When the seagulls followed the trawler
Wednesday 25 January 1995. Alex Ferguson kicks open the door to the away dressing room at Selhurst Park and executes one of his infamous rants. “Manchester United does not settled for a draw against Crystal fucking Palace!” After a few carefully selected obscenities directed at his players 53-year-old Ferguson turns to Eric Cantona, who had been sent off after 61 minutes of the game: “And Eric!” the gaffer pauses, his players expecting their boss to hand down a first ever hairdryer treatment to the maverick Frenchman, and then calmly says, “you can’t do that.”
The famous night at Selhurst Park, when Eric latched onto racist hooligan Matthew Simmons was, in truth, a dire one all draw. David May scored United’s sole goal after 57 minutes. An in-form Cantona had already scored 12 in the league that season and three in United’s last four games before the encounter with Palace. One of these goals was a match-winning header in the ‘goal of the season’ category at home to would-be Champions Blackburn Rovers. It was just three days prior to the Selhurst Park incident.
Cantona wasted some decent chances at Selhurst before the sending off and had a good attempt on goal from the half-way line that hit the crossbar. Some 18 months later, 21-year-old David Beckham successfully copied his hero against Wimbledon – another team who used to play at Selhurst Park. “When Eric Cantona came up to me afterwards, and said “good goal”, that was more important to me than scoring it,” Beckham later said.
Eric was kicked from pillar to post 20 years ago with the referee, Alan Wilkie, taking no action. Defender Richard Shaw, later voted Crystal Palace’s player of the year, was given the task of man marking Eric – and used every dirty trick in the book, with the ref turning a blind eye. In the tunnel at half-time Eric calmly asked Wilkie “no yellow card then?” whilst manager Alex Ferguson – not yet a ‘Sir’ – was less than diplomatic when he urged Wilkie to do his “fucking job!” Wilkie ignored them both.
Ferguson didn’t actually see Eric jump into the crowd because he was too busy plotting how to set up his team’s tactics with 10 men, but was later told what had happened. Not impressed with the officials, Ferguson blamed Wilkie for letting the game get out of hand, and tore into the ref after the game. “This is all your fucking fault!” Ferguson screamed. He was right of course. According to author Michael Crick Ferguson was so incensed that a police officer had to intervene and drag the manager out of the referee’s quarters to stop the Scottish tirade of abuse.
Cantona didn’t play again that season. He missed six games in the FA Cup and 16 in the Premier League. United finished in second place, a massive 11 points ahead of third placed Nottingham Forest, but agonisingly one point behind Henning Berg’s Blackburn. That United sorely missed Eric was the understatement of the year – the club should have won the double. Of the six seasons Cantona spent in England, including one at Leeds United, the 1994/95 season was the only campaign in which he didn’t win the league.
“I honestly believe that we would’ve won the league that year, were it not for the suspension,” Eric later said.
“But I would have said it if another player had been suspended. If, say, Schmeichel, Bruce or Pallister had been suspended, it would have affected us massively too. We had a very balanced side. As soon as a player was injured or suspended, we struggled. That is the reason why I believe we should have won the European Cup too. We were one of the best sides in Europe, but UEFA had this rule about maximum of three foreigners in the squad.”
Eric never really revealed why he remained so calm, so many times, with all the abuse he received in England only to lose it with Simmons. According to Luke Beckley, then eight-years-old, Simmons shouted “fuck off, you motherfucking French bastard!” Eric received plenty more of the same on many occasions, but this time it was too much. Adding to the anxiety, perhaps, Cantona’s father Albert was sick and had been hospitalised for several weeks in Marseilles.
Shocking as the incident had been, no one could have predicted the near hysterical reaction by the country’s fourth estate, especially Sky. The difference, of course, being that the top division was now called “the Premiership” and Rupert Murdoch’s marketing men knew how to milk the most out of Cantona’s kung-fu kick. New subscriptions to the channel have never been higher, in shorter amount of time, than after 25 January ’95.
It wasn’t even the first time something like this had happened; 35 years earlier Busby Babe and Munich air disaster survivor Harry Gregg beat up a fan who stormed on to the pitch. In fact list of sportsmen doing something similar goes all the way back to Dixie Dean who struck a fan who insulted him in the early ’30s. Birmingham City’s Alberto Tarantini got into a fight with his own fans after a game against United in ’78. No punishment ensued in case. And everyone just laughed at Craig Bellamy when he struck a Manchester City supporter who stormed onto the pitch against United in 2009.
Eric was an easy target though. Foreign, French and a United player. Just the mix that the FA and the ‘anyone but United’ clique loved to hate. Even a sober newspaper such as the Telegraph published two editorials on 28 January – one about the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The other about Eric. Perspective.
Amidst the outcry and the disgracefully duplicitous FA – chief executive Graham Kelly privately said that a punishment from the club would be enough – few said it better than comedian Danny Baker. “Why the moral outrage?” he asked. “Most football fans just found it incredibly funny.” It still is, 20 years on.