If you were to ask Manchester United fans what was the most important kick in the club’s history, most would give the same answer.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s injury time toe-poke against Bayern Munich in 1999. The striker’s touch won the club their first European Cup in 31 years, in the most dramatic circumstances imaginable.
However, Solskjaer’s finish never happens if Teddy Sheringham doesn’t turn in Ryan Giggs scuffed right foot shot minutes earlier. United would have already been eliminated if it weren’t for Roy Keane’s goal against Juventus. The Treble could have been shot down in flames if Patrick Vieira’s misplaced pass, in the FA Cup semi-final replay, lands anywhere other than the feet of Giggs.
The winger would not have went on his famous mazy run if Peter Schmeichel fails to save Dennis Bergkamp’s last-minute penalty. One of the most successful seasons in football history hinged on numerous moments, so much so it’s difficult to pinpoint the most pivotal.
What’s in no doubt though is none of it would have been possible without Eric Cantona.
The Frenchman had retired two years previously, but was Manchester United’s most important player during the 1990s. The key that unlocked defences and titles, Cantona was the final piece in Alex Ferguson’s first great team and the catalyst for the all-conquering team of ’99.
When he signed from Leeds United in 1992, Ferguson said Cantona was: ‘the perfect player, in the perfect club, at the perfect moment’. However, their utopia was almost destroyed on this night 20 years ago, a night that, in many ways, would be the making of the club’s future successes.
To fully understand the context of the evening, one needs to get a sense of the type of team United were. The reigning Premiership and FA Cup holders were aggressive, arrogant and, at times, nasty.
United were not only capable of matching their opponents physically, they relished the prospect. The only comparable team is perhaps Don Revie’s Leeds team of John Giles, Billy Bremner and Norman ‘Bite yer legs’ Hunter. United were also the best football team in the country, albeit, in January ’95, one in patchy form.
While this doesn’t explain Cantona’s Kung-Fu kick on Matthew Simmons, the 20-year-old who rushed 11 rows to the front of the stand to abuse the Frenchman, it does go some way to explaining how Cantona ended up leaping into the stands.
On January 25th 1995, Crystal Palace hosted United at Selhurst Park. A tight, tetchy first-half had seen strugglers Palace frustrate and contain United.
Defender Richard Shaw had spent the entire first-half kicking Cantona, much to the annoyance of the Frenchman and his manager, whose protests were ignored by referee Alan Wilkie. Three minutes into the second-half Cantona snapped, petulantly kicking his opponent and received a red card, his second of the season and fifth since arriving in England.
‘There’s the morning headline,’ Jon Champion said as Cantona turned down his collar and began walking towards the dressing room, past his impassive manager and alongside the baying crowd. The commentator had no idea what was about to happen would fuel months of morning headlines.
When the camera returned to Cantona, he frees himself from Norman Davies, the United kitman, hurdles the advertising hoarding, connects with a kick to Simmons’ chest, stumbles and throws two punches before both men are restrained. It was all over in seconds, but the story was just beginning.
By the time Cantona played again, on September 30th, he’d received and successfully appealed against a prison sentence. He’d fled and handed in a transfer request, lost the captaincy of the French national team, as United surrendered the league title to Blackburn Rovers and the FA Cup to Everton. All the while media hysteria took hold. Cantona’s act of hooliganism, against a hooligan, gave some license to turn him into an embodiment of all the game’s ills.
1995 was a bad time for English football. Less than a month after Cantona’s kick, England supporters rioted at Lansdowne Road. George Graham was sacked as Arsenal manager after it was discovered he’d accepted illegal payments in transfer deals. Yet, according to FA Chairman Graham Kelly, Cantona’s incident was ‘a stain on our game’.
Cantona’s act was a moment of madness, but some of the recrimination was drenched in xenophobia.
In 2015, foreign players dominate the English top-flight. Twenty years ago, a skilful, foreign player was a rare, and widely distrusted, novelty. English football was gradually emerging from the exile of the late ’80s, Sky Sports’ money was only beginning its osmosis and the game still creeping towards the product it would become.
There had never been a player like Cantona in England. A troubled reputation preceded him upon arrival on English shores. He’d spoke out against the corruption of Marseilles owner Bernard Tapie, thrown his jersey at his coach, a ball at a referee and called his former national team boss ‘a bag of shit’.
He was also a marvellous footballer, one of the most gifted of his generation and the key variable in the destination of each English league title during his time in the country.
Built like a heavyweight boxer, with the grace and balance of ballerina, Cantona’s spatial awareness, technique and power made him a formidable prospect. The nomadic striker found a home at Manchester United, a manager who would indulge his individuality and offer the perfect stage to fully express his considerable talent.
With his collar up, back straight and chest out, Cantona would stride onto the Old Trafford pitch. He was the player United fans had waited two decades for, the one to restore the club to the summit of English football, after 20 years of mediocrity, and the one they still sing about two decades later.
