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Cantona's service raises a smile

The children of St Peter and St John RC Primary School, Salford, gazed in awe when they saw their football coach. "Hiya," said Eric Cantona, and the afternoon session was under way.

Salford is a bedrock of Manchester United support and the Frenchman is a local folk hero. The community service order he received for a kung-fu kick at a Crystal Palace supporter has given local children the chance to meet their idol and get a few football tips.

Many of the pupils at St Peter and St John wander down to The Cliff - Manchester United's training ground, 10 minutes' drive from the school - hoping to see the stars. Now Year 6 children have been allowed inside for a coaching session in which Cantona was first referee and then player on the losing side.

Kelly Houldsworth, aged 11, admitted rarely playing football, but she still enjoyed the session. "He gave us a lot of support and boosted our confidence. He was really nice. I know he shouldn't have kicked the supporter but he was calling him names. I didn't think he would be good-looking, but he was. "

Afterwards the children were given refreshments, the chance to get two autographs each and had their picture taken with Cantona. Adrian Doherty, aged 11, said: "All my friends wanted one of the autographs. Everybody was really jealous. I told everyone he had coached us."

Headteacher Tony Chesney admitted he had a few reservations about allowing the children to take part. St Peter and St John was offered the chance because it buys in a coaching scheme run by Salford education authority.

"Not all the publicity surrounding Eric Cantona has been favourable and he is a role model for these children," he said. "But support for Manchester United is very strong in this area and on the whole I decided it would be a positive influence on them."

He said Cantona was very natural and at ease with the children and it was a great experience for them. They tried very hard to impress him. A difficult choice for Mr Chesney had been averted because 24 children were needed and that was the exact number of pupils in Year 6 .

Mr Chesney said: "All the children were aware of why he was there and still supported him. What the long-term benefits of the session for the children will be I don't know: it was an experience they enjoyed at the time. I do hope there will be long-term benefits for Eric Cantona."

The footballer himself has shunned press attention. Indeed, one of the problems for the Manchester probation service has been finding a way of allowing Cantona to do his 120 hours of community service without it being turned into a media circus. Hence the use of The Cliff training ground.

Cantona devised the programme himself after consultation with probation staff and 700 Salford schoolchildren will take part in the coaching sessions which will run into next month. Each session is supervised by a probation officer.

Liz Calderbank, an assistant chief probation officer, hopes the publicity surrounding the Cantona case will highlight the role of community service in dealing with offenders and bury the myth that it is some sort of soft option. Football schemes have been run before but the offenders have not had such a high profile.

She said: "If somebody has a particular skill we try to make use of it.

"Whatever the project, it has to be supervised and properly done and it can't be at the expense of somebody else's job. With Eric Cantona, we tried to treat him as any other offender."

She added the children had gained by doing something that made them feel special and increased their self-esteem. They were also able to see that nobody - even a football star - was above the law.

She hoped the benefits for Cantona would include "a sense of achievement in what he has given these youngsters and the chance to work with children he previously wouldn't have had contact with. It is certainly a more positive way of serving his sentence than a few days in prison."

The coaching session has certainly whetted the appetites of the children at St Peter and St John. Adrian Doherty said: "If all the Manchester United team get into trouble they can all come and coach us. That would be great."

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