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Cantona: The madness of the King

On Eric Cantona’s 50th birthday, we look back on that night at Selhurst Park and how it came to define him.

“Cantona…trying to get on his way…had a little kick at Shaw there in frustration and the linesman had a very, very good view of it. Now, temperatures rising and out comes the red card. There’s the morning headline. Eric Cantona. Three times he walked last season, once more in a pre-season game. And now, for the fifth time in his Manchester United career, Eric Cantona is sent-off. Alan Wilkie is the referee. But it was the advice of the linesman, Eddie Walsh, which helped him…”

Source: Ryan C/YouTube

Sometimes, it’s the image that’s everlasting. When the memories fade and the details become harder to recall, that frozen moment becomes the gateway – the key that unlocks a thousand thoughts.

On 25th January 1995, at about 9pm, Eric Cantona walked towards the Selhurst Park dressing-rooms. Sent-off after kicking out at Crystal Palace defender Richard Shaw, he turned down the collar of his shirt, shook his head and strode, ever patiently, along the touchline. He turned only to offer referee Alan Wilkie one final, disparaging and menacing stare. As usual, the chest was out, the arms swinging back and forth. But he seemed different. Anxious. As he passed the dug-out, he turned around again and focused his attention on the grappling that was taking place between both sets of players. Almost nervously, he played with the fingers of his left hand. His manager, standing just a few feet away, ignored him. Norman Davies, the United kit-man, came to comfort him and escort him to the safety of the tunnel. The Palace supporters, boisterous, bleated their approval. Some waved Cantona goodbye. Some hurled abuse.

The stadium was a gritty one and few United players enjoyed going there. Wimbledon also called it home and the under-dog nature of both tenants ensured a highly-charged atmosphere whenever a high-profile side visited. But with the reigning champions in town, the abuse seemed more toxic than ever. There was an undercurrent. There was tension. Many expected a red card. As usual, few expected Cantona to do what he did.

But, those isolated few minutes of madness that played out one wintry night twenty years ago is not the complete picture. Like any wide-ranging story, there are finer details. And it’s in the nuances and subtleties where Eric Cantona has always lived.

Philippe Auclair is Cantona’s biographer.

“Very often, you can almost define an athlete’s career by an image that springs to mind.

If you take Florence Griffith-Joyner, the image I picture is of her crossing the line, having beaten the world record, with a huge smile on her face, having not broken a sweat, with her painted fingernails. For Maradona, there’s the Hand of God and also the second goal he scored in that game against England. For Puskas, it’s him doing keepy-uppys on the pitch before the game against England in 1953. For Cruyff, it’s the famous turn. You try to find a pictorial shorthand for a personality.

But to reduce Eric Cantona to that – to Selhurst Park – even though his kick showed the same kind of balance and elegance and balletic grace that he had in his game, would be unfair.”

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Crystal Palace v Manchester United - Selhurst Park Cantona walks towards the Selhurst Park dressing rooms while Matthew Simmons, wearing the dark jacket, shouts abuse at him. Source: Steve Morton/EMPICS Sport

“Oh! What’s going on here? Cantona is getting involved with some supporters! This is outrageous. Norman Davies, the Manchester United kit-man, is trying to pull him away. It’s all got wildly out of hand and once more, Eric Cantona is the man at the centre of a dramatic controversy.”

As Davies wrapped a supportive arm around him, Cantona broke free from the tentative hold, moved two or three steps towards the crowd and launched himself, feet-first at a supporter, driving his studs into the man’s chest. As gravity dropped him onto the advertising hoardings, he connected with another kick. As he got to his feet, he grabbed the man by the lapels and punched him in the face. Standing over him and studying him intensely, Cantona decided against inflicting anything further. He was pushed away from the scene by Davies and within moments was joined by United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel who raced from his goal to lend some support. He talked to Cantona, trying to switch his attention away from the baying crowd. The victim, meanwhile, was surrounded by United players. Denis Irwin, Paul Ince, Roy Keane, Lee Sharpe and Andy Cole gathered around him before a steward waved them away.

In the dressing room, Cantona was seething. According to Davies, he wanted to go back onto the pitch and finish what he’d started. Davies locked the door and put the kettle on instead. Cantona sat back on the bench, drank his tea and didn’t utter another word. When his team-mates filtered in at full-time, the incident wasn’t mentioned. Maybe it was shock. Maybe it was the general disappointment of having squandered two points, losing ground on the side they had beaten just three days before – Blackburn Rovers. A game in which Cantona had scored the winning goal. Maybe, the team was slowly coming to terms with the fact that its best player would probably be missing for a while.

But it wasn’t until the following morning that the story was properly exposed to the wider public and the reaction, unsurprisingly, was hysterical.

Source: MrSocktag3/YouTube

To others though, mainly those with a knowledge of his troubled career in France, the fact that Cantona had crossed the line again certainly wasn’t a surprise. But, the finer details certainly were.

“My reaction was of somebody who had come to expect things like this from Eric Cantona”, Auclair says.

“Still, I was amazed at what he dared to do and the way he had done it. I wasn’t surprised that he had got into trouble again. On the other hand, the images were so extraordinary and the immediate impact of what he did was so enormous and unimaginable, that I was stunned.

Even though there was a story that when he was sent on loan to Martigues by Guy Roux – he was an Auxerre player at the time but his head wasn’t right –  he apparently did something very similar there. It was a pretty intense and pretty physical altercation with a spectator who had criticised his play. But it didn’t make the papers in France because obviously Martigues isn’t on anybody’s radar.

So, on one hand I wasn’t surprised and on the other I was flabbergasted – which is generally the type of reaction you have to things that Eric Cantona does. You think he can’t surprise you anymore and then he still manages to do it.”

173003 Eric Cantona Source: Presse Sports/Press Association Images

“Just as I can bring happiness to people through my footballing instincts, so there are also going to be dark shadows, black stains. You’ve just got to live with that.” 

                                                                                                                                     Eric Cantona

Nobody had attempted to get to the bottom of Cantona’s penchant for violence. Beneath the Gallic arrogance, the posturing and flicks and tricks, there was an edge. Beneath the careful, sensitive, tender way Cantona expressