• Rewind to 1995

When Cantona went kung fu fighting

Nick Atkin
January 22, 2015
Eric Cantona's infamous kick on a fan at Selhurst Park brought worldwide headlines © PA Photos

"When the seagulls follow the trawler, they think it is because sardines will be thrown into the sea," Eric Cantona told a press conference, after narrowly avoiding a two-year prison sentence for launching a kung fu kick at an abusive Crystal Palace supporter on January 25, 1995.

Two decades have passed since the Manchester United star threw himself studs-first into the crowd at Selhurst Park, a moment that still lives in infamy, along with his cryptic soundbite, with the BBC to screen a special documentary on Thursday night.

Jim White, a sports columnist at the Daily Telegraph, said that the words implied the "media were just parasites and he [Cantona] was the boat that they were following".

If White was right, the boat had spectacularly capsized at Selhurst Park. Despite coming in an era before 24-hour sports news channels, Cantona's was still a kick seen and heard around the world.

United had headed to south London chasing their third Premier League title, locked in a two-way tussle with Kenny Dalglish's Blackburn. The season before, Cantona had starred as United sealed a Premier League and FA Cup double, scoring 25 goals along the way. But before the match at Selhurst was over, United's title defence was to be rocked.

Palace defender Richard Shaw, asked to do his usual man-marking job on Cantona by his manager Alan Smith, had "stuck to Eric like a rash", in the words of his teammate on the night, John Salako. Frustrated after several comings together in the first half, Cantona asked referee Alan Wilkie: "No yellow cards, then?"

As the teams re-emerged for the second half, United manager Alex Ferguson put it rather more bluntly: "Why don't you do your f***ing job?"

Eric Cantona was sent off for kicking Crystal Palace defender Richard Shaw © Getty Images

Wilkie didn't budge, so Cantona decided to take matters into his own hands. Just three minutes into the second half, Peter Schmeichel cleared the ball up the field. Off the ball, Shaw tussled with Cantona, again with Wilkie's back turned. Cantona lashed out, but in full view of Wilkie's assistant Eddie Walsh.

"It was all Shawsy's fault as well," Salako laughs. "Richard is the best man marker ever. He had a job to do on Eric and he did it so well Eric got so frustrated he literally booted Shawsy up the a***. Eric lost the plot."

Cantona was shown a red card, his first in six months but fifth in three years in England, all of them coming at United, who signed him from Leeds. The collar was pulled down as he trudged along the touchline toward the tunnel with United kitman Norman Davies in tow.

But his attentions turned to one Palace fan who ran forward several rows to shout abuse at him. Salako, playing on that same left-hand side, had a prime spot to witness the action. "I saw him confronting the crowd and then he just launched into this kung fu kick," he recalls. "It was the most surreal, amazing thing I'd ever seen, just like an out-of-body experience.

"We all went over there and it all went off. You shake your head and say, 'did this just happen?'"

The man Cantona kicked - or tried to kick - was 20-year-old Matthew Simmons. As Salako points out: "He got a bit caught up on the railings and didn't make too much contact.

"It wasn't like he walked over there, planted one on him, smashed his nose and his jaw. It was almost comical in the end."

With everyone all around him losing their heads, Smith managed to keep his in the Palace dugout. "All I thought was, 'That's great, they're down to 10 men and they've lost Cantona'," he says. "I was relieved. That was my selfish take on it at the time."

Taken away by the police after the incident, Simmons was later found guilty of using threatening language and behaviour, while Cantona claimed he had been racially abused.

Salako feels sympathy for Cantona. "The last thing you need is someone in your ear shouting abuse, whatever it was," he says. "Eric reacted to it, it all happened very quickly.

"You want to get him down the tunnel as quickly as possible. But it will stay in the history books now, a 'heads gone' moment that you can't take back. He spilled over at the wrong time."

The image of the incident would adorn the front page of every newspaper up and down the country.

"I snapped, and snapped again," says photographer Steve Lindsell in Philippe Auclair's Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King. "I thought I had a good picture but couldn't imagine the impact it would have.

"I went to my van outside Selhurst Park, printed the roll, which must have taken me 15 to 20 minutes, then sent the pictures. The first paper to receive them was the Daily Mirror. But it was only the day afterwards that all hell broke loose."

Andrew Fletcher and his 10-year-old son Charlie got a close-up view of the action © PA Photos

In that picture, with a look of sheer shock on his face, was a man attending his first football match in 20 years, taking his 10-year-old son to his first ever game. "It was quite an introduction as it were," says Palace supporter Andrew Fletcher.

