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When Cantona Kicked That Racist… 18 Years Later

Today marks eighteen years to the day since Eric Cantona launched himself into the stands at Selhurst Park and attempted to, quite literally, kick racism out of football. It was a watershed moment for the game in this country, an episode which split opinion and prompted hours of feverish debate. It is easy to see the moment as the JFK moment for a generation of United fans; where were you on the night of that infamous kung-fu kick? It’s always an easy question for me to answer – I was there.

I went to the game with my Dad, his friends Gary and Mark, and my brother, Robert. Robert was the odd one out since he was (and is) an Arsenal fan but in the years before his season ticket I suppose he was grateful to go to any football possible, particularly on a school night.

It was a cold night in South London and a nothing game. United were chasing their third title in a row but you wouldn’t know it from what was happening on the pitch. There were few chances of note and a distinct lack of rhythm to United’s play. Defender Richard Shaw (voted Crystal Palace ‘player of the year’ at the end of the season) was locked in a personal battle with Cantona, landing a series of kicks to the shin, mostly off the ball and entirely unpunished. As the teams trudged off at half time, Eric calmly inquired of referee Alan Wilkie, ‘No yellow cards, then?’ He repeated the question in the tunnel just before the teams remerged. Plain old Mr. Alex Ferguson was less polite: ‘Why don’t you do your fucking job?’

In the 61st minute, Schmeichel punted the ball up field towards Cantona. Shaw kicked the Frenchman once again, the referee failed to notice once again. Eric, not for the final time that evening, decided to take the law into his own hands. He responded with a mildly petulant kick back. Shaw made the most of the minimal contact, the linesman flagged and Cantona saw red for the first time in six months.

Eric did not complain about the sending off. He accepted the decision and began to walk towards the tunnel and past the dugout. Fergie was looking the other way. At this point, the famous upturned collar was pulled down. Perhaps this meant he was no longer accountable for his actions, he had ceased viewing himself as a footballer, akin to Superman putting on a regular suit and transforming back into Clark Kent. Wilkie implored the players around him to ‘Calm down.’

Sensing that trouble was afoot, United’s kit man Norman Davies attempted to hurry along Cantona’s walk to the dressing room. The players would later nickname him ‘Vaseline’ after his first attempt to get hold of Eric failed. One thing he did manage to keep hold of was the No. 7 shirt worn on the night, an artefact he passed on to the Manchester United museum.

As a ten year old, it was difficult to see what exactly was happening. There was a good deal of swearing and a palpable tension in the air. We were about fifty yards to the right of the man in the awful leather jacket and the adults in our party could see something wasn’t right. As it transpired, Matthew Simmons had rushed down eleven rows of the stand to hurl abuse at the departing genius. He memorably informed The Sun his exact words were: ‘Off you go Cantona – it’s an early bath for you!’ More reliable witnesses have suggested it was closer to: ‘Fuck off, you motherfucking French bastard.’

Eric had had enough. He broke free of Davies and flew over the hoardings foot first. This was closely followed by a punch before Davies, accompanied by Schmeichel and a Palace Steward, escorted Cantona past us (dodging various cups of tea thrown by spectators) and down the tunnel. The atmosphere had turned toxic by this point and my father sensibly informed me to do my jacket up. The segregation of fans was nowhere near as officiously policed as it is these days and I was one of many wearing a United top in the home section.

In the dressing room, Eric was still raging. He was determined to get back onto the pitch and continue where he left off.  The genial Davies informed him: ‘If you want to go back on the pitch, you’ll have to go over my body, and break the door down.’ Eventually Davies, ever the polite Englishman, offered Cantona a cup of tea. The pair sipped their cuppas in total silence. Years later, when told of the kit man’s passing, Cantona was visibly moved and could utter little more than the words, ‘No, no, no, no.’

The game ended 1-1 and the walk back to the car was a strange one. My father and Mark were joking and I recall the suggestion that it was the first foot Eric had put right all game. Gary was less cheerful. He feared the punishment would be draconian and the two points dropped were likely to be the least of our worries in terms of winning the league. I asked my Dad whether what happened was likely to make the back page. He replied: ‘No, it’ll be on the front.’

