I vividly remember the night it happened: 25 January, 1995.
As a football-mad youngster with no Sky TV, Radio 5 Live was my sporting oxygen, and I would tune in without fail to every game, to follow the fortunes of the teams in the Premier League. The following season, I would gain my first Leyton Orient season ticket and become a fully-fledged Os supporter for the rest of my life, but in 1995 I was still blinded by the attraction of the top division, and specifically Manchester United and their charismatic Frenchman Eric Cantona.
The year that I fell in love with football was 1990, when perennial underachievers United had embarked on a glorious run to Wembley to claim the FA Cup; two years later they finally ended their 26 year wait for the title and knocked Liverpool off their perch. They played with style, verve, two wingers – and they had Eric the King who, compared to the likes of Brian McClair and Denis Irwin (great players though they were) was impossibly glamorous, and impossibly charismatic. The upturned shirt collar, the air of nonchalance, the sheer arrogance and self-confidence he had – he was the exact opposite of who I was and I loved him for it.
And then came that night at Selhurst Park.
I had listened in on 5 Live and heard just what he had done – jumping into the crowd to kung-fu kick a Crystal Palace fan after receiving a red card - but could it really have been as bad as they described? I crept downstairs later after the game to be met by my stern-faced dad who solemnly said that he’d seen what Cantona had done on the news and that he’d really let himself down this time – and he wasn’t sure whether I should even be allowed to watch the game’s highlights on Sportsnight. I managed to convince him otherwise to be met by an equally stern-faced Des Lynam introducing the program as seriously as if the Queen had died. The mood was that sombre.
We all knew Eric was volatile – I’d read his autobiography and loved his stories of calling each and every member of a French disciplinary tribunal an ‘idiot’, while he’d been sent off twice for United the previous season for an horrific tackle in a game against Swindon receiving another red card in the very next game against Arsenal, earning himself a five match ban – but this seemed to be a new level of disgrace for him; the final straw of unacceptable behaviour. As The Guardian put it in their match report the following day: “the nitro-glycerene in human form that is Eric Cantona”.
I’d always defended him – his book (which I had reviewed to a rather puzzled English teacher for an assigment) had revealed what a thoughtful, intelligent and considered guy he was and his volatile nature was simply an inextricable part of a complex character – but maybe my dad, Des Lynam, and the rabid English press, who used the incident to tear into him, had been right all along. Maybe he was just a thug who had let his team down and attacked an innocent fan just because he’d lost his temper.
I was bitterly upset. He’d be booted out of Old Trafford and never seen again. That was it for Eric the King. And he’d deserve it. After all, it was indefensible, was it not?
Well, one person defended him: my aunt’s friend Val, who lived in Crystal Palace herself, was visiting that very night, and assured me that there must have been a reason he’d done what he’d done, and that I should stick with him until I found out what had really happened. If he really was my hero, then I should support him, no matter what.
And she was right.
Manchester United immediately went on the defensive, attempting to pre-empt any action from the FA by banning him for the rest of the season and fining him £20,000; it didn’t work, as the FA subsequently extended that ban until the following September and added another £10,000 fine. A hint of the truth behind the situation, however, came when Graham Kelly, then chief executive of the FA, stated that the commission “took into account the provocation suffered by Eric Cantona”, adding that it was concerned “about the increasing levels of abuse which footballers seem to have to suffer. We don’t think it is acceptable, we don’t think it’s part of the game”.
Just what this ‘provocation’ was soon became clear.
Matthew Simmons, the man who Cantona kicked, claimed that he had merely said "Off! Off! Off! It's an early bath for you, Mr Cantona!" – which, for anyone who has ever attended a football match, is about as likely as you being selected from the stands to play up front before netting a hat-trick – but far more likely were the allegations that he had, in fact, screamed at him to "f*** off back to France you French bastard" and called his mother a “French whore”. Simmons was later sentenced at Croydon Magistrates Court, receiving a £500 fine for using threatening behaviour and a year-long stadium ban – upon receiving the verdict he lunged at the prosecution lawyer, which led to him being sentenced to seven days in prison for contempt of court.
Cantona was given a two week jail term, reduced to 150 hours community service on appeal, but to me, this was irrelevant. Whatever the rights or wrongs, there was a reason for Eric’s behaviour, and I have to say I respected it.
Why should a footballer have to put up with that sort of xenophobic abuse, just because he was playing for an opposition team? Why should he just have to stand there and take it, week-in, week-out? Yes, of course, in theory, he shouldn’t have reacted, he should have gone through the proper channels and reported him – although what would have been the likelihood of anything coming of that. But who (aside from Croydon Crown Court, of course) could judge a man for standing up for himself and not accepting what was – unarguably – unacceptable abuse? Of course, the likes of John Barnes had never reacted to the constant racist abuse he received throughout his career – and all credit to him for that – but, equally, you could not blame a man for not tolerating what should not be tolerated and confronting it head on.
As defender Gary Pallister put it, "Eric was always the number one target for supporters around the country. It wasn't just players who tried to wind him up but fans felt as though they could do it as well. Some of the abuse he got was terrible. Eventually it took its toll on him I think and it all came to a head that night. He was such a hate figure because he was such a good player."
Sadly, the issue is still relevant today, as football fans are given carte blanche to abuse players as they see fit, although, thankfully - in my experience at least - it’s far rarer these days, with most ‘abuse’ limited to tribal panto insults and anything more serious tending to be called out by fellow fans.
No one deserves to be insulted like that, whoever they are, and Eric taught me that sometimes you need to stand up for yourself in life.
Of course, following the trial, he also taught me the value of philosophy.
In a later interview, Eric explained the incident in his own words, saying:
“When I did the kung-fu kick on the hooligan, because these kind of people don’t have to be at the game ... it’s like a dream for some, you know sometimes to kick these kind of people. So I did it for [the fans]. So they are happy. It’s a kind of freedom for them.
“So they speak about that because maybe they felt it. Because they felt something special physically. Maybe it was a different feeling. It’s a great feeling, but different. But I have seen so many players scoring goals, they know this kind of feeling. This one – a player jumping and kicking a hooligan – it’s not the kind of thing you see every day.”
However, would he recommend others follow in his path?
“No it was a mistake. But that’s life. That’s me.”