The final piece to United’s jigsaw
“Eric had been getting more and more annoyed. As the referee blew the final whistle I could see in Eric’s eyes that he had gone. He gestured to the referee and was shown the red card. I ran straight across to Eric because it was obvious that he was ready to fight anybody. I linked my arm in his and said, ‘Come on the game’s gone. There’s nothing you can do about it now.’
I’d got a firm grip on him because I just wanted to get him to the dressing room before there was any more trouble. He walked with me towards the tunnel, which was at the corner of the pitch. We’d walked a few yards when a policeman appeared at the other side of Eric and I thought that he’d come across to help us. At the entrance to the tunnel there was lots of police with riot shields. We came to the top of the steps which led down to the dressing room area, and I was just about to thank the policeman when he punched Eric on the back of the head. Eric stumbled down a couple of steps, so I turned to throw a punch at the copper. As I did, a shield smashed into the back of me. I fell down a few steps, bashing my elbow against a wall. Eric wanted to go back up and fight, but by then the other lads were coming down the steps and calmed us down.”
Roy Keane recalled;
“In the dressing room Eric went crazy. While the rest of us just wanted to get out of there, he was determined to go back outside and sort out the rogue cop who’d been wielding his truncheon. Eric was a big strong lad. He was serious. He insisted that he was going out to ‘kill that fucker’. It took the combined efforts of the manager, Brian Kidd and a few of the players to restrain him. Normally, I wouldn’t have backed off a fight, but even I wasn’t up for this one. There were a lot of Turks out there! Anyway, the result we couldn’t change. We were out.”
In an FA Cup game at Carrow Road against Norwich City, Cantona was very lucky not to be sent off for an outrageous stamp on Jeremy Goss. However, just seven weeks later he didn’t get away with it and was sent off at the County Ground, Swindon, for stamping on Swindon Town player John Gorman. The incident at Carrow Road was seen not only by the players and fans present inside the tiny ground, but also by millions watching on television. It prompted the then BBC television pundit Jimmy Hill to comment that the stamp on Gorman was ‘despicable and villainous.’ It prompted an immediate response from Ferguson who retaliated by calling Hill ‘a prat.’ It was a difficult period publicly for United as the tide of support for them was turning because of what was considered a nasty streak in the team. Already that season, Schmeichel, Hughes, Robson, and Kanchelskis had received red cards. There was also a situation which developed where United players were seen to be continually questioning, and haranguing referees. Years later, Ferguson was forced to admit;
“The foul on Jeremy Goss was not only horrendous, but also despicable. Cantona was not at all the innocent party. It was an even more serious offence when he stamped on Swindon’s skilful midfielder, John Moncur, and that was the first time I lost my temper with him. There was no way I could condone what he had done.”
“We just couldn’t get out of the disciplinary mire, so I called them all in. With Robson as club captain, and Bruce. And I went round the lot of them. ‘One more fucking time and I’ll …..’ And they were sitting there, and you could tell. “Oh Aye,” they were thinking, so I said, “from now on, I’m going to fine you for everything, two weeks for a sending off, one week for a booking. Now off you go.” And I could hear them walking down the stairs laughing….”
“They knew that I needed them. They knew that I needed winners. There’s got to be a dividing line. We hardly had a problem after that talking to I gave them. In fact our disciplinary record has been really good over the years considering that everyone’s trying so hard against us in every game we play.”
Despite all the rumblings about United’s surly demeanour on the field, they still romped away with the Premiership for the second successive season, and also completed their first “double” by lifting the FA Cup at Wembley, defeating Chelsea by 4-0. In that Wembley final Cantona was ice cool as he took two second half penalties within minutes of each other to give United a 2-0 lead. It could well have been a domestic ‘treble” had United not surprisingly been beaten in the League Cup Final in March, surprisingly losing 3-1 to former manager Ron Atkinson’s Aston Villa team.
At the end of the ‘93/94 season, Bryan Robson left United to become player-manager of Middlesborough. The club captaincy passed on to Steve Bruce. When the ‘94/95 season began, nobody could have envisaged just what lay in store for Eric Cantona in the second half of that season. Ferguson’s earlier statement that there was hardly a disciplinary problem after his talking to, was to come back and bite him. When the European campaign kicked off, Cantona was serving a four match EUFA ban for the sending off in Istanbul. It was the first year of the competition’s new format, the mini-league, and United had Barcelona, IFK Gothenburg, and Galatasaray in their group. It was also the first season in which the ‘5 foreigner rule’ was implemented. The home ties caused United little problem, even without Eric Cantona. They started with a win against Gothenburg by 4-2, drew 0-0 in a trouble free game in Istanbul, then drew 2-2 with Barcelona at Old Trafford. The next two away games though were lost – 4-0 in the Camp Nou, and 3-1 in Gothenburg. Although United did beat Galatasary 4-0 in the final group game, with Cantona back in the line-up, they were eliminated.