"My son as a schoolboy claimed he wanted to support Manchester United, and then he wanted to go and see United. I said, 'Don't be so ridiculous, do you have any idea where Manchester is? Find out who your local team is, and support them'.

"Then it dawned on him that Palace were playing United so I got someone in the office who was a Palace supporter to get some tickets for us.

"I was a bit of a footballing virgin at that stage; I'm a rugby fan really. I hadn't really realised what was going on essentially, so when I took in what was actually happening, my immediate thought as a parent was, 'What the hell have I done bringing my son to a football stadium?'

"I thought there was going to be a riot. I just hunkered down, trying to keep out of the way of everyone rushing to the front to have a go.

"They were all baying for blood. My enduring vision is Paul Ince arriving with four or five other Manchester United players, squaring up to the Palace crowd, a 'who wants it first?' sort of thing. It was quite alarming actually."

Fletcher even gave a witness statement to the police. "I thought, 'I don't want to be involved in this," he said. "I wish I hadn't been there, why can't I go to a rugby match?'"

Cantona was hauled away by Davies and Schmeichel after punches were thrown by both parties. Davies took him into the dressing room and locked the door, telling a furious Cantona he would have to break it down to get back out onto the pitch.

Davies then brewed Cantona some tea to calm him. The tactic worked.

David May would go on to open the scoring in the 56th minute for United before Gareth Southgate levelled with 10 minutes to go. But no one was quite paying attention to any of that.

"What was the score in the end?" asks Salako, as he pauses before remembering. Who can blame him? "You were there on a night to witness an incredible incident that will go down in the history books. I can't remember anything similar."

Smith instructed his Palace players not to talk about the incident. "I can remember getting back into the dressing room and Alan just said, 'No one make any comment on that incident - just let them deal with it'," remembers Salako.

"That's really what we did. It just turned into one of the biggest things I've ever seen in football, the world's press descended on it. No one had seen anything like it. It was crazy."

Eric Cantona successfully appealed against a two-week jail sentence © Getty Images

Smith recalls: "I didn't concentrate on it, I just said well done to the players afterwards. We got a draw out of it, and at that time Manchester United were a massive team physically.

"That night they played in all black, the players hadn't had a shave. They were a real threatening team, with Paul Ince and Dennis Irwin, they really were one hell of a side. To actually get a point out of that game was phenomenal.

"It overshadowed the game, which it was bound to because it was such an exceptional incident.

"I just said let's get on with the next one. We were in the middle of a relegation battle. It was job done for us. I've got to say without putting him down that Cantona wasn't top of my list of things to think about.

"We had to play Manchester United in the cup semi-final later as well. I didn't want to wind that situation up. Alex is not one to forget something.

"Afterwards, Alex [Ferguson] was complaining and it made me laugh, I remember him distinctly saying, 'Well, what the bloody hell was wrong with that then?' I said, 'You know, it's an everyday occurrence in Putney High Street, Alex, don't worry about it'. It was just laughable. But he didn't come in for a drink afterwards, I noticed. Normally he'd pop in."

Fletcher also opted to keep a low-profile - though it proved a little tougher than he thought. "It was rather surreal actually," he says.

"On the tube, all these people were staring at the photograph in the papers and I was thinking, 'What you're looking at, I'm standing right next to you'.

"No one recognised me. A few people from work did, they sent me screensavers. Pretty quick off the block actually, I must say.

"The Sun and the Mirror said, 'Anybody in this photograph identify yourself and have £250 so we can come and interview you'. People at the office said, 'Come on Fletch', but I didn't want anything to do with it. I was just embarrassed to have witnessed it really.

"The man who'd actually organised this ticket for me at the office, who's been a Palace supporter for years, he had a notice board full of other people's company ties and business cards and things, and he had a picture of me the next morning at five past eight with a big bright arrow saying, 'Does anyone know this football hooligan?'"

Still, at least there was some good to come out of the whole incident. "After all the hooliganism, when we were walking back to the car, my son said, 'Dad, I want to support Crystal Palace'.

"He didn't want anything to do with United after that. He's been a Palace fan ever since. In the family it was known as 'The Conversion on the Road to Selhurst'. So it was probably worth it."


Manchester United suspended Cantona until the end of the season, but - to Ferguson's fury - the FA extended the ban until October 1, 1995. Cantona was also fined £10,000 to boot.

In Cantona's absence, Blackburn beat United to the title by a single point. All was forgiven next season though - Cantona would lead United to another double.

Richard Shaw, on the other hand, would go on to be voted Crystal Palace's player of the year.

Nick Atkin is an assistant editor at ESPN. You can follow him on Twiiter @NickAtkinESPN

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