Selhurst Park, 25 January 1995, 9.00pm. The moment one of the most shocking events on an English football pitch was witnessed, as Eric Cantona hurled himself in to the crowd to karate kick a fan.
Cantona had been sent off and Matthew Simmons, a member of the National Front, came forward 11 rows to shout abuse at our striker. Palace fans testified he shouted: “Fuck off back to France, you French motherfucker” and “French bastard”. Cantona told the courtroom that Simmons had said horrible things about his mum too. Simmons denied saying anything “offensive or rude”.
Simmons had attended British National Party and National Front rallies and three years before the incident with Cantona he was convicted of attempted violent robbery when he attacked an attendant in a Croydon petrol station. He assaulted Sri Lankan-born Lewis Rajanayagam with a three-foot spanner, striking him in the shoulder rather than the head only because the sales assistant took evasive action. “I was absolutely terrified,” Rajanayagam said. “I thought he was going to kill me. Simmons went for my head. If it had hit me there, I would probably have had a broken skull.”
At Simmons’ trial following the Cantona incident, for using threatening language and behaviour, he attacked the prosecution counsel after being found guilty, leaping over a bench and executing a flying kick of his own. He was sentenced to seven days in jail, but only served 24 hours.
Whilst plenty of people attacked Cantona for his actions, he did get some support. Jimmy Greaves said: “We’ve heard a lot about Cantona’s responsibilities. What about analysing the responsibility of Simmons and every foul-mouthed yob who thinks his £10 admission gives him the right to say what he likes to a man… to abuse, taunt, spit and behave in a way that would get you locked up if you repeated it in the high street.”
John Barnes said: “It’s very ironic that it took a white Frenchman to bring home to the nation the issue of racism in football.”
Simmons had his season ticket taken off him as a result of the incident and was banned from the ground. He now goes to watch Fulham instead. Three years ago, he was found guilty of assaulting his son’s football coach, after spitting at him and punching him.
When Cantona reflected back on his career he said: “I have a lot of good moments but the one I prefer is when I kicked the hooligan.”
The last time United played at Selhurst Park, in March 2005, our travelling fans showed up in Cantona masks, and those spotted were ejected from the ground.
As was reported to Reds Away, a Palace spokeswoman said: “I have been advised by our stadium manager that no supporter is permitted to cover their face.”