How time flies. It’s fifteen years to the day since Eric Cantona flew into the crowd at Selhurst Park and attacked racist Crystal Palace fan Matthew Symonds. The brutal five-second attack still has the power to shock, despite the now iconic images. Cantona: black shirt, emblazoned number 7, two-feet in the air. Symonds: racist bile, turn to horror in an instant.
25 January 1995. United: Peter Schmeichel, Dennis Irwin, Lee Sharpe, David May, Gary Pallister, Roy Keane, Paul Ince, Brian McClair, Ryan Giggs, Andy Cole and the talismanic Frenchman. Some team, in which just six months earlier Cantona had scored on the same ground as United captured the first half of a historic double.
Cantona’s fuse, so often proven fragile prior to his transfer to United, lit once again. With 15 minutes remaining, the Frenchman reacted to a challenge from Richard Shaw by aiming a kick at the Palace defender. The resulting red card was simply par for the course. That the match finished all-square, denting United’s title challenge, was almost incidental.
Alex Ferguson, yet to receive his knighthood, stood impassive as Cantona pulled up his collar in the trademark fashion. The Frenchman appeared nonplussed but as kit-man Norman Davies ushered the striker from the pitch he leapt into the crowd with a flying kick and a series of punches. Fast as lightning, the violence ended almost as it began.
In the subsequent days Britain’s media dubbed Cantona “Le Nutter” and the pressure for a lifetime ban increased to a fever pitch. While the club suspended the Frenchman from “all first team duties” for the rest of the season, the duplicitous Football Association reneged on the agreement and extended the ban to more than 25 matches, stretching to September 1995.
Adding insult to Cantona’s sense of injustice, the Frenchman found himself scapegoated by Croydon District Judge Jean Pearch, earning her 15 minutes with a custodial sentence for a first-time offence.
History has been kinder to the Frenchman though. Cantona, his sentence commuted on appeal to community service, serve no time. Latterly, Symonds did. Convicted of branding the former-Leeds United player a “French c*nt,” he spent a single day in prison. Links to far-right groups excised any pretence that the 20-year-old was an innocent victim of Cantona’s ire. The Frenchman’s reputation duly salvaged. In part, at least.
Cantona responded to the sentence by uttering both his most famous and cryptic words about “seagulls and trawlers,” as the frenzied press fed on the Frenchman’s scraps. If anything the incident sealed the striker’s place in United folklore.
More than a decade on and Cantona now treads the Parisian boards, scheduled as he is to star in Face au Paradis, tonight in Paris, directed by his wife Rachida Brakni. There are few regrets. Indeed, speaking in 2008, the enigmatic star said only that he wished he’d punched Symonds harder.
Symonds, by contrast, is as he was – an unemployed labourer defined by the intolerant charge down the terraces 15 years ago.
United lost out to Kenny Dalgleish’s Blackburn Rovers for the Premier League title. Spearheaded by Alan Shearer, who would turn down Ferguson’s offer to become Cantona’s replacement two years later, Rovers head-of-steam outlasted United’s. It is to this day a tarnished championship win.
And with almost as little fuss as Cantona joined Ferguson’s side five and a half years earlier, the Frenchman retired into acting and beach football in May 1997. Forever missed but never forgotten.
25 January, 1995. 9.10pm