Were it not for what happened in the 56th minute, there would not be much about the Carling Premiership encounter between Crystal Palace and Manchester United on 25 January 1995 to stick in the minds of the 18,244 in attendance.
A nervy stalemate, two years into English football’s rebranding, as a commercial for the “whole new ball game” it should have been referred to the Advertising Standards Authority.
United had arrived in south London with their record signing Andy Cole. But any hope that the 22 year old striker bought from Newcastle for £7million would immediately strike up a rapport with the team’s playmaker Eric Cantona were disabused soon after kick off. Cantona seemed more interested in pursuing a private feud with his marker, the Palace centre back Richard Shaw, than in establishing a relationship with his new colleague.
All first half the pair bickered, as Shaw followed the Frenchman all over the pitch, breathing down the upturned collar of his black United shirt. Much to Cantona’s chagrin, the referee Alan Wilkie had not noted any transgression in Shaw’s work, leaving him free to go about his business untroubled by official sanction.
In the 56th minute Cantona, a man who had long maintained a combustible response to perceived injustice, exploded. As the pair gave chase to a long punt from the goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, Cantona flicked a sly kick which connected with his marker’s shin. Shaw went down and Wilkie did not hesitate. He pulled the red card from his pocket.
It was the fifth time Cantona had been dismissed in the myriad colours of United. But it was not his dismissal that is so vividly remembered. As he made his way to the dressing room, along the front of the stand where the Palace fans were stationed, a 20-year-old glazier called Matthew Simmons ran towards him, shouting. Later he was to claim that what he said was no more provocative than “it’s an early bath for you, Mr Cantona.” Witnesses in the immediate vicinity recall his language was somewhat more direct.
“Provocation we always had,” Cantona said recently of the incident. “Millions of times people say these things, and then one day you don’t accept it. Why? It’s not about words. It’s about how you feel at that moment. One day you react, but the words are exactly the same as those you have heard a million times, so it is impossible to say why you react.”
But react Cantona did. He leapt the barrier between stand and pitch, feet forward in a perfectly executed martial arts kick, to plant both sets of studs firmly in Simmons’s chest. Then, after falling back on to the pitch side, he picked himself up and threw a sharp right-hander.
At that point most of the players on the pitch ran over to the source of the fracas, which rapidly descended into a push-me-pull-you scrap.
“All I saw was Eric in trouble,” Schmeichel recalls. “We were a team. We were all in it together, whatever. So I went over to pull him away. It wasn’t until I saw the pictures later that I realised what had happened.” It was not the first or last occasion that a sportsman had attacked a paying customer.
In 1979, several members of the Boston Bruins ice hockey team had left the ice to engage in running battles with fans of the New York Rangers. It was not even the first time a Manchester United player had done it: after a match at Luton Town in 1960, Harry Gregg had hit a lippy fan so hard that he knocked him out.
But this was different. Unlike when Gregg delivered instant retribution, this time there were cameras to record the moment. and Cantona’s assault became a story that engulfed the British media for days, migrating from the back pages to the front, filling broadcast time, furring up the wavelengths via that newly invented barometer of public opinion the football phone-in. There were even questions asked about it in the House of Commons.
“The Shame of Cantona: Full story pages 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 22, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47 & 48,” read the panel on the front page of The Sun two days later.
There was a reason for The Sun’s enthusiasm for the story. What commercial manna it offered to the Premier League’s paymasters, The Sun’s stablemates BSkyB: the week after the battle of Selhurst, subscriptions to it satellite service saw their biggest surge in their short history. It was the perfect drama. And every drama needs a bad guy; Cantona came ready-made from central casting as the most charismatic of pantomime villains.
Not everyone was condemnatory in their response. Danny Baker, the presenter of the BBC Radio Five football phone in 606, asked this rather pertinent question: “Why the moral outrage? Most football fans just found it incredibly funny.” Lee Sharpe certainly did. Playing on United’s wing that evening, he has subsequently workshopped the incident into the core of his comic after dinner speech.
“The gaffer comes into the dressing room and is fuming,” is Sharpe’s memory of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reaction. “He screams at David May and Gary Pallister 'ou effin this, you effin that’. He turns to me and Giggsy 'you effin pair of useless **** what the eff were you doing out there?’ Then he sees Cantona and he unleashes both barrels at him, really gives him what for: 'Eric old son do you think maybe, on second thoughts, that wasn’t such a good idea?’” Cantona, who went on to serve the longest ban in English football in the 30 years since Tony Kay and Peter Swan were banned for life for a betting scam in 1964, was typically enigmatic in his response.
“I don’t care about being some sort of superior person. I just wanted to do whatever I wanted to do,” he said. “If I want to kick a fan I do it. I am not a role model. I think the more you see, the more you realise that life is a circus.” Not that there was much of a circus atmosphere after he departed the scene at Selhurst Park that night. And for one player there, Cantona’s notorious intervention somewhat upstaged his moment. David May, signed from Blackburn the previous summer, scored United’s goal, his first for the club.
“At full time the gaffer had a go at me for their equaliser,” he remembered. “I thought, 'Eric’s just jumped into the crowd and leathered someone and you’re having a go at me for a goal that was nothing to do with me.’ And I bloody well scored our goal too. It’s a great pub quiz question though isn’t it? Who scored for United on the night of Cantona’s Kung Fu kick?”