25 years since Eric Cantona kung-fu kicked a fan, we take a look at the man they call King, Villain, Genius, Enigma and Icon.
By Will Guthrie
This year marks the 25th anniversary since Eric Cantona dealt out his own brand of street justice to Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons, in what is undoubtedly one of the most infamous moments in football history. Having been sent off for a nasty tackle, Cantona made his way towards the tunnel, only to stop and then launch himself into the crowd, leg outstretched, planting it directly into Simmons’ chest. It’s a truly iconic moment for all the wrong reasons, something you can’t believe actually happened. For the average player, there’d be no coming back from an indiscretion like that, but King Eric was no normal man. There are few characters in the history of world football as complicated as Cantona. As flawed as he was brilliant, Cantona was equal parts volcanic temperament and graceful elegance. What most would agree on however, is that in his prime, few were better than the man credited with a key role in establishing an unprecedented era of dominance for Manchester United.
Man. Myth. Legend. Cantona is all of these things; to this day he remains uncompromising in his views and in his ways. He was seemingly a contradiction, misunderstood by the public, but beloved by Man United and its supporters.
Raised in Marseille, Cantona’s fiery temperament was on display right from the start. His early years were littered with incidents that saw him earn multiple lengthy bans from football. From headbutting one of his own teammates for refusing to help shovel snow on the pitch, to calling France national team manager Henri Michel “a bag of shit” on television, to ripping his shirt off and kicking the ball into the crowd after being subbed off – in a friendly match – he earned bans with frightening regularity. You could be forgiven for wondering why anyone would put up with him. Believe it or not, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg. One rare anecdote recounts that he took losing a game of table tennis so badly that he jumped on the table and smashed it in half. Another is that he requested a transfer by sending a fax saying, “The salmon that idles its way downstream will never jump the waterfall.” Perhaps one of the most famous stories involves him being given a month-long ban by a France Football Federation (FFF) disciplinary committee, which was doubled when he went up to each member of the committee and one by one, called them an “idiot”. He subsequently retired from international football. Clearly, Cantona was difficult to work with long before the kung-fu kick.
It’s been said that Cantona had the perfect physique for English football and the arrogance to use it. A move to England proved to be his making; for it was there that he would become a legend. After a brief stint with Leeds United, where he helped them to win the title and then fell out with manager Howard Wilkinson, Sir Alex Ferguson took perhaps the most significant gamble of his career and signed him for Man United. This was on the advice of future Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier, whom Ferguson respected greatly, and who was looking to do his country a service by finding the right home for such a prodigious talent. Houllier assured Ferguson that Cantona was far less difficult than his reputation suggested, that he responded well to extra training and that all that would be required would be a firm but careful approach to managing him. Sometimes in football, a player arrives at a new club and everything suddenly clicks, “if ever there was one player, anywhere in the world, that was made for Manchester United, it was Cantona”, Ferguson later said. From the moment he arrived, United were a completely different side. The goals flowed with ease and United found a new swagger, inspired by their talisman with his defiant charisma and upturned collar. The most important piece in the United puzzle was now in place and a dynasty was beginning.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing however. Being so temperamental, the challenge was to keep Cantona from going off the rails, which is pretty difficult when he’s just fly-kicked a spectator. Ferguson was perhaps the only manager that Cantona never fell out with, likely due to the two being kindred spirits – both volatile and driven to succeed. During his eight-month ban for the assault, Ferguson called him every day to talk football and life and ensure that he still felt loved by the club. This was the secret to success, Ferguson’s skilful man-management of Cantona allowed him to flourish. When he requested extra training, Ferguson allowed it and Cantona was so well-respected by his teammates that several volunteered to join in. The careful management was so detailed that at one point early on, with a language barrier between them, Ferguson called Houllier and had him translate to Cantona that he had only been subbed off in a game to conserve his energies for a more important match coming up.
For his part, Cantona rewarded United with the best football of his career. United quickly became must watch, with their attacking and daring play, Cantona epitomising and inspiring it. He could not be curtailed and defied anyone to try and stop him. In his five seasons at the club, United won the title four times, the FA Cup twice (Cantona scored in both finals; his decider in 1996 against Liverpool is etched in folklore), whilst the only time they failed to win the league title was during Cantona’s eight month ban. Such was his magnetism and showmanship that United icon George Best even said of him, “I’d have given all the champagne I’ve ever drunk to play alongside him in a big European match at Old Trafford.” Anyone who knows anything about Best will know that the praise doesn’t come any higher than that. Cantona’s legacy is still evident today at United, with extra practice part of the culture, as well as an expectation to play attacking and entertaining football.
Perhaps the best example that sums up how special and important Cantona was comes in the form of yet another anecdote, this time from former United player Lee Sharpe. The story centres on the moments immediately after the game wherein Cantona committed his infamous assault, and manager Ferguson’s reaction in the dressing room. Ferguson, perhaps the most fiery manager in Premier League history, who gave such ferocious dressing downs to his players that it was referred to as “the hairdryer treatment” – and once kicked a boot into David Beckham’s face – stormed into the dressing room after the game, which United had just lost. Sharpe recounts that the players knew they were in for it, and prayed for Cantona, yet were also tantalised at the prospect of the teacher’s pet taking the spotlight off them:
“The manager comes in and he’s absolutely fuming. The door smashes off the back of its hinges. The jacket is off, he’s got the short sleeves rolled up, steam coming out of his ears and frothing at the mouth… There’s benches in the middle of the room with shirts and balls to be signed. Cups of tea and plates of sandwiches. They’re sent f**king flying everywhere.
“We’re getting scalded and getting egg sandwiches down the back of our necks. We look at each other, thinking, ‘F**king hell, Cantona is getting it here!’
“And then he starts, the manager. ‘F**king Pallister, you can’t head anything, you can’t tackle. Incey, where the f**k have you been? Sharpey, my grandmother runs f**king faster than you! … You’re all a f**king disgrace. 9 o’clock, tomorrow morning, I’m going to run your f**king balls off in training. F**king shocking. And Eric…. [more gently] you can’t go round doing things like that, son’.”