When Manchester United's Eric Cantona attacked a fan in 1995
On Jan. 25, 1995, with one ugly kick off the field, Eric Cantona managed to overshadow any of his most beautiful kicks on it. During a 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace, the Manchester United forward had lost control, crossing the line in every sense: he threw himself, feet first, at Palace supporter Matthew Simmons.
Even before that night, Cantona had been labelled Le Brat by the French press. After a series of incidents in his homeland, he had announced his retirement from the game in 1991 when, while playing for Nimes, he received a month-long ban for kicking a ball into the crowd and throwing his shirt at a referee. That affair had prompted his 1992 move to England with Leeds, but they offloaded him to Manchester United later that year because, manager Howard Wilkinson said, he was "not prepared to abide by the rules and conditions which operate for everybody else here."
At Old Trafford, under the guidance of Alex Ferguson, he flourished. Ferguson had afforded the Frenchman an unusual degree of leeway at United and was duly rewarded on the field, with Cantona's on-field mastery proving the catalyst for the glory years that followed under the Scot. Even so, the forward never quite managed to master his hair-trigger temper.
United, the defending champions, had travelled to Selhurst Park in 1995 on a winter Wednesday night seeking to catch Premier League leaders Blackburn as they faced a Palace side immersed in a relegation battle. The Palace manager, Alan Smith, had recognised Cantona's threat and asked defender Richard Shaw to stick to the Frenchman "like a rash," his teammate on the night, John Salako, told ESPN last year.
Cantona and Shaw were involved in a series of clashes during the first half and, according to Philippe Auclair's book "Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King," the United forward had asked referee Alan Wilkie: "No yellow cards, then?" As the teams re-emerged for the second half, United boss Ferguson apparently put it rather more bluntly: "Why don't you do your f---ing job?"
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 his opponent, and Cantona lashed out, in full view of Wilkie's assistant Eddie Walsh.
"It was all Shawsy's fault as well," Salako said. "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 arse. Eric lost the plot."
Cantona was shown a red card, his first in six months but fifth for United. As he trudged towards the tunnel, Palace fan Simmons raced towards the front of the stands and taunted him. In Simmons' own version of events, he had simply called out: "Off, off, off! It's an early bath for you, Cantona." Others have claimed he had actually shouted: "You dirty French bastard. F--- off back to France."
Whatever the actual words used, Cantona reacted by launching himself at Simmons, as Salako recalled: "I saw him confronting the crowd and then he just launched into this kung fu kick. 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?'"
Salako notes that Cantona "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."
However, Palace supporter Andrew Fletcher, who had taken his 10-year-old son to his first ever game, was not so amused to find himself in the midst of the moment.
"I thought there was going to be a riot," he told ESPN. "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."
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.' I was relieved. That was my selfish take on it at the time," Smith told ESPN.
His optimism proved well founded: David May had given United the lead soon after the red card, but Palace battled back to rescue an unexpected point through Gareth Southgate's late equaliser.
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 'head's gone' moment that you can't take back. He spilled over at the wrong time."
He added: "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."
Smith said that even after the game, he "didn't concentrate on it" and focused on the fact his side had denied the champions.
"I just said 'well done' to the players afterwards," he said. "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 Denis 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."
The image of the incident would adorn the front page of every newspaper up and down the country, with many papers carrying a statement from police confirming they had "received two allegations of assault from two people against two United players" -- Cantona and Ince -- after the match.
While Ince would be cleared of the charge in May, Cantona was not so fortunate. He was suspended by United until the end of the season and fined £20,000, with the Football Association then extending his ban until October and fining him a further £10,000.
He was also sentenced to 14 days in prison by a magistrate after pleading guilty to common assault, but that was overturned by a judge at the end of March, who ruled the player should not be jailed simply because he is a public figure.
He was given 120 hours' community service instead, and United then staged the famous news conference at which the Frenchman simply read a note that read: "When seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea."
As he prepared to make his exit, he then addressed the journalists he had apparently intended to insult, saying only: "Thank you very much."
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
In Cantona's absence, Blackburn beat United to the title by a single point. The Frenchman had decided to retire that summer when, already incensed by the FA's decision to extend his ban, he received a letter from the governing body warning him over his participation in a training match behind closed doors.
Ferguson said his player was "just totally fed up after the FA's attitude to the game he played last week" and added: "You can hardly blame him. I hope I have managed to persuade him that he has to rise above what the FA have done, that he hasn't transgressed, and I have told him to go home to France and talk to his wife. Hopefully, he will change his mind."
Cantona did change his mind and helped United to success in the league and FA Cup the following season.
Palace's point against the champions failed to help them avert the drop, as they finished 19th, taking that season's final relegation drop. Simmons, meanwhile, was charged with provoking the attack, and he did spend time behind bars. The 21-year-old was found guilty of contempt of court when, during his hearing, he attacked the lawyer who had just successfully prosecuted him, applying a headlock before being tackled by six police officers.