Eric Cantona is one of the most charismatic players to have ever graced the football paddock. A highly skilled and highly decorated player, his highlight reel is one of the games’ most scintillating. This Flashback Friday we take a look back at the moment the man himself nominated as the greatest of his career, and it happened 22 years ago this week.
“My best moment? I have a lot of good moments but the one I prefer is when I kicked the hooligan” – Eric Cantona
On the 25th of January 1995, Manchester United visited Selhurst Park for their match against Crystal Palace. United, the two-time defending champions, locked in a championship dogfight with Blackburn, were easily expected to account for the struggling Palace. While Cantona, the reigning PFA Player of the Year, was widely expected to be the headline act in the match, the nature of the next morning’s headlines was beyond the realms of even the most fertile of imaginations.
When Cantona joined United two seasons earlier, he did so with a history of winning. Three times in the previous four years, with both Marseille and Leeds United, he’d won top flight titles.
His rare combination of electrifying skill and fierce determination to win immediately won over the Old Trafford faithful. Having waited over a quarter of a century for a title, they saw in the enigmatic Frenchman the final piece of the Championship jigsaw Alex Ferguson had been putting together for five years.
The fact that Cantona was at United at all was another example of the truism that luck is the intersection of opportunity and ability. Red Devils’ Chairman Martin Edwards was in a meeting with Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford when he received a phone call from Bill Fotherby, the Leeds United Chairman. Fotherby had made the call in the hope of negotiating a deal to extract defender Denis Irwin from Edwards and United. With Ferguson in the same room, Edwards was quickly able to advise Fotherby of the fact that Irwin was not for sale. Ferguson wouldn’t let his chairman end the conversation there though. The Scotsman had tried unsuccessfully for some time to sign a striker, with Fotherby on the line he thought it prudent to enquire whether there was a price they would accept to allow Cantona to become a Red. To Ferguson and Edwards’ surprise and eternal benefit, there was, £1.2 million, and they were more than happy to pay it.
On that January night in 1995, a win for the Reds would see them again reclaim top spot on the Premiership table. Cantona, one of the more volatile players in the EPL, was often the subject of close attention from opposition players hoping to curb the Frenchman’s effectiveness and perhaps ignite his notoriously short fuse. It was no surprise then, fresh off scoring the winner against title rivals Blackburn earlier in the week, that Cantona was the focus of Crystal Palace’s efforts to scrap it out with the champions.
At half-time after an otherwise unexceptional 45 minutes, Cantona made his way into the visiting dressing rooms perhaps surprised to finally have some space between him and Palace’s Richard Shaw. Sensing his talisman was at the end of his tether, Ferguson spent much of the break trying to calm Cantona down before sending his charges out again in pursuit of the vital 3 points.
Ferguson, writing about the incident years later in his autobiography, had his say on what was to happen next. “[Referee] Alan Wilkie’s inability to stamp out the disgraceful tackles from Crystal Palace’s two central defenders made subsequent trouble unavoidable.”
Upon hostilities resuming it didn’t take long for Cantona and his shadow, Shaw, to tangle yet again. In the 48th minute the pair set off in pursuit of a long ball from United Keeper Peter Schmeichel, Cantona lashed out with a petulant kick sending Shaw to the ground. With the incident having taken place in front of the linesman, there was only one possible outcome to the incident and referee Wilkie, as he was compelled to, issued Cantona with a red card.
With his on-field responsibilities over for the evening, Cantona was joined by United official Norman Davies for the lonely walk to the showers. Davies, a long-term fixture at Old Trafford, had a special relationship with the volatile Cantona and was the man most likely to calm him down.
Little did both men know that amongst the Palace fans keen to share their thoughts with Cantona as he left the pitch, was a man running some distance to deliver it from as close a proximity as possible.
Matthew Simmons, a 20-year old Selhurst Park season ticket holder, ran the 11 rows from his seat to the fence to add his thoughts to the maelstrom of noise directed at the United star. What he said has been lost to history, but whatever the content of the tirade it wasn’t taken too kindly by the already miffed Cantona. Despite being held by former military policeman Davies, Cantona was suitably aggrieved to break free and take off towards Simmons with a flying kick. Davies, forever to be known to all at United as ‘vaseline’ for his inability to keep his grasp on Cantona, was now tasked with ending the affray. He was quickly able to forcibly retrieve the out of control forward from the crowd, but not before Cantona had followed up his kick with a number of attempted punches.
United would ultimately take a 1-0 lead only to surrender two points when they allowed a late equaliser. In the rooms after the match, an irate Ferguson unleashed one of his famous ‘hairdryer’ sprays to his players for the draw before directing his attentions towards Cantona. Upset as he was at his forward it wasn’t until the next morning the United Manager fully understood the magnitude of the night’s events. “By 4 am I was up and watching a video. It was pretty appalling. Over the years since I have never been able to elicit an explanation from Eric but my own feeling is that anger at himself over the ordering off and resentment at the referee’s earlier inaction combined to take him over the brink.”
United was quick to sanction Cantona for his role in one of football’s most infamous events. The club imposed a £20,000 fine and suspended their leading goal scorer until the end of the season. The English Football Association later imposed a further £10,000 fine and extended his ban from four months to nine. His punishments weren’t to end there, Cantona still had criminal proceedings to contend with too. After pleading guilty he was initially sentenced to two week’s jail before United’s solicitors successfully had the sentence amended on appeal to 120 hours of community service.
After the appeal Cantona spoke at a press conference convened by United. To a mostly bewildered audience he famously said, “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” He then promptly dusted himself off and took his leave from proceedings.
Without Cantona, United would lose their championship fight with Blackburn on the last day of the 1994/95 season. He would return to the team upon the conclusion of his suspension and would immediately return to his winning ways. He would add back to back championship medals to his mantle-piece before retiring upon completion of the title winning 1996-97 season.
Although in many ways a picture-perfect swansong, years later when discussing it with the Telegraph, Cantona would question the timing of his decision. “When you quit football, it is not easy, your life becomes difficult. I should know because sometimes I feel I quit too young. I loved the game but I no longer had the passion to go to bed early, not to go out with my friends, not to drink, and not to do a lot of other things, the things I like in life.”
To date he has not expressed any kind of remorse for the night he took a flying leap into the stands. When he is on the record as declaring it his best moment in the sport, you would expect he is unlikely to do so. Probably just as unlikely as him ever explaining what the hell his musings on trawlers, seagulls and sardines meant.