Cantona was voted PFA Player of the Year in 1994, so appreciation of his talent extended beyond Old Trafford. But, when things went wrong, as they did so dramatically 20 years ago today, a wider underlying distrust returned to the surface. The echo of ‘I told you so’ was deafening.
Pundits and commentators were largely in agreement; there could be no place for Cantona in English football. Mark Lawrenson, writing in the Irish Times, said ‘French arrogance’ was to blame for Cantona’s disposition. Former United player Bill Foulkes said: ‘Eric is French, they are different to us and he reacts differently’.
Cantona’s house was besieged by photographers as some media outlets commissioned psychologists to help shine a light on his seemingly troubled mind. One newspaper sent reporters to Marseilles, in an attempt to unearth details from his childhood to help explain his actions. A television crew even followed him and his family on holiday.
All the while commercial interests were exploited. Sky Sports subscriptions increased in the immediate aftermath, helped by The Sun’s coverage of the event, with Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper devoting 12 pages to the incident the following day. Meanwhile Nike planned Cantona’s return, content that their product was on the front page of every newspaper.
United, trying to preempt the Football Association, banned Cantona for the remainder of the season and fined him two weeks wages. However, the FA then extended the ban by a further six months to the last day of September. The longest suspension imposed by the FA since two players were banned for life in the 1960s for match-fixing.
Cantona also received a two-week prison sentence, before successfully appealing and carrying out the required community service. By the time of his famous ‘Seagulls’ press conference in March ’95, public opinion was beginning to turn.
In addition to the wit of the Frenchman, details about Simmons and his actions emerged. The 20 year-old sold his story to The Sun and claimed he’d confronted Cantona to say: ‘That’s an early bath for you Mr Cantona’.
Witnesses said it was more likely: ‘Fuck off back to France, you French bastard’.
Simmons lost his job, some friends and family disowned him and he couldn’t even go into a pub without being provoked. In 2007, he said he’d been ‘a bit of a cretin’ in his younger years.
United had planned to ease Cantona’s exile with a series of practice matches. However, when the FA got word of it they reminded the club that their striker was banned from all footballing activity. Cantona was furious, leaving England for France and submitting a transfer request.
Inter Milan had long wanted to sign the Frenchman, were prepared to meet United’s valuation of £5 million and could increase Cantona’s wages fivefold.
Italy was still the apex of world football at the time. Cantona had the chance to escape the British press, start over again in a new country and such a move would have been in keeping with his nomadic career path. Yet, he stayed, saying: ‘morally, it would be impossible for me to leave after what the people there have done for me’.
Ferguson’s initial reaction to the kung fu kick was he would have to sell Cantona. However, he almost instantly changed his mind, offering support and protection to his talisman. In his first autobiography, Roy Keane said: ‘I don’t think any other football man would have demonstrated the skill, resolve and strength that Alex Ferguson did managing the Cantona affair’. Cantona would stay and United fully reaped the benefits.
The Frenchman was incredible the following season as United overturned Newcastle’s 12-point lead and won the double. ‘There was a sense of a man inhabited by a kind of ferocious but controlled anger,’ the journalist Philippe Auclair said about Cantona’s performance. ‘A zealot bent on redressing an injustice and imposing a greater truth. Nothing would stand in his way’.
In the title run-in the score tended to be 1-0 to United, with Cantona getting the goal. The Frenchman’s redemption was complete with the Football Writers’ Player of the Year Award, and the winning goal against Liverpool in the FA Cup final. The rebirth of English football and the appeal of Premier League was built on such dramatic storylines.
Within a year he was gone and United were left without their talisman, however the influence of Cantona, and the legacy he helped create, carried the team through to their greatest triumph.
It’s purely hypothetical, but if Cantona doesn’t vault the advertising hoarding at Selhurst Park, such glory may not have happened.
Cantona’s actions marked the end of Ferguson’s first great team as United finished the season empty-handed, hastening the renewal of the team and the emergence of the young players, who would form the nucleus of the Treble winning side.
A petulance had crept into Cantona’s game in the months leading up to his explosion at Selhurst Park. When he returned he was a more controlled, measured and focused presence. The striker’s influence on the ‘class of ’92’ was massive. At a time when going the pub after training was still a common practice for English teams, Cantona stayed behind and trained with Beckham, Giggs and Paul Scholes.
Cantona broke the mould and was the key factor in the destination of each league title during his time in England. By the time United had a worthy foe capable of challenging their domestic dominance, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, he’d helped establish a title-winning pedigree.
During his time United developed the winning aura that would carry the club through until end of Alex Ferguson’s tenure, a winning habit, that fuelled the club in their Treble season.
If Cantona doesn’t hurdle the advertising hoardings, and then return to guide the side to two more league titles, it’s difficult to imagine United’s future dominance taking the same form.