He wasn’t wrong. The next morning saw the iconic football picture of the last twenty-five years grace the cover of every newspaper in the land. The tabloids were particularly venomous; a certain little England attitude towards foreigners was still overwhelmingly prevalent. Fortunately for Eric, his ‘victim’ was far from a Saint. Simmons, twenty, had been convicted for assault and, it turned out, was a BNP and National Front sympathiser. More amusingly, he was also a qualified referee. Richard Williams put it best in The Independent on Sunday: ‘You didn’t have to look very long and hard at Mr Matthew Simmons of Thornton Heath to conclude that Eric Cantona’s only mistake was to stop hitting him. The more we discovered about Mr Simmons, the more Cantona’s assault looked like the instinctive expression of a flawless moral judgement.’

Most ludicrously off all, Paul Ince was accused of inciting the crowd and assaulting another Palace fan. Gary, a keen letter writer and hater of injustice, contacted the appropriate authorities and ended up giving evidence in court. A number of players were present and, for seasons afterwards, whenever Andy Cole scored, Gary would inform us that he’d given him some tips whilst they’d been waiting in a back room with hot beverages. Better still, over the very same cup of tea, Fergie uttered the immortal words: ‘Gary, would you mind passing the sugar?’

Ince was proven innocent but Cantona was eventually sentenced to a nine-month ban. Ferguson claimed, ‘I don’t think any player in the history of football will get what he got – unless they had killed Bert Millichip’s (then FA chairman) dog. In court, Eric delivered one of the most famous lines in football history: ‘When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.’

Journalists and philosophers filled column inches attempting to decipher the words of this enigma with attitude but it was really quite simple. Eric, as was his wont both on and off the pitch, was taking the piss. The press were the seagulls, he was the trawler and the sardines represented a tasty soundbite. Basically he was suggesting that they wanted him to provide them with good copy and he wasn’t going to oblige. Except of course, he had, with a line so ingenious that it deflected attention away from the original act and allowed the legend to grow even greater. He would later claim that his lawyer had asked him to speak and he could just as easily have said, ‘The curtains are pink, but I love them.’ Once again, I suspect he was having a laugh.

The United manager, not for the final time, made the firm decision to back his player completely. Roy Keane, not always the most forthcoming in his praise for the boss (or anyone else), told Eamonn Dunphy: ‘I don’t think any other football man would have demonstrated the skill, resolve and strength that Alex Ferguson did managing the Cantona affair.’ That summer, when it appeared as though Cantona was destined to leave English football once and for all, Ferguson travelled to Paris. Yet again, the truth is stranger than fiction. In a bid to ditch his pursuers, Fergie was picked up by Cantona’s closest confidante on a motorbike. The image of the ageing manager winding his way through the French capital on the back of a Harley is almost as wonderful as the outcome. The pair sat in Eric’s hotel room and Fergie slowly talked him round before reminiscing about past glories and hopes for the future. Indeed, the man himself would later write: ‘Those hours spent in Eric’s company added up to one of the more worthwhile acts I have performed in this stupid job of mine.’

The league was lost on the final day that season, as was the FA Cup final. It is impossible to argue that Cantona would not have been the difference but to quibble about that is hardly the point. In doing what he did, Eric transformed himself from favourite player to greatest ever human in the eyes of an entire generation of United fans. It all added to the mystique. And without the ban, there would have been no glorious return. A single United player dominated the 1995/96 season perhaps more than any other before or since, culminating in the double and that cup final winner against Liverpool. Most ex pros and pundits have accepted an incident like that was bound to happen sooner or later. Match of the Day’s Jonathan Pearce, a Palace fan, is one of the few to have maintained his level of disgust at Cantona’s actions that day. It is one of many reasons I am still rather proud of this exchange from my first week of university:

Bloke: You like football, what do you think of Jonathan Pearce?

Me: He’s awful, one of the worst commentators around.

Bloke: He’s my uncle.

But I can’t possibly end there. Or with the fact that Matthew Simmons was last spotted assaulting the manager of his son’s junior football team in August 2010. No, the last word has to belong to the man himself.

‘My best moment? I have a lot of good moments but the one I prefer is when I kicked the hooligan.’

———
Darren Richman also writes for The Independent. Follow him on Twitter.


About Darren Richman

Darren's work has appeared in The Independent, The Guardian and The Daily Mirror. Follow @DarrenRichman on Twitter.

