Cantona at Selhurst Park : Reliving The Premier League’s Most Controversial Moment

If Eric Cantona was the man who changed Manchester United and British football, then one might consider the events of January 25th, 1995, as a turning point. It would be a fair starting place for the argument, although the truth is surely that the change had already taken place.

The growth of Manchester United as a football club and a commercial entity was occurring at a rapid rate. The increase in interest in Premier League football meant Sky Sports found it justifiable to charge a subscription fee to watch games on their network; they were right. The public subscribed in their millions.

In any cultural movement it takes one moment to transport the medium from the arena in which it is usually enjoyed, to the mainstream. Football, or soccer, enjoyed by tens of thousands on a weekly basis in stadiums across the country, could hardly be categorised as a niche interest and Eric Cantona was not the first footballer, or sportsman, to find his face plastered all over the front page of newspapers. In that respect perhaps this transitional period was to do with concentrated saturation. The sheer, unprecedented, scale of what happened at Selhurst Park on January 25th, 1995 meant everyone had an opinion and everyone wanted to voice it.

What was a relatively low-key 1-1 draw has become arguably the most-written about game in Premier League history, with more thousands of words and more days of coverage dedicated to it than even the most glorious moments.

The match had so far followed the pattern for Manchester United away games over the last year or so. When then-Palace manager Alan Smith spoke to the BBC in 2015, he appeared to have been seduced by a theatrical vision, saying with some foreboding style : “What distinctly hit me was that they played in all black that night. None of them had shaved and they looked a pretty ferocious team. I was thinking ‘this is going to be a long evening’.”

Gary Pallister felt the same. For him and the other United players, they had been through this experience too many times. “Eric was always the number one target for supporters around the country,” he said. It wasn’t just players who tried to wind him up but fans felt as though they could do it as well. Some of the abuse he got was terrible. Eventually it took its toll on him I think and it all came to a head that night. He was such a hate figure because he was such a good player.”

Palace’s aggression had helped them have the better of the game up until the break.

Smith admitted that he had given defender Richard Shaw the task of man-marking United’s star. “Shawsie had this sort of bubbly, curly hair. He put a load of grease on. He used to put a lot of Vaseline around his face and mouth. He was the most charming, gentle guy you could ever meet but he looked pretty ferocious on the field. I think he was really up for marking Cantona,” remembers Smith. “If you want to say ‘gave him one’, Shawsie certainly went in. I don’t have a lot of sympathy with Cantona. He is a big man, carries himself well, and he had given a fair amount out. Shawsie just thought ‘it’s on the halfway line, it’s in front of the dug-out – I’ll go for it’.”

The incident in particular that Smith is referring to happened just after half-time. At the break, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson had stressed to Cantona to ‘not get involved’ with Shaw. Four minutes into the second period, Shaw again dug into Cantona, and the linesman Eddie Walsh flagged for a foul, but referee Alan Wilkie (who Ferguson had implored to take note of the aggressive play) waved play on. Seconds later, the ball was being contested between the pair once again, and as had been the case so often in the past, Cantona sought to exact his own personal brand of retribution. This came in the form of a swiped kick at Shaw. It connected. Wilkie had no option really but to send off the Frenchman, in spite of the provocation. “There’s the morning headline!” said Clive Tyldesley, commentating for Match Of The Day.

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson felt that it was inevitable. “Alan Wilkie’s inability to stamp out the disgraceful tackles from Crystal Palace’s two central defenders made subsequent trouble unavoidable,” he said in his book My Autobiography. Ferguson remembered Norman Davies rushing to escort Cantona back to the dressing room in front of the baying home fans. The United boss concerned himself with the tactical restructure of his team. For a second, Cantona remained on the pitch, in view of the United boss who instead looked towards his players who were pointlessly remonstrating with Wilkie. Cantona walked towards Davies.

The changing rooms at Selhurst Park were in the corner of the pitch so Cantona and Davies still had to walk a full sixty yards. As they did so, the player appeared distracted by a comment from a spectator. Palace supporter Matthew Simmons had raced down from his seat higher in the stand to hurl abuse at the United player. Simmons was stood alongside home fan Cathy Churchman, who was in her normal position. “All of a sudden he (Cantona) turned and looked back; I thought he was looking at me,” Churchman told the BBC. “I had no idea where this other guy had suddenly appeared from. There was this look on Cantona’s face. His eyes were seething. You just knew at that point he was going to do something silly.”

