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.