Don’t mess around with Eric – he’ll kick your ass. Or rather, kick you right in the chest with his cleats still on and send a flurry of punches your way, as one does when on Putney High Street.
The Frenchman grew up in a rough part of Marseille, literally being raised in a cave, but quickly discovered his talent for manipulating the movements of a football with a deft touch and quick feet. Collar up, swagger turned to 11, he was destined for greatness.
He just happened to say and do some crazy shit along the way. Here’s but one occurrence in the saga that is the life of Eric Cantona.
Making their way on to the ground at Selhurst Park, Manchester United looked like they were dressed for a funeral, wearing all black from boot to collar. Seems appropriate, given the fate of both clubs that year; United would fall one solitary point behind Blackburn Rovers for supremacy of the league, while Crystal Palace would see themselves relegated to the second division (known as the First Division) on the final day, despite being fourth from the bottom (the last year that rule would be in effect).
It also seems appropriate that they wear all black to the last match United’s players would start alongside Cantona that year, as his attack on Mr. Simmons would see him banned for eight months and end with a curious comment about sardines and seagulls.
Just after the second half began in south London, United keeper Peter Schmeichel sends a goal kick up the pitch, and all is normal. Further up the field though, just after the halfway line on Crystal Palace’s half, Cantona and defender Richard Shaw make contact, upon which Eric did not take a liking, duly dishing out a little kick that send Shaw to the ground. (This little effort was just a prelude to what would occur in just a few moments).
Due to the contact on Cantona’s part, referee Alan Wilkie issued a red card for 7 in black, giving Crystal Palace the man advantage.
The contact from Shaw apparently wasn’t the first time he’d had a go at the French magician, and after getting booked himself and feeling that was desperately unfair, Eric got a little heated, as he wasn’t one who held his temper with a tight leash.
Hands at his sides, collar up, Cantona was in disbelief, but was ushered off the pitch. United’s kitman Norman Davies was in charge of taking Cantona to the showers, but in hindsight, more than one man should have been tasked with getting the man out of Selhurst Park.
At some point in between the foul committed by the United forward and his being taken off the pitch, a Londoner by the name of Matthew Simmons quickly descended to the bottom of the stand, getting himself eye-level with Cantona. It’s not known for certain what was said, but Simmons let loose a barrage of insults, one in particular which sent an already burned Cantona in a raging torrent of hate, evidenced by his actions in the seconds after Simmons called Eric’s mother a whore.
That’s not going to sit well with anyone, especially the boy from Marseille.
Suddenly, Cantona sends a forceful kick straight out of Bruce Lee’s training videos into the chest of Simmons, which was then followed by a few quick punches. Bruce would have loved the effort, but not the execution. Just like a Conor McGregor bout, it was over in seconds.
The violent moment sent the crowd into a frenzy, and all of a sudden a dull match had become an intense battle between two clubs that in the past never had any ill will towards each other. The fans felt it, and certainly the players felt it, as all of a sudden they started playing madly, going at each other with energy that wasn’t seen in the first half.
Eric Cantona will do that to a match, whether he plays in 90 minutes or just 48, as in this instance.
Eight minutes after the sending off, 10-man United took a 1-0 lead thanks to a goal from David May, who opened his Manchester account that day.
The match ended in a 1-1 draw thanks to a late goal from Gareth Southgate, denying United from reaching top of the table, which could have had an effect on their title hopes, given they fell just short of becoming champions for the third year in a row.
Sir Alex Ferguson gave his ‘hairdryer’ treatment in the locker room after the match, but despite his dreadful actions, Eric Cantona didn’t get so much as a slap on the wrist from the famed United manager.
Well, at least the FA dealt the harsher punishment.
Manchester United initially took the punishing upon themselves, giving Eric a 4-month ban and a fine, but that wasn’t sufficient in the eyes of those at the Football Association, who felt that adding four more months would do the trick. United’s ban would mean they were without Cantona for the rest of the ’94/’95 campaign, which was a pretty solid move by them, considering their title hopes weren’t set in stone by any means. To give up your prized talent in a competitive season showed United’s respect for the issue at hand, and wanted to maintain the club’s status as a fine footballing organization that doesn’t employ people of a foul nature.
Good one, United.
An action like that had never been seen before, and nor has it since; Eric Cantona’s kung-fu kick was something you’d never dream would happen in the Premier League (Sunday League though, is another issue altogether).
Striking a player for a vicious tackle is one thing, but leaping at a spectator feet-first doesn’t establish oneself as charitable figure, not that Eric Cantona went for that look anyway.
There wasn’t any precedent for such an incident, at least in the footballing world, so the FA didn’t have a whole lot to go on in terms of determining the punishment for such an outrageous act. All they had was United’s effort at handling the issue, and being that they had to do something about it, they doubled Cantona’s ban. The FA needed to establish some authority on the matter, especially after Cantona made English football look like a cage fighting dojo, almost singlehandedly reviving English hooligansim (not that Simmons didn’t do his part).
United fined Cantona £20,000, but after the FA got their hands on the case, they tacked on another £10,000 for good measure. That’s how much Eric made in a week, so it seemed like an affective and just fine.
Since kicking someone like that is assault, Cantona faced the English judiciary like a child bracing for a huge wave, but there was no real retribution from Simmons or the legal system; Eric would simply have to sit alone in a cell for two miserable weeks. The only thing is, he never did the time. (Simmons put Cantona’s lawyer in a headlock, by the way).
A week later, Cantona’s legal team appealed the decision, and quickly got the footballer known for his flair a much nicer sentence, having to conduct 60 2-hour training sessions with young Manchester footballers.
Immediately after the appeal was announced a success, Cantona held one of the weirdest press conferences ever, leaving reporters with a rather unique parting gift:
“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”
Your guess is as good as mine as to what he meant by that.