Davies was stood with Cantona and, for a second, looked away. “I’ve been slaughtered for that,” Davies, who passed away in 2010, told the Manchester Evening News. “I think most of it blaming me for not keeping hold of Eric was tongue in cheek though. But I could do nothing about it. One minute he was there, then whoosh he was gone! But I have never been the appointed club man to escort players off. It is a voluntary action because I just feel sorry for players when they are sent off. I get them a drink and try and make conversation if they want. Eric was very quiet though!”

Not this time. Davies recognised it instantly but even instantly was too late; Cantona ran towards Simmons and jumped off the ground in that scissors style we had seen on a couple of occasions in the past. His boot appeared to connect with Simmons as his body was obstructed by the advertising hoarding. Eric stood up, untangled himself and unleashed a flurry of punches in Simmons’ direction. Davies then managed to get hold of Cantona, as did United’s security guard Ned Kelly.

“All hell broke loose as he jumped over the barrier,” Churchman said. “I can remember falling into my 15-year-old son and Eric’s boot just brushing past my coat. Everyone looked at each other saying ‘oh my God, what just happened?!’ It was all over in seconds.”

Over quickly enough for some of the players to be in the dark. “At 1-1 there’s always hope that Eric in particular can steal a chance from nowhere,” Roy Keane remembered. “But Eric’s got involved with his marker, Richard Shaw. It’s niggly stuff, not nasty. Shirt-pulling, obstruction, a bit of chat. Stuff you shouldn’t bother about, but the purpose is to break your concentration — and with Eric, it can work. This time Palace get a result. Eric loses it and kicks Shaw. He’s off… As Eric walks off towards the dressing room, the game resumes. Ten men. Now it’s a battle. No Eric. Suddenly there’s commotion on the far touchline from where I am. Something’s happened, we don’t know what.”

This was similar to Ryan Giggs’ recollection. “I didn’t see what happened next, and I know most of the other players didn’t because we were either remonstrating with the referee or concentrating on reorganising the team to play with ten men,” said the winger.

Ferguson, too, didn’t see anything of the incident at the time. United chairman Martin Edwards, however, was looking straight at it. “The incident happened right in perfect vision from the director’s box,” Edwards says. “The first thing is that as soon as he got involved with the player you knew he was going to be sent off. As he was talking down the touchline there were a few of us looking at the players and wondering what had been said. Eric’s being led down the touchline and suddenly he breaks off to the right and throws himself into a kung-fu kick at a supporter. I was thinking, ‘Bloody hell, he’s lost it. He’s gone mad.’ I went into the dressing room afterwards and it was dead quiet. We were all stunned, really. I don’t think Alex said anything to him.”

“I took it upon myself just to go straight down there,” Ned Kelly said. “I pushed a couple of stewards out of the way and found my way into the dressing room and Eric was in there with Norman. I told Norman to get back out there and that I would take over from here.”

A Crystal Palace fan shouts abuse at Eric Cantona following his sending off

In the resulting scuffle, Paul Ince, one of the closest players to it, joined in and was later accused of throwing punches himself.

Peter Schmeichel, in the United goal, got as good a view of it all as Edwards : “From my goal I saw the fiery Frenchman immediately turn around and, almost in the same second as he caught sight of the man who was shouting the abuse, launch himself into a run-up which ended with a fully-fledged karate kick to the man’s chest.I think that in the ensuing fracas he also managed to slap Simmons in the face.”

“I was stood in the middle of the pitch and there was a roar from the crowd,” David May recalled. “I just thought ‘what the hell are you doing’? You run over to see what is going on. It is kicking off and it is a case of one for all, all for one… Everyone joined in.”

“I think I was one of the only players that didn’t run over,” Gary Pallister said. “I could only register shock and disbelief. I realised the enormity of what our astonishing Frenchman had done straight away. Unarguably he had stepped way beyond the mark of what could be acceptable, even though I could understand his reaction to some extent.”

Cantona was taken to the dressing room by Ned Kelly and Davies, who had ignored his request to leave well enough alone. “He was sitting on the bench next to his stuff, very quiet, shirt off, thinking about what has gone on,” Kelly recalled. “It was dead silent, you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. Sometimes you step back and realise you don’t say anything.” Davies’ own recollection was that Cantona was still furious in the moments immediately following his return to the dressing room and insisted he still wanted to go back out to confront Simmons. Davies recalled : “He was furious. He wanted to go out again. I locked the door and told him ‘if you want to go back on the pitch, you’ll have to go over my body and break the door down’.”

With everyone at Selhurst Park still in shock, the absurdity which was now a football game again continued. David May scored his first goal for the club from a corner. “I was going to get a nice little bit of positivity in the papers the next day,” May said. “That is all I could think of.”

Ironically enough, May wouldn’t even see through the night with that positivity. In one absent-minded moment, Gareth Southgate escaped his attention to equalise. The game ended 1-1 and United’s players trooped off the pitch back to the dressing room with some apprehension.