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44 Comments

  1. santafereno says:

    Wonderful story, thank you for sharing with all of us.

  2. Chicho The Lesbo says:

    Matthew Simmons was, is, and will be a right cunt.

  3. RedHairedDevil says:

    I recall hearing about Simmons moaning about not being invited to the “Looking for Eric” premiere.

  4. Blinky says:

    Fantastic piece, thanks.

    Like so many other United fans that grew up with the club in the 90′s, Cantona is my all time favourite United player. My dad grew up watching George Best, it was the enigma of the character as much as his genius on the pitch that made him such a legendary figure, and my father still talks about him as the greatest player he’s seen. It’s fitting that as I grew up with United, Eric Cantona became that player for my generation.

  5. journeyman73 says:

    As you said a United fan’s JFK moment – I was at university, living in Streatham London, Listening to it on Capital Gold.
    Commentated by, yes that prick Jonathan Pearce, All I remember him saying, “and and and (not a typo) Cantona has jumped into the crowd!!”

    Ooh aah Cantona Ooh aah Cantona Ooh aah Cantona

  6. TheRadLegion says:

    Great story great writing.. thanks

  7. RedHairedDevil says:

    He lives a couple roads away from my old house, he was always getting abuse. :-D

    Also, by rather bizarre coincidence, the road next to his is called Glaziers.

  8. United till I die says:

    I Still get chills watching Cantona walk out if the tunnel in his comeback game

    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=XgjfgNiaPic

  9. ididnotzeeit says:

    Loved the piece. Got a chill in me bones reading the bit “once the collar was down, all bets were off.” So proud to have had footballers like Cantona amongst our ranks. So many great and varying personalities have graced this club, from George Best, to Cantona, to a very different enigma in Paul Scholes. What a club, what a tradition and we just keep rolling on.

    There are many days when one just feels blessed being a red. So much emotion, good, bad, ugly, but it’s bloody addictive I tell ya.

  10. samuel - united WE stand says:

    Superb read.

  11. nivanov81 says:

    great article :)

  12. FletchTHEMAN says:

    Great read from Darren!

    Today, some players will talk to the ref and, very rarely, they might get a fan removed or banned.
    Today, some players walk off the pitch in the middle of a game. For me, this means the thugs have won.

    Today, very rarely, some players stand up for their fellow pros and say no to thugs (credit to Joe Hart here)

    Back in the day, there were times when you just had to take out the garbage yourself. We have had some wonderful writer contributions on all of the ones I am posting below.
    1. Georgie Wall clobbered a fan that confronted him in 1912 http://therepublikofmancunia.com/wall-hits-fan-manchester-united-star-does-a-cantona-100-years-ago/

    2. Harry Gregg spectacularly clobbered a fan who confronted him on the pitch at Luton Town in April, 1960 (also a post from Giles Oakley on this)

    3. In January 1995, Cantona, kicking the huligan, who was screaming racist abuse at him from the stands as he walked by.

  13. enzo133 says:

    The most subversive act I have ever seen on a football field. I remember having a strange feeling of shock and overwhelming pride.
    Eric will always mean more to me than any other player not only because of his skill and influence but just because he seemed to get it. He seemed to understand that United isn’t just a football club.
    I remember watching an interview with him after he had left United and he was asked about his feelings for United and he said “In the last moments of my life I will have this club in my heart” I’m not ashamed to say just writing that makes me well up because that’s how we all feel isn’t it?
    I can’t think of any other player who understands what it means to support a club and is able to express it so eloquently.
    Eric is and will always be a god in my eyes.

  14. King Eric says:

    Superb stuff. Yes it was a fucking awful leather jacket and tha Nazi cunt deserved a hiding for sporting that alone. Simmons fucking shat himself.

  15. Bill Hick's Ghost says:

    Still remember it vividly! Oh ah Cantona!

  16. LexxytheRed says:

    Great Man the King…… But didn’t Ferdinand break the ban records #justasking

  17. DohaRed says:

    What a great article. I will never forget Eric Cantona. I have been a United Fan for 53 years now. United is a part of my being as much as the blood in my veins. Not a single day goes by that I don’t think of United, the last match, the next match, the manager, the players, anything and everything.

