It was the winter of 1995. Crystals of white and a mellow breeze cloaked the streets and stadiums of England. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were riding the waves of adversity, sitting 5 points off leaders Blackburn Rovers heading into their game against the leaders. As the defending champions looked to close the gap on the table, the spotlight was on one man – Eric Cantona.
December had not been easy for Sir Alex Ferguson & co., who had seen two draws against Leicester City and Southampton. Cantona, however, was on a hot streak, having taken his tally to 10 for the season.
The Manchester United vice captain’s stellar form continued in January, when he had already scored 13 goals in 21 matches. All the hype for the game against Blackburn revolved around the Frenchman, who knew how close he could take his team to the title.
Cantona looked ready before the game, but a little flustered during it. Throughout the 90 minutes, he and Colin Hendry were locked in a personal battle trying to get the better of one another. With the score still at 0-0 at 79 minutes, Ryan Giggs danced past the Blackburn defence, and through sheer will stopped the ball from rolling over for a goal kick. The Welshman then whipped in the sweetest cross you’ll see.
Its speed was enough to catch everyone off guard. Everyone but Cantona, who had timed his run to perfection and without missing a beat, headed the ball into the roof of the net. The inevitable had happened.
King Cantona was on the scoresheet. Blackburn were still two points above United, but it all looked insignificant in front of the kind of show Giggs, Cantona and Andy Cole had been putting up as of late. Their next visit was to Selhurst Park and the Red Devils had no reason to fear Crystal Palace.
Louis Philippe, in his book “Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King” described the eponym as “a luxury car running on diesel” in the way Cantona grew through the season, getting ruthless with each passing game. However, Cantona’s galloping form was soon to end in unfathomable circumstances, when he was tantalisingly close to his best.
The game had been pretty uneventful, much like everyone had expected until half time at least. Palace sat back and disturbed United’s rhythm by playing long balls over the opposition full-backs to their wingers.
Centre-back Richard Shaw had successfully marked Cantona out throughout the game, stepping out of position to combat with the Frenchman. Cantona would often drop deep, but Shaw did not find this troubling, as his position was covered by the very able Gareth Southgate.
It went on like this till about half-time, after Shaw was continuously landing tackles on the shin of the then- 28-year-old. An irate Cantona walked up to the referee, Alan Wilkie, and asked him, “No yellow cards then?”, after which Sir Alex Ferguson’s voice from the background was heard, shouting, “Do your job!” as the three made way into the tunnel for the interval.
The game was starting to heat up, tensions flared up among the fans at Selhurst Park. The fracas between Shaw and Cantona looked like it would extend beyond the confines of football regulations. Just three minutes into the second half, the English defender took advantage of facing the referee’s back and propelled his stud onto Cantona’s foot.
This foul had gone unnoticed, but the latter’s retaliation, a kick of his own was caught by Wilkie, who showed a red card to the Frenchman. This was all too familiar for Cantona, who had been sent off for the fifth time in three years in England – all with Manchester United, none with Leeds United. He showed little to no argument; he knew the booking was unavoidable but fair.
The long walk back to the dressing room was a familiar one, however, during his stride back, he paused, gazed back at the pitch and tugged down his collar. His time on the pitch was over. He made no contact with his gaffer as Ferguson looked in a different direction. As the cameramen followed him meandering back, they had no idea about what they were about to capture.
Matthews Simmons, a 20-year-old had rushed down 11 rows, right in the front row to be face to face with the United forward, and had said something that acted as a trigger for an already fuming Eric Cantona. Too much had happened in the split second between the Manchester United kitman trying to grab hold of Cantona and the stewards trying to hold back the Palace fan.
In that split second, Cantona flung himself, foot first, studs up, kung-fu style on Simmons. It would be an understatement to say that the footballing world was taken aback, because this incident resonated in the news throughout the world. Nobody had seen something like this before.
The victim, Matthew Simmons, in a paid interview with The Sun, seemed to recall saying “Off you go Cantona, it’s an early bath for you”, but according to those around him, his words more closely matched some unmentionable expletives that caused Cantona to retaliate. Then 28, Cantona had followed up the drop kick with a series of punches and had to be stopped by several members of security and the club staff.
Even though it felt like an eternity, only a minute and a half had eclipsed between him hitting the fan and being escorted out by three men, one of whom was United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel. Cantona marched off with his chest puffed and head held high, hardly bothered by the screams from the stands and what the future might hold for him.
The man who was on the receiving end of the spectacular acrobatics from Cantona was no regular citizen. He was a racist, with a history of crime. Simmons, at 17, had assaulted a Sri Lankan cashier and was charged with ‘assault with intention to rob’. He had been fined £100, and placed on 2 years probation.
