players we have here, you realise we must have a very good chance. The Champions' League and the Premiership, that would be a treble double, the greatest of all."

Cantona - who has never lost an FA Cup tie - revealed he had asked the luckless Steve Bruce if he wanted to climb the stairs to lift the fabled trophy, although nobody in the United dressing room even attempted to deny his right to hold the cup aloft.

"It just summed up his season," said Denis Irwin. "There was that period in March when he couldn't stop scoring and we're all so pleased for him in the way he's responded."

Gary Pallister added: "We should've expected it from him really. All the way through Eric's scored so many vital goals that you're not surprised he saved another one up for Wembley".

And from the youngsters who have learned so much from playing alongside the Frenchman, the praise was even greater. David Beckham suggested: "It had to be him, it was written in the stars that way".