Whether he was known as dieu or roi, Manchester United's Eric Cantona showcased an infectious joie de vivre that made him endearing almost immediately at Old Trafford. Crossing the Pennines ensured instant warmth, but his mastery as a footballer was impossible not to appreciate even when plying his trade in Yorkshire. Two months prior to his transfer, he executed an outrageous bicycle kick at the Stretford End which, although saved by Peter Schmeichel, still compelled some United supporters to applaud a Leeds player. Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister raved about him and consequently Alex Ferguson decided he’d found the catalyst to end the Club’s 26-year wait for a league title.
So when at Selhurst Park Cantona embedded his studs in Matthew Simmons’ chest before beating him mercilessly until restrained, reverence for him only intensified amongst United supporters. As a six-year-old Power Rangers fan, that surrealmoment of seeing Cantona cross the divide between supporters and players appeared worthy of kids television. Seeing as the Mighty Morphin’ Jason, Kimberly, Zack, Billy and Trini were in their pomp, the joke doing the rounds was “Cantona has signed for Rangers. Power Rangers.”
Appropriately clad in the iconic all-black strip, Cantona was dressed for what could have been his career funeral. Richard Shaw had kept a tight-rein on him throughout and as Cantona became more and more disenchanted with his evening he kicked out for a second time, and on this occasion was spotted by referee Alan Wiley. He had stamped on John Moncur the previous season before being sent off unjustly at Highbury three days later, but the lesson had still not been heeded and in south London, there was no protest at seeing red for the third time in black.
Again he had invited nationwide condemnation. As he gingerly headed towards the bench, he glimpsed the fury in Ferguson’s eyes which instructed him to continue towards the tunnel. For once, Cantona looked penitent and sheepish as he began the lonely walk past the Crystal Palace supporters, and as the atmosphere became more intense, United’s kit man Norman Davies hurried over to escort him down the tunnel. An avuncular figure, Davies bore little resemblance to a minder, and as the ‘cheerios’ were aired, Simmons rushed down eleven rows to yell: “You French b*****d. F*** off back to France, you mother f***er.”
He would later claim that he had made the descent as he needed the toilet, before yelling “Off you go Cantona, it’s an early shower for you,” when most witnesses recalled that it was more akin to the quote which preceded his fabricated claim. Black players had been and continue to be subjected to worse abuse than Cantona was, but the shameless xenophobia and mention of parental offspring sent him over the edge. Literally. Breaking from Davies’ grip, he executed his right boot into a shocked Simmons’ midriff over the advertising hoardings a la David Carradine, before rising to his feet and aiming a ferocious punch. Retrospectively, Cantona wishes he hit him harder. Henry Winter, The Daily Telegraph’s correspondent, was in the press box that evening, and recalled: “In every picture I have seen since, Cantona’s eyes are closed. Sharks do that when they go in for the kill.”
Inevitably, the nation went bat-sh** at what the man in black did. Simmons sold his story to The Sun (journalist Ian Ridley coined the term ‘kick and sell’) while Cantona was banned until October and sentenced to two weeks in prison, overturned in the appeal court to 120 hours of community service. Parents worried about the effect of what Cantona did on their children, because some are naïve enough to regard footballers as role models when they should be telling their children otherwise. Regardless, although as a then-six-year-old I found his kung fu kick cool and rebellious, I didn’t execute one in the playground and nor did anyone I knew. Quite the reverse effect occurred actually: it got me into football and a kinship was sealed. Although my first match came at the age of five, I hadn’t been charmed by the game, but then a special player, an icon, executed a sensational and iconoclastic moment that changed everything.
It was shortly revealed that Simmons had a history of right-wing politics, which possibly fuelled Richard Williams’ eloquent empathy for Cantona in the Independent on Sunday:“You didn’t have to look very long and hard at Mr Matthew Simmons of Thornton Heath to conclude that Eric Cantona’s only mistake was to stop hitting him… The more we discovered about Mr Simmons, the more Cantona’s assault looked like the instinctive expression of a flawless moral judgement.” Danny Baker, Five Live’s then majestic football phone-in host also weighed in by querying why the level of outrage was so high. “Most football fans just thought the whole thing was incredibly funny,” he said. And he was right.
He continued to be chastised in the public domain, with only his sponsors Nike and United protecting him from a sensational witch-hunt. One Nike billboard, on display outside Old Trafford, read: “We’ll never forget that night at Selhurst Park… when you buried that volley.” His appearance in a blue suit that embodied archetypal 90s fashion at an end-of-season home game against Southampton was lapped up as he took his place in the home dugout. Purportedly reclusive with the exception of his obligatory appearances in front of the authorities, he appeared atypically embarrassed, yet merrily waved as his name spread around Old Trafford. He knew that while he may be driven out of the country, his Mancunian tenants would not be kicking him out of their city and he repaid the favour the following season. Eight months, five days and 70 playing minutes since his inspired madness, he scored a penalty at the Scoreboard End against Liverpool to yield a 2-2 draw. In the final game of the season, against Liverpool again, he secured the double for United at Wembley with a nonchalant volley and delighted a then eight-year-old’s first cup final trip.
A year later following an all-day tournament I came home to learn of his sudden retirement. Numb, mouth gaping and puzzled, life would go on but United wouldn’t be the same. In memoriam the following day’s bank holiday trip to the park ensured a final outing for the 96/97 away shirt - bearing his name. Collar raised, naturally.
His chants are still aired religiously and always will be, for he enjoys a following which the Holy Trinity of Best, Law and Charlton would struggle to rival as a collective, let alone individually. The enemy who crossed the Pennines. The catalyst who ended the torment. The rebel who would be king.
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