Simmons was quite lucky that the only consequence he faced for the Cantona incident was a load of barrage from the media, who applauded Cantona for flawless moral judgment. Cantona, however, faced disciplinary action post the incident, not only from the FA, but from the English Legal System as well. He was initially given a two-week prison-time, later freed on bail.
Later, he was sentenced to 120 hours of community service by the court. On top of this, Cantona was fined £20,000, with a suspension of 6 months, and a further £10,000 after revaluation. His suspension was also increased to 8 months. The France National Football team’s coach, Aime Jacquet stripped Cantona off the side’s captaincy.
Even though he was charged and punished heavily, Cantona faced tremendous support from the Manchester United faithfuls as well as the newspapers. Richard Williams of The Independent said, “Eric Cantona’s only mistake was to stop hitting him.” Television presenter, and then part of the The Fantasy Football League show, said “comfortably the best thing that’s happened this season – it was absolutely brilliant”.
It was not entirely positive, though. The Mirror described it as “the night football died of shame”, with a back-page headline, “Is this the end for the madman?” A lot more newspapers came roaring down, taking United apart for their delay in response. More important than the mixed and quick reaction of the media, though, was how Cantona’s manager would respond to this episode.
As Sir Alex Ferguson wrote in his autobiography, he did not see the incident live. He was busier in re-organising the team as they were down a man in a very important game. But, at around 3 in the morning, he saw the incident, which was recorded by his son Jason, and described that the shock was huge.
Many people expected that the club would terminate Cantona’s contract and sack him, as probably most clubs would these. Ferguson, however, was gradual in responding to the situation, saying that no individual was bigger than the club, but Cantona was responsible is making the club ‘big’. After repeated evaluations, United fined the French striker £10,800 – two weeks of his wages. The club and the manager were praised for supporting their player during a time like this.
An incident of this stature, in the 90s could not have been possibly handled better. The OBE recipient really stood up as an ambassador of the sport and backed his forward like no one else possibly would.
In fact, we have seen cases similar to these in recent times, when Maurizio Sarri tried to substitute Kepa Arrizabalaga, but the player refused to come off the pitch. Sarri, overcome with emotions, almost left the stadium. One can argue that he administered the state of affairs in a better manner later on, benching and fining Kepa.
Roy Keane later admitted, saying, “I don’t think any other football man would have demonstrated the skill, resolve and strength that Alex Ferguson did managing the Cantona affair.” He had to convince the board of directors at one of the biggest clubs in the world that Cantona deserved to stay at the club, and that his only punishment be a minimal fine and a few weeks of missed training.
They don’t make players like Eric Cantona anymore. This is not a commentary on how footballers are more sensitive and the game needs to find a stronger, harsher grip. It is just to say that, like Cantona, sometimes you need to take matters in your own hands and deal with racists yourself. Sometimes, all you need is a kick.
There have been players who have been subject to racist remarks by fans in the recent past. The number of cases are disturbing to say the least. Most recently, Moussa Marega and Mario Balotelli walked off the pitch after being subjected to racist chants in the form of monkey sounds, in different matches.
The best example of a scenario similar to Cantona’s which was handled exceptionally poorly was of Juventus’s Moise Kean. The Italian striker, on a similar motif, was subjected to racial abuse by Cagliari fans. But, instead of coming forward in defence of the youngster, vice captain, Leonardo Bonucci said, “Kean shouldn’t have provoked the opposition fans.” Scarring for the teenager, to say the least.
Meanwhile, as the season wore on, Manchester United had a lot of chances to catch up with Blackburn, but failed to do so, without Cantona in the mix. The campaign ended with United finishing 2nd, a point off champions Blackburn.
Next season, they were back in the race for the title. But more importantly, King Cantona was back firing as soon as October arrived, scoring in his first game back. And, who better to mark a long-awaited return than against fierce rivals Liverpool.
The club’s rock solid support for the French striker was shown when they handed him the captaincy in 1996, after the departure of Steve Bruce. This came as a shock to fans, but it was a decision that the Old Trafford constants could back wholeheartedly. Cantona retired from the game aged just 30, but a bonafide Manchester United legend, in 1997.
But, 25 years from the infamous day, Eric Cantona still describes this chaotic show as his best moment in a Manchester United shirt, “My best moment? I have a lot of good moments but the one I prefer is when I kicked the hooligan.”
Those 90 seconds were a jiffy when Cantona ignored his conscience, acted solely on instinct and did what was necessary. He went down in glory in an attempt to kick racism out of football. Literally and figuratively.