25 years on: When Eric Cantona launched himself into infamy

Eric Cantona's infamous kung-fu kick has been called football’s ‘JFK moment,’ when everyone of a certain age can remember where they were when it happened.

25 years on: When Eric Cantona launched himself into infamy

Eric Cantona's infamous kung-fu kick has been called football’s ‘JFK moment,’ when everyone of a certain age can remember where they were when it happened.

I can never forget it, because the Frenchman’s astonishing attack on a Crystal Palace fan happened in front of my eyes.

Exactly 25 years ago, on a frosty Wednesday night in south London, Cantona launched himself, studs up, into the chest of Matthew Simmons, and also into the annals of football history. The event would dominate the news for weeks.

It is unique in English football and, thankfully, has never been repeated.

The repercussions for Cantona, Manchester United, and the Premier League were long-lasting, and this single incident perhaps did more than anything to accelerate Alex Ferguson’s blooding of United’s class of ’92 and establishment of Old Trafford as the powerbase of English football for most of the next two decades.

And of the thousands watching at Selhurst Park that night, and millions watching on TV over the coming days and years, few had a better view of the unfolding action than the 50 or so of us crammed into Crystal Palace’s antiquated press box, directly above, and in front of, the spot where it all ‘kicked off’.

We’d been expecting a lively game, to say the least, with Kenny Dalgish’s Blackburn Rovers pushing United hard, as Fergie’s men went in search of a third successive Premier League title. Palace were a gritty, mid-table side, albeit with two future international managers in their ranks: the refined Gareth Southgate and the more rugged Chris Coleman.

The latter later admitted he and his central defensive partner, Richard Shaw, had planned to rile Cantona with some rough stuff, knowing they would get as good as they could give, and maybe provoke a reaction from the United talisman.

But not even they expected quite what was to follow, after Cantona tried a sly trip on Shaw shortly after half-time. Referee, Alan Wilkie, was advised by his linesman, and several Palace players, who the villain was, and issued Cantona a red card.

The Frenchman turned, collar up, as ever, for the long walk down the touchline, towards the dressing rooms, past the manager’s dugout, where Ferguson did not even make eye contact. Up in the press box, we were all buzzing at the prospect of a major story unfolding and knew this would be headline news on the back pages.

But no-one foresaw what was to happen next.

As Cantona was led along the touchline, a leather-jacketed figure charged down the steps in front of us to the edge of the stand. Our instincts sensed trouble, but we were all expecting the aggression to be from fan to player, not the reverse.

Cantona saw, or more likely heard, abuse from Simmons, stopped and, for what was a split-second but seemed much longer, flew in, feet up, with fists flailing. And then, just as quickly, it was over.

Cantona was hustled along the touchline by kit man,Norman Davies, and Peter Schmeichel, while cups of tea and coffee were flung at them. It was chaos along the front of the stand, while, up in the press box, one reporter leapt up on to his desk to get a better view and shouted: “He can’t do that; he can’t get away with that.”

As we were all to discover, Cantona was certainly not going to get away with it.

The match carried on, ending 1-1, with Southgate cancelling out David May’s goal for United, but that was already irrelevant.

Cantona’s king-fu kick was the lead item on the 10pm news bulletin and pushed sport from the back to front pages for weeks.

As a freelance reporter, I was suddenly in demand by all those outlets not represented in the press box that night.

One Sunday paper asked me to make my way to South Norwood police station, where Cantona and Paul Ince, who was incorrectly alleged to have punched a fan, were taken.

I kept watch outside until midnight, when their news reporter arrived, a sure sign this was no longer just a football story.

I got the first editions of the morning papers at a central London petrol station on my way home, read my match report, and read about Mark Bosnich knocking out Jurgen Klinsmann, 100 miles north, at Villa Park, with a horror tackle. But there was really only one story in town.

And every paper had THAT picture of the man in black launching himself into the Selhurst Park crowd.

It would run and run, until Cantona had his day in court, greeting his nine-month ban with his infamous, cryptic, and nonsensical phrase about seagulls, trawlers, and sardines.

The ban made him consider quitting the game and prompted Ferguson to fast-track his youngsters, after Blackburn pipped United to the title by a point.

By the time Cantona returned, the following autumn, the likes of Beckham, Scholes, and the Nevilles had joined Ryan Giggs in the first team and a new era was underway, with the young generation supplemented by the returning hero, in their supporters’ eyes, at least.

Cantona went on to lead United to the title as top scorer, and hit the winning goal in the FA Cup final as they completed their second double. The comeback was complete; the legend was truly cemented.

And not one of us who was there at Selhurst Park that Wednesday night, 25 years ago, can say we saw it coming.

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