Going into 1995, the Premiership looked to be between two clubs, Blackburn Rovers and United. Managed by ex-Liverpool idol Kenny Dalglish and supported by steel magnate Jack Walker’s millions, Blackburn had bought profusely and had put together a formidable team. Even so, United had beaten them in both league matches, 4-2 away at Ewood Park in October 1994, and 1-0 in a hard fought game at Old Trafford on January 22nd 1995. Cantona scored in both games, the one at Old Trafford being very significant. Blackburn had held a five points lead over United going into that game, and even though the East Lancashire club still held the advantage with having a game in hand, their lead was now down to two points. The game at Old Trafford also marked Andrew Cole’s debut for United after he had been signed from Newcastle the previous week. United’s next league game was the following Wednesday, January 25th 1995 at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace. For most people around the world, January 25th is mostly recognized as the birthday of the Scottish bard, Robert Burns. For United followers, it is now a date recognized for something that will be remembered forever and which cast a dark shadow on the club’s luminous history.
Roy Keane recalled the game;
“Crystal Palace away, a game we were looking to win. We had beaten them easily 3-0 at home, and the contest was over after Eric scored our first. It was a nothing match, had no real flow to the game. Their effort cancelled out our ability. We were not going to lose, it was just a question of waiting for the break. At 1-1 there was always hope that Eric in particular would steal a chance from nowhere.
But Eric got involved with his marker, Richard Shaw. It was 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 could work. This time Palace got a result. Eric lost it and he kicked Shaw. He was off. The crowd went mad. Selhurst Park was full for a change. Some of the things you hear from the terraces are really sickening. Racist taunts, chants about player’s personal lives, which Eric suffered a lot. Filth that makes you wonder about the people who come to football matches to sing obscene songs about the Munich air crash. What is this? Answer: English Football.
As Eric walked off towards the dressing room, the game resumed. Ten men, and then it was a battle. No Eric. Suddenly there was a commotion on the far touchline from where I was. Something happened, I didn’t know what. Some looper had a go at Eric near the tunnel. Eric didn’t react immediately. But he turned back and launched himself at his tormentor. Bruce Lee would have been proud of Eric’s kung-fu kick. It was a good job that he wasn’t wearing studs. Never did. Eric could have hurt himself quite badly, broken his ****ing back. As it was, he ended up on his feet trading punches with the bloke who wound him up.
The game over – a 1-1 draw, the dressing room was so quiet. The directors including Maurice Watkins, the club solicitor, were in a huddle with the gaffer. Eric just sat there with his head bowed. Police were outside in the corridor. My immediate reaction was: so what? Fair fucking play to Eric. I might have done the same myself. When I got home and saw the television pictures I could see that it was a nasty incident. Out of order, of course. But my attitude did not change. My heart went out to him. All the lads felt basically the same. We did not pat him on the back and say well done, but Eric was a good lad and we weren’t going to turn our backs on him.
Obviously it was serious for the club. The gaffer was pissed off. This was a big test for him, especially when the media got on the case. Ban him for life. Make him leave the country. The media had a field day. For weeks the training ground was under siege. The gates were locked but they threw rope ladders over the wall to take photographs. Outside the dressing room Eric’s story was a sensation. Inside, it was a problem.
Eric held his hands up, got a good lawyer and paid his dues – community service, which he did immaculately with the local kids. The club had no choice but to ban him for the rest of the season. End of story.”
David May the former United defender recalled the game for other reasons;
“I scored United’s goal to put us in front in that game, and my first thought when Eric got sent off was, ‘You cunt, I’ve just scored my first goal for United.’ I legged it over to see what was going on, but Eric was on his way. Southgate equalized and at full time the gaffer had a go at me about their equalizer. I thought; ‘Eric’s just jumped into the crowd and leathered someone and you’re having a go at me for a goal that was nothing to do with me.
I could understand why Eric hit the lad. There was many times when I wanted to chin a fan for giving personal abuse about my family. When Cantona did it I thought; ‘fair play Eric’. The lad became famous for that but then his life was apparently ruined. Good. It’s a great pub quiz question though isn’t it? Who scored the United goal on the night of Cantona’s kung-fu kick?”
Over ten years later, Eric Cantona was asked the question “What was your best moment at United?” His response was:
“My best moment? I have a lot of good moments but the one I prefer is when I kicked the hooligan. I did not punch him strong enough, I should have punched him harder. I didn’t watch it afterwards on television. Because I knew. All I had were journalists at my house. That’s all I could see. My house was small. They blocked the light.
I played that moment at Selhurst Park. It was a drama and I was an actor. I do things seriously without taking myself seriously. Even when I kicked the fan it is because I don’t take myself seriously. I didn’t think because of who I was I had a responsibility not to do it. No, I was just a footballer, and a man.”