It was a moment nobody present will ever forget. Even those who weren’t there will still remember where they were when they saw the pictures for the first time. Eric Cantona, jumping into the crowd at Crystal Palace, leaping into British football notoriety in a single moment of madness.
The Frenchman’s actions at Selhurst Park on January 25th 1995 still polarise opinion among many football fans. Some say he dealt out rightful retribution to a foul-mouthed hooligan in the stands, while others claim it was a moment of madness which tarnished his reputation forever.
But without doubt what he did that night provided one of the most iconic and controversial incidents ever seen in a football ground anywhere in the world. It is still talked about by supporters of all clubs a quarter of a century on.
On a murky winter’s night in south-east London, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were in the middle of chasing a third consecutive title having seen their 26-year championship drought end in style over the previous two seasons.
Having just acquired the services of Andy Cole from Newcastle, a win would have seen them move above their nearest challengers Blackburn Rovers at the top of the Premier League table and put them firmly in the driving seat for the title run-in that spring. This hardly seemed destined to be a night for unforgettable drama.
“I don’t remember there being any more animosity on or off the field than normal that night,” former Manchester United striker Brian McClair, who played that night, tells The Sportsman, recalling that infamous night as if it were yesterday.
“Even going back to when I joined United back in the ‘80s, whenever we went away it was always one of the biggest games of the season for whoever we were playing even though we weren’t the best side at that time.”
As expected, Palace set out to stifle their opponents, slowing things down wherever possible in an obvious attempt to frustrate a United side who had been setting the league alight with their fast, attacking football.
Not surprisingly, the first half was far from a classic with Palace defender Richard Shaw all-but marking Eric Cantona out of the game, limiting his ability to have any impact on the game and restricting any kind of service to Cole up front.
“I think the tactics adopted by Palace to frustrate Eric and even wind him up were perfectly normal,” says McClair, who made 355 appearances for the Old Trafford club between 1987 and 1998. “That’s part of the game and good coaching to identify the most dangerous player in the opposition.
“If you can stop him playing and limit his impact on the game then you’ve got a good chance to get something from the game yourself, which is eventually what they did so you can’t blame them for that.”
Constantly hassled and harried by his marker, Cantona, who had joined United from Leeds back in 1992 and was renowned for having a short fuse at the best of times, was primed like a grenade, ready to go off at any time. But how, and to what extent, nobody could have predicted.
His temper finally got the better of him in the 48th minute. Peter Schmeichel’s huge kick landed in the Palace half and Shaw was grappling with Cantona as the pair raced to reach the ball first. Cantona kicked out at the centre-back with the linesman barely 10 yards away and staring straight at the incident.
As referee Alan Wilkie brandished the inevitable red card Cantona stood stock-still momentarily, hands on hips, almost unable to comprehend the situation he had found himself in. He began trudging slowly towards the tunnel in the far corner of the ground as Selhurst Park erupted.
“I didn’t see what happened next,” explains McClair. “All I knew was that Eric had been sent off and was walking down the touchline with our kit man Norman Davies as we prepared for the resulting free-kick, though it was obvious that something had gone on by the reaction of the fans and some of the players.
“It was only at the end of the game that Gary Walsh told me that Cantona had landed a Kung-fu kick on someone in the crowd, but I thought that couldn’t be possible as there was about a three-foot gap between the barrier and the supporters.”
But Walsh was right. From almost a standing position, Cantona had somehow managed to thrust his right boot into the chest of startled 20-year-old Palace fan Matthew Simmons, who had been watching from the main stand. The United star had then landed a fierce right-hand for good measure while those around him looked on stunned.
Simmons would later claim that he’d shouted: “Off you go Cantona, it’s an early shower for you!” But witnesses nearby claimed that his exact words were: “F*** off back to France, you French b*****d.” Either way, it didn’t go down well.
Clearly distressed, Cantona was eventually escorted to the relative safety of the tunnel by a combination of security staff and players, who also came under fire from a range of missiles, hot tea and further abuse from a home crowd now on the brink of hysteria.
As for the game itself, the action was largely forgotten after that moment, with the match ultimately ending in a 1-1 draw as Gareth Southgate’s late effort cancelled out David May’s first goal in a United shirt. “Just my luck it was in that game,” the defender later joked.
Football Association chief executive Graham Kelly predictably announced that the incident was “a stain on our game”, while Alex Ferguson decided to aim his anger at the referee. “If you’d done your f***ing job this wouldn’t have happened,” he reportedly shouted at Mr Wilkie at the final whistle.
The club’s response was to announce that Cantona would not play for the remainder of the season, but the FA felt the punishment didn’t go far enough and decided he would not be allowed to return until the following October. They also issued him with a £20,000 fine.
His actions that night attracted the attentions of the police too, and Cantona would later be charged with assault. Having being found guilty at Croydon Magistrates Court, he was initially given a two-week custodial sentence but it was later reduced to 120 hours of community service on appeal.
For his part, Matthew Simmons was charged with using threatening words and behaviour towards Cantona and, on being found guilty, he attacked prosecuting lawyer Jeffrey McCann in front of three magistrates while shouting; "I am innocent. I swear on the bible. You press. You are scum." That episode would lead to him being jailed for seven days.
So how did Alex Ferguson, a manager famed for having one of the most fearsome tempers in the game, react to his star striker taking matters into his own hands and launching himself into the crowd to fight with a supporter?
“He came bursting into the changing room after the game purple with rage,” explains McClair, still chuckling at the scene as if he was back in that changing room 25 years ago. “I wasn’t sure if he was angry with Eric or the fact that we hadn’t won the game, or both.
“Going around the changing room, he lambasted pretty much each and every player for what they did, what they didn’t do and even those who hadn’t put a foot wrong, reminding them just how costly the dropped points could be.
“Then he got to Eric who was sitting in the corner. Eric was visibly upset at what he’d done and knew he’d done wrong while letting the rest of the side and the club down as he was a team player. Even so, we were dying to know just what the gaffer was going to say to him as many of us felt Fergie had given him a pretty easy ride since arriving at Old Trafford.
“As he got to where Eric was sitting he stopped, took a breath, shook his head and said quite calmly: ‘Eric, you can’t be doing that, son,’ before scowling at us one last time and storming out of the room!”