In the summer, RoM offered you the opportunity to win a copy of Philippe Auclair’s excellent book about Eric Cantona, ‘Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King’, which was won by Ged Hanley.
The biography documents Cantona’s life from his time in France to his departure from Manchester United, describing the glory, the mistakes, the combat and the inspiration.
Here is just a small out take which describes the events of that night at Selhurst Park, when Cantona kicked a thug in the crowd and almost put an end to his United career:
Palace had set out to disturb United’s usual rhythm, and largely succeeded. Defender RIchard Shaw (who was voted Palace’s ‘player of the year’ at the end of the season) had been given the task of shadowing Eric Cantona, and was acquitting himself well, much to Eric’s annoyance, as the game’s referee, Alan Wilkie, seemed to turn a blind eye to the crafty knocks Shaw was landing on his shins on and off the ball. “No yellow cards then?” he enquired of the official as they walked to the dressing-room at half-time. In the tunnel, just as the game was about to start, Wilkie was asked the question again by a seemingly calm Cantona, and then, in typically more robust language, by an irate Alex Fergusion: “why don’t you do your fucking job?” The referee ignored them.
In the 61st minute of the game, Shaw took advantage of Wilkie turning his back to kick Eric again. The foul had gone unnoticed by the official, but Cantona’s retaliation – a kick of his own – hadn’t escaped the assistant Eddie Walsh’s attention. Another red card was the anavoidable consequence of his flash of temper, of which there had been so many already in the previous months: it was the fifth time Eric had been dismissed in his three years in England, an astonishingly high figure for an attacking player, especially if one bears in mind that none of these dismissals occurred while he played for Leeds, and that he also collected sixteen cautions during the same period.
The long walk back to the dressing-room was a familiar one to him. He hardly remonstrated. He walked away, turned round after a few steps, looked Wilkie straight in the eye and pulled his collar down, the surest means to indicate he knew he his game was over, and that he did not question the validity of the decision. Steve Lindsell [sports photographer] trained his camera on the player, who was departing from the pitch at an even pace, and now going past the dugout where Alex Ferguson stood, looking the other way.
“I was positioned on the opposite side of the ground,” Lindsell told me, “just following Cantona after his dismissal. Then, all of a sudden, he jumped over the fence and kicked that guy! I snapped, and snapped again. I thought I had a good picture, but couldn’t imagine the impact it would have. I went to my van outside Selhurst Park, printed the roll, which must have taken me 15 to 20 minutes, then sent the pictures. The first paper to receive them was the Daily Mirror. But it was only the day afterwards that all hell broke lose.”
Images of the incident itself have been played and replayed so often that it seems almost pointless to describe it again in detail. A snarling young man rushed down eleven rows to stand to shout abuse at Cantona. He later, and quite ludicrously, claimed (in the Sun, who paid him for his account of the confrontation) to have said something along the lines of “Off you go, Cantona – it’s an early bath for you!” According to the numerous eyewitnesses who enjoyed the tabloid fame after the explosion, the words that came out of his distorted face were closer to: “Fuck off, you motherfucking French bastard!” according to Luke Beckley, who was eight at the time.
With his cropped hair, pasty skin and tight-fitting black jacket, Matthew Simmons could have come straight from central casting, the archetypal white thug. But Cantona’s victim was no actor. The Mirror soon revealed that ‘Simmons, twenty, of Kynaston Avenue, Thornton Heath, South London, has a conviction for assault with intent to rob. In 1992, he’d been fined £100 and placed on two years’ probation after striking a petrol station cashier.’ The cashier in question was a young Sri Lankan who had escaped serious head injuries when the three-foot spanner wielded by Simmons slipped and struck him on the shoulder instead. Quite amusingly, his aggressor was also a qualified referee and, less amusingly, a BNP and National Front sympathiser.
According to Page [Jim, Palace steward] and Davies [Norman, United’s kitman, who was known as ‘Vaseline’ to United players after his first attempt of getting hold of Cantona failed] Cantona was “bloody angry”. So much so that the latter had to position himself at the door of the dressing-room to avoid another, even more dramatic fracas. “He was furious. He wanted to go out again… I locked the door and told him: ‘If you want to go back on the pitch, you’ll have to go over my body, and break the door down'”. Once Cantona had recovered some of his composure, Davies brewed some tea for him. Cantona sipped his cup and headed for the showers without another word being exchanged between the two men.
By the time the game ended in a 1-1 draw, according to Ryan Giggs’ recollection, “Eric wasn’t agitated”, either in the dressing-room or on the plane that took the team back to Manchester late that night. “Nothing was said because none of us, the gaffer included, realised the seriousness of what had gone on. Word hadn’t got through and Eric was giving nothing away.”
As he confided to Erik Bielderman many years later, Alex Ferguson failed to realise the seriousness of the situation because he had no clear idea of what had happened after the actual sending off. “I wasn’t looking at him when he left the pitch. I was focussing on how to reorganise the team tactically, ten against eleven. Once back at home, my son Jason asked me: ‘Do you want to see the pictures? I’ve recorded the game.’ I refused and went to bed. Sleep wouldn’t come. I got up around 3-4 in the morning and I saw. The shock was huge…”
As he wrote in his diary, ‘My initial feeling was for letting Eric go. I felt that this time the good name of Manchester United demanded strong action. The club is bigger than any individual.’ But Ferguson realised how much Cantona had contributed to making it ‘big’ again. ‘I then thought about a call a friend had given me on our way back from London. We were thinking about what we could do about the media hullabaloo and the punishment that would follow. He told me: “You remember our chat about John McEnroe? I explained to you that Eric and him are the same. John exploded on court, insulted referees, swore against himself. But, off the court, he can be charming. Eric is the same. This guy is fantastic. Don’t give up, Alex!”‘ This friend was a lifelong supporter of United, Sir Richard Greenbury, who held the positions of chief executive and chairman of Marks and Spencer plc from 1988 until 1999. Ferguson reassured the businessman. He wouldn’t let Cantona down.
“The next day,” he went on to tell L’Equipe Magazine, “at breakfast, I told everybody: ‘We’re backing Eric. He’s our player. The FA mustn’t have his skin. He made a mistake. We all make mistakes.’ Eric knew I was on his side. He knew he could count on me. He needed someone to help him, someone whom he could trust, who’d support him. I fulfilled this mission.”
And how. As Roy Keane later told Eamon Dunphy: “I don’t think any other football man would have demonstrated the skill, resolve and strength that Ferguson did managing the Cantona affair.”
What Ferguson didn’t say is that, shortly after the final whistle, referee Wilkie saw an apoplectic Manchester United manager storm in to his dressing-room. “It’s all your fucking fault! If you’d done your fucking job this wouldn’t have happened!” According to Ferguson’s biographer, Michal Crick, a policeman had to intervene to stop the stream of abuse and drag the incensed Scot out of the referee’s quarters.
Philippe will be doing a book signing at the Waterstones in the Trafford Centre on November 7th at 1pm and has personally invited (through contact with me) RoM readers to go down for a chat about the great man, Eric the King. An interview with Philippe about Cantona will be on RoM on Monday.