Retrospective #5: Cantona’s moment of ‘sheer madness’

I’ll never forget the night of January 25th, 1995.

For anyone looking at the emotionless match summary, it’d prove a difficult task to find what was so extraordinary and unforgettable about the Premier League match that took place that evening. On a cold night at Selhurst Park, London, Crystal Palace and Manchester United played out a dreary 1-1 draw (Southgate 80′, May 56′) in the 94/95 season which ended so disappointingly for the Reds. On paper, it seemed like a routine fixture – United were trying to catch the big-spending Blackburn Rovers at the sharp end of the table, whilst Palace were fighting against relegation, a battle they eventually conceded. An away win was predicted, so the stalemate led to two vital points being dropped and ground lost on the Lancastrian side who were crowned champions four months later. In the days to come, however, that’s not all United lost.

What more can be said about Eric Cantona? He was “an absolute dream footballer” according to Sir Alex, and you’d be hard pressed to find a bigger United cult hero than the mercurial, enigmatic Frenchman. But for all of his qualities, King Eric had a weakness, and one that had reared its ugly head too often for many people’s liking. As referee Alan Wilkie brandished the red card in his direction that night, Cantona sauntered off the pitch, knowing his temper (or lack of it) had let him down for the fifth time in a United shirt. What happened next, however, would go down in football infamy forever.

Cantona was being escorted to the tunnel by then United kitman Norman Davies. As he recollected: “A steward insisted we move over to the touchline. At Selhurst Park, that puts you close to the fans. The abuse Eric was getting was nasty”. One of those aforementioned fans happened to be Matthew Simmons, a young man who had felt the need to run down 11 steps of the stand in order to give Cantona his two pennies worth. What did he say? It’s never been proved, but Simmons protested his innocence, claiming “It’s an early shower for you, Cantona!” were the only words that spilled out of his mouth that evening. The Frenchman clearly heard differently, however. Seconds later, Simmons was left reeling after Cantona had caught him on the chest, studs and all, with a two-footed martial arts kick. It was a chaotic, tumultuous and dramatic scene, but one which was so quintessentially Cantona – the perfect representation of a bloody minded, brooding and temperamental man who refused to do things by halves.

United lost Cantona to an eight month ban and went on to lose the title to Blackburn and the FA Cup Final to Everton. Any other squad member would have been castigated for the incident and blamed for the frustrating end to the season, but such was Cantona’s allure at Old Trafford that attitude was unthinkable. In effect, the relationship between Eric and the United crowd after Selhurst Park was an example of the ‘siege mentality’ mindset that Sir Alex Ferguson has drilled into his side time and again. As the media went into a frenzy – notably led by ‘The Sun’ who ran a 13-page article entitled ‘The Shame of Cantona’ – United fans rallied round and defended their talisman, despite the enormous impact his loss had caused the team. Unfortunately, a trophy-less season for a club as big as United meant that somebody had to be blamed. Five goals in one game and twelve goals in seventeen games total wasn’t enough to stop critics making Andy Cole their scapegoat for the stuttering end to the campaign.

After eight long months, a spell of community service and a quote about seagulls, Cantona came back to a changed Old Trafford landscape from the one he had left. Three experienced senior squad members – Ince, Hughes, Kanchelskis – had controversially departed the club, leading Sir Alex to place emphasis upon the burgeoning young talent which was breaking into the squad. On October 1st, 1995, United played arch-rivals Liverpool with a squad that included the Neville brothers, Butt, Scholes and Beckham, but few amongst the United faithful were focusing on them, or on the opposition. The King had returned. Long live The King.

This was written by Patrick Campbell. Newspaper clippings via TriciaRKG.

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