“Afterwards I ripped into Cantona with a fury I had vented only once before in our association,” Ferguson said in his 1999 autobiography. Of course, that is not the version told in modern recollections by almost everyone who was there. (He did, however, rage at Wilkie in the referee’s room, saying ‘This is all your (expletive) fault!’)

Nor do his contemporaneous recollections refer to any rage. Ferguson asked Norman Davies who said he wasn’t sure, but he thought a can of beer was thrown at Cantona. “At the time I was mainly concerned about the sending off because I assumed that Eric had been protecting himself. That would have been bad enough, but at least it’s answerable,” Ferguson said.

The players were unsure what to do, but were by now starting to form their own opinions on the events now the adrenalin was dying down.

“On the pitch, Cantona’s opponents tried everything they could to needle him. There would be sly kicks, a pulled shirt, an elbow. They wanted him to react and generally they would get what they wanted. In January 1995 at Crystal Palace they hit the jackpot,” remembered Andrei Kanchelskis. “Cantona was treated differently to other members of that Manchester United side. Ferguson rarely shouted at him. I certainly never saw him get ‘The Hairdryer’… Looking back, it was probably just as well nobody went over to Cantona in the dressing room at Selhurst Park and asked why he had done it. There was an aura about him and he was not exactly an approachable man. If we had got into an argument with him about it, everything might have got out of control again.”

Ryan Giggs said Cantona was calm by the time the players returned. “When we got back into the dressing room after the game Eric wasn’t agitated, and seemed unaffected by what had happened,” he said. “It was the same on the plane travelling back to Manchester. Nothing was said because none of us, the gaffer included, realised the seriousness of what had gone on. Word just hadn’t got through and Eric was giving nothing away. It wasn’t until I got the chance to see it on telly, when I got home that night, that I could see how bad it was.”

This correlates with Gary Pallister’s memory : “Eric was very subdued. He just sat quietly in the corner. He didn’t really say anything. I think he understood the magnitude of what had happened. Everybody was trying to come to terms with how we were going to deal with it.”

Schmeichel, Cantona’s room-mate, felt his friend’s reflection was an internal one. “He just sat there on the bench with his face buried in his hands, shaking his head, slightly amazed at the violence of his reaction,” the goalkeeper said.

Ferguson was furious — just not with Cantona. United defender David May had, apparently, been the villain of the piece. “The manager is ripping heads off everyone… Big Pete, Big Pally, myself, Sharpey, Paul Ince,” May recalled. “He had a go at me for their equaliser. He said, ‘who the hell was marking Southgate?’. I said ‘Eric!’… He turned round and said ‘Eric, I am disappointed in you. You can’t be doing those things’. I thought ‘Is that it? Is that it?!’ Any other player would have been given the hairdryer. I just got the hairdryer off the gaffer for not marking someone I shouldn’t have been marking.”

Ferguson composed himself to go and have a few words with Palace boss Smith, who recalled : “Afterwards, I saw Sir Alex and he shook hands and said, ‘What the bloody hell was wrong with that then?’ I said ‘Alex, that’s an everyday occurrence in Putney High Street’… Because of his tunnel vision for everything, he was even trying to put a case that Cantona had been badly treated. I just sort of said, ‘No Alex, totally agree, nothing wrong with it. Everyday occurrence’.”

There was now just the exit from the stadium to navigate. “We let everyone else go out to the coach then me and Eric came out together at the end,” Ned Kelly says. “There were fans outside baying for blood but I was quite confident I could deal with it and you’ve got to remember Eric was 6ft 2in and from a rough area of Marseille — he could look after himself. We were getting reports Manchester Airport was packed with press but we made contact with security who told the driver where to go. We got Eric into the car on the tarmac and drove him to the car park, where he got into his own car and drove home.”

Ferguson’s understated response to the incident could be completely described by the simple fact he hadn’t seen it. Even when he returned home at 1am that night, he refused his son Jason’s request to watch the tape, feeling that he would do better looking at everything with a clear head in the morning. That didn’t work. He went to bed at 2am but couldn’t sleep, and eventually got up at 5.25am to watch the video. He confessed that what he saw was ‘pretty appalling’.

“Over the years since I have never been able to elicit an explanation from Eric but my own feeling is that anger at himself over the ordering off and resentment at the referee’s earlier inaction combined to take him over the brink,” the United boss said.

United were forced to act immediately. There was no time for allowing the dust to settle on this one. It was no easy call.

The above is an extract from King Eric : Portrait Of The Artist Who Changed English Football, available online.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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