    I have so many magnificent memories of United – the Treble of course, the 3-3 semi-final against Madrid when we finally got to the European Cup Final, then the Final against Benfica, and Bestie’s goal – Denis Law, Martin Buchan, Big Jim Holton, Pallister and Bruce, Denis. Jaap, Ruud, Robbo, Keano, Lee Sharp, Andy Cole, Ole, Scholesy

    But above all these, the one man I remember more than any is Eric Cantona – an absolute genius on the pitch, a magnificent man off it – his outrageous arrogance borne from knowing that he was the best in the world, his incredible sense of humour, and above all the class that lifted him above the everyday shit and hype that is the Premier League.

    Without Eric Cantona, the present day United would not be. He gave us the belief that we were the best in the world – the stream of Premierships, and the self-belief to win the Champions League came from him. He was equally as important as Sir Alex in establishing our Club as it is today.

    Eric Cantona embodied everything that is the spirit fo Manchester United, and he will be a God to me until the day I die.

  18. need to feel the love says:

    LEGEND FOREVER IN MY MIND

  19. belfast red. says:

    That Moment will always stand out in my mind. When Cantona done that i swear i got on like he had just scored! Dont give a fuck what anyone thinks but i was proud of him that nite. And proud to be a United supporter. For me the greatest player we will ever have. Ooh aaaahh Cantona!

  20. The team that wouldn't die says:

    Only Eric could have done that.
    The king!

  21. BayoRed says:

    Great read Scott.

  22. HARESH LAKHIANI says:

    Great story scott, and a great article, thnx for sharing it.

  23. yash says:

    Been reading rom for a while but this is probably my first comment……….absolutely brilliant read! loved it and thank you!

  24. DreadedRed says:

    yash – probably your first comment? Life in a goldfish bowl, eh?

    Welcome once more, to the commentary team. We look forward to welcoming you again.

  25. Keegan4england says:

    Superb piece.

  26. invertedquestionmark says:

    >Gary, would you mind passing the sugar?

    :D

  27. United Till I Die says:

    Fucking Hell, 18 years already???

    Brilliant write up. Cantona was and is a phenomenon, and for me he was easily the final piece of the jigsaw that is Manchester United. Not even Ronnie for all his brilliance compares to Cantona’s impact on Old Trafford, as only Cantona left a legacy that made football more than a game. As a player, he was inspired as much as he was inspiring, and im just glad I witnessed it as there will never be another like him. Its no exaggeration to say any of that.

    There ain’t too many people I’d call a hero with a straight face, but Eric Cantona was certainly one of them. Absolute Legend.

    Have a Good One Lads.

  28. dneshneo says:

    How timely with Hazard’s not so kung fu kick. Which beg’s the question Cantona got 8 months and hazard got 3 days? You can argue that the stupid ballboy was interfering with play and the fan was not however the scenario was the same nonetheless. A player act in violence after provocation from a fan/ballboy.

  29. Giggsforever says:

    I have a feeling you need to check your definition of racism. Calling someone a ‘french bastard’ isn’t racist. ‘French’ isn’t a race.

    If anything, what you’re talking about is xenophobia – a dislike of people from other countries.

  30. walking alone says:

    Cantona the record breaker! I am sure a lot of the people who castigated him back then were nothing but bunch of unrealistic hypocrites as we still have around in English football today. But realistically, many of them would have done worse. Thanks a lot for resurrecting this news again, reading it is as exciting as being there.

  31. Longneck says:

    I don’t think he gave the sardine speech in court, it was in a press conference

  32. Gosling says:

    Cantona was unhinged. Shaw had him in his pocket all game and he lost his cool. Manchester United fans used this as an excuse to MURDER father of three Paul Nixon (RIP) prior to the semi-final two months later, and the media, egged on by that c-unit Crerand were complicit in covering it up. Villa Park had one of the most toxic atmospheres I can ever remember thanks to their vilification of Crystal Palace and their obsequiousness towards the nutjob who sparked all this off. Anybody else remember that thug Roy Keane stamping on Gareth Southgate’s head? I do.

    Happy to encourage the scales to fall away from your eyes.

  33. darrenrichman says:

    Thanks for all the kind comments, means a lot.

    Giggsforever, Eric considered it racism & that’s good enough for me.

    Longneck, I believe it was said in a press conference inside the courthouse after his hearing.

  34. darrenrichman says:

    In fact, there’s little doubt he was a racist given he voted BNP and had links to the far right.

