Cantona's Madness: The Kick That Was Heard Around The World On This Day In 1995

27 years ago, the world watched on as King Eric lost his head
08:00, 25 Jan 2022

On a cold January night at Selhurst Park Manchester United were looking to become the first side to win three consecutive league titles since Bob Paisley’s Liverpool a decade before and it appeared that only something quite incredible could stop their epic championship charge; as it turns out that’s exactly what happened.

Things looked bright for the Reds going into 1995. They had just shocked the footballing world by snatching Andy Cole, one of the most prolific strikers in the game, from under the noses of Newcastle and were battling it out with Blackburn Rovers at the top of the table.

A win for United would have seen them leapfrog Rovers at the summit of the table and put them firmly in the driving seat for the title run-in to come over the coming months; but few could have foreseen just what was to happen next.

United had drawn with Blackburn just the weekend before courtesy of a late Eric Cantona equalizer but many saw this as more of a routine fixture for a side who were just about hitting form as they did so often during the mid-1990s.

However, Crystal Palace were well aware of what they were up against and were determined not to make things easy for the visitors that night in what would have been a far from memorable encounter but for one incident which is still talked about to this day.

Aware of the danger their opponents that night posed Palace set out to stifle the game, slowing things down wherever they could while frustrating a side who were renowned for their fast, attacking style meaning the first half was far from a classic.

Much of this was due to the efforts of Palace defender Richard Shaw who brilliantly man-marked his opponent, Eric Cantona, limiting his impact on the game while also cutting the supply line to the dangerous Andy Cole up front.

“I remember the game tactically,” explained former Palace player John Salako.“They were the big team coming to town and we needed to be organised, disciplined and to stop United playing. Richard was told to man-mark Cantona, which was something he did often. As the game unfolded, Richard didn’t give him any room. He was like a rash.”

As a result the Frenchman became increasingly frustrated. A man with a pretty short fuse at the best of times Cantona was like a coiled spring and anyone watching that night knew it was only a matter of time before he lashed out – but to what extent nobody could have predicted.

Just after half time Cantona’s temper finally reached boiling point as Peter Schmeichel kicked the ball into the Palace half and when Shaw gave chase he appeared to kick-out at him. The linesman on the far side flagged furiously as referee Alan Wilkie arrived on the scene brandishing the red card.

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Cantona stood for a moment, hands on hips, almost unable to believe what he had done as he looked around for reassurance before trudging towards the tunnel in the far corner of the tight Selhurst Park ground as he was sent on his way by a now baying crowd.

Perhaps one of the United players or coaching staff should have accompanied Cantona off the field as he received the bird from supporters in the main stand; but as United quickly looked to reorganise the job fell to their long-standing kit man Norman Davies who decided to intervene, even so, he was unable to prevent what was about to happen next.

20-year-old Matthew Simmons, a Palace fan who was watching from the stand, decided to take matters into his own hands charging down 10 rows from his seat to shout abuse at Cantona from behind an advertising hoarding. Hearing the outburst, Cantona paused momentarily, and then responded in a way only he could.

Showing great agility and accuracy he planted his right boot, studs up, into the chest of a startled Simmons and if that wasn’t enough, then managed to get back to his feet and swing a punch in the direction of Simmons. 

At the time Simmons claimed that he’d merely shouted: “Off you go Cantona, it’s an early shower for you!” But witnesses suggested that his precise words were: “F*** off back to France, you French b*****d.” Either way it riled the Frenchman.

Cantona was eventually wrestled away and escorted to the relative safety of the tunnel by United’s Head of Security, Ned Kelly as a number of United players came under fire from a range of missiles and even more foul mouthed abuse.

Perhaps not surprisingly what happened in the closing stages of that game has largely been forgotten as the match ended 1-1 thanks to David May’s first league goal for United. “Just my luck it was in that game,” he later joked. “I don’t think a single picture of it appeared in any newspaper. They all seemed more interested in something else that happened that night.”

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Football Association’s Chief Executive Graham Kelly called the incident “a stain on our game,” while Alex Ferguson bizarrely blamed the referee – “If you’d done your f***ing job this wouldn’t have happened,” he apparently told Mr Wilkie after the match.

The club responded by announcing that Cantona would not play for the remainder of the season; but the FA felt the punishment was insufficient and decided to extended the suspension until the following October while also issuing the player with a £20,000 fine.

But Cantona’s penalty didn’t end there. His actions meant he would be charged with assault and after being found guilty was initially sentenced to two weeks in prison, a term which was later reduced to 120 hours community service which saw the Frenchman coaching local school kids in Manchester.

As for Simmons he didn’t escape the long arm of the law either. He was charged with using threatening behaviour towards Cantona and when the guilty verdict was read out in court he jumped across table and attacked the judge before security officers were able to restrain him.

The impact of what happened that night went far beyond the courts as United eventually lost the Premier League title by one point to Blackburn in a campaign that went down to the final day of the season, with many feeling Cantona’s absence from the United side, which stuttered in those vital closing months of the season, was key.

Much has been written since about that infamous night and to this day the debate still rages about who was right and who was wrong. Yet it appears one man certainly feels no remorse about his actions and that’s Cantona himself. When asked in an interview for United We Stand magazine if he had any regrets he claimed: “I didn’t punch him strong enough. I should have punched him harder.”

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