It’s hard to explain to people too young to remember Eric Cantona’s kung fu exploits at Selhurst Park in 1995 just how shocking the incident was.
For better or worse, very little comes as a surprise any more. Such is the breadth of information and the wealth of coverage available to us now that many can only react with disinterested numbness when presented with news of the many, many utterly mental things currently happening around the world. In 2019, unpredictability is the norm.
Even now, to be fair, it would make for a fair few headlines if a high-profile Man United player launched himself into the stands at a supporter. But such is the perpetual churn of stories these days that you imagine it wouldn’t be long until the whole thing was forgotten, washed away by the noise around Mo Salah’s latest advertising stunt, or Hector Bellerin’s newest Instagram post.
Twenty-three years ago, however, Cantona jumping feet-first into the crowd during a Premier League tie was a truly seismic event. It was wild – totally wild – and it played into the legend of Cantona as much as any other moment in his career.
On this day in 1995, Eric Cantona was sent off at Selhurst Park. The rest is history pic.twitter.com/JlNIVnm7qS
— Guardian sport (@guardian_sport) January 25, 2019
For all Cantona’s vast footballing ability – and it was indeed vast – he’s remembered partly for the mystique that surrounded him. For the kung fu kicks, the seagulls following the trawler, the acting career, the collar-up peacockery and for the general sense that he could simply erupt at any given time.
Which is fine. And it’s probably how he’d want to be remembered anyway.
Cantona thrived on a sense of theatricality. And there’s not much more theatrical than spectacularly assaulting an opposition supporter in their own ground, in front of 18,000 people, having just been sent off for kicking one of the home team’s players.
There are some great quotes from people who were there on the day in a BBC article from 2015, perhaps most notably from Palace fan Cathy Churchman, who said:
“All hell broke loose as he jumped over the barrier. 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.”
Gary Pallister, meanwhile, said, “I think I was one of the only players that didn’t run over. I just stood there in disbelief. I was more in shock at what I’d just witnessed.” You and nearly everyone else, Gary.
So mind-blowing was the whole thing that BBC News even came up with a special report, including some pleasingly moody, photo-filtered footage of a pensive, brooding Cantona:
The United directors had visited the team’s dressing-room after the match, where they found a “subdued” Cantona sitting in a corner reflecting on what had happened. They later met with Alex Ferguson and decided to impose a four-month internal ban on the Frenchman, along with a £20,000 fine.
But it wasn’t enough for the FA, and the association slapped a nine-month ban on Cantona and squeezed a further £10,000 from the player. Cantona was also charged with assault in East Croydon Magistrates Court, where the judge – to much surprise – sentenced him to 14 days’ imprisonment. He was whisked from the courtroom directly into the cells.
He remained there for three-and-a-half hours, before being granted bail by the Crown Court. His jail sentence was amended to 120 hours of community service.
A press conference was subsequently called, where nothing particularly remarkable occurred…
In October that year, Cantona returned to the fold against Liverpool. He scored a vital equaliser, and went on to have a landmark season in 1995-96.
That was the year of Kevin Keegan, “I would love it”, and United closing a 12-point gap to win the Premier League (and an FA Cup as well).
Cantona was central to it all. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.