    Gosling, if you really wish to play the daft butterfly effect game and pin the murder of a fan on Cantona then why not go one step further and look to the man who provoked him in the first place. Lord knows why you’re even trawling through United blogs.

  35. Gosling says:

    Darren, at no point did I defend the actions of that prat Simmons. As for his far-right politics, I didn’t need to know that he was a BNP voter to know he’s an idiot, I know what he said that night. A thug, who deserved to be banned from football grounds, for sure.

    None of that excuses in the slightest the actions of your mental idol. You would say he was taking the law into his own hands, dishing out summary justice and that this is somehow admirable. I say there was no such thought behind what he did – he simply lost his mind out of frustration and lack of self-control. His actions directly caused the horrible atmosphere between our two clubs over the forthcoming games. Without that event I strongly suspect Paul Nixon would not have died on the day of the semi-final.

    And just to be clear, I am not blaming Cantona for Nixon’s murder. I am blaming some Manchester United fans who were never brought to justice, due to a mixture of incompetent policing and sycophantic media, expertly diverted by Paddy “That C***” Crerand.

  36. darrenrichman says:

    OK Gosling, you have your opinion & I have mine. I wasn’t one of those fans & I don’t condone their behaviour but without Simmons you can just as easily say it would never have happened. What you’re perusing United blogs for I still don’t know.

  37. Nearly good says:

    Stuart Pearce is a Bristol city fan – so perhaps his continued opinion of the attack is based more on the morali opinion of violence and the responsibility of footballers as role models, not his club bias.

  38. simjamlmx says:

    shame nobody in the media apart from yourself points out what eric cantona actually did that day. He kicked and punched a racist scumbag. and i applaud him for that. I remember seeing an interview with les ferdinand on tv at some point where he said something along the lines of “he only did what most of us who face abuse from the stands have wanted to do at one point or another.” you can talk all day about “rising above it” but sometimes these scum just need to be taught a real world lesson.

  39. Jonny Is says:

    French isn’t a race, stupid.

  40. darrenrichman says:

    The man he kicked was part of the national front ergo he was a racist.

  41. Gosling says:

    You’re missing the point. Cantona didn’t leap into the crowd (which included women and children) because Simmons was a racist. He did it because he was a certifiable nutjob who was incensed at having been made to look like a mug all game. Furthermore, you are missing the point that the MUFC and FA or machines, aided and abetted by the BBC, made out that Palace were to blame for Cantona’s ban and that he was the victim of this tale. Utter bollocks. History has been completely distorted to match your agenda.

    It’s tough on the family of Paul Nixon, whose murder was never investigated, but since the truth of that matter would also be inconvenient it must be for the greater good, right?

  42. parjo says:

    “In doing what he did, Eric transformed himself from favourite player to greatest ever human in the eyes of an entire generation of United fans.”

    A sentiment I had and still have. I remember I every time he appeared on the pitch made me shiver and wonder ‘what’s next?’.

  43. Paul Holland says:

    It’s strange seeing this after all these years. I was also there, so it makes me laugh to see you writing about Shaw kicking Cantona all game with no punishment by the ref!? Cantona was in Shaws pocket all night & was sent off like the spoilt little boy that couldn’t get his own way. Any apology for Paul Nixon, a father of 3, murdered by your plastic fans? No I didn’t think so.

  44. Dela says:

    @Gosling @Paul Holland –> Paul Nixon died in a pub, three months after the match where Cantona kicked Simmons, and eight miles away from Villa park where the FA cup semi was being played. He died because of an outbreak of violence in a pub, in a clash between two sets of supporters… what exactly does that have to do with Eric Cantona and a match played THREE months before it in a completely different place???

    The FA Cup semi was played in Birmingham, not home ground for either United or Palace supporters and from accounts things got ugly between supporters in a pub, plenty of injuries and one person unlucky enough to pay with his life over the madness. It’s a terrible tragedy and football has plenty of them in its history…

    But it still has FUCK ALL to do with the Eric Cantona incident and you know it. You’re coming on here and throwing a dead man’s name around as if it was some indictment of Cantona and ALL United supporters in the world when you should know better. I want people responsible for taking lives to be brought to justice too, but I would never use their names because I can’t help but bitch on a blog of a rival club.

    Cop on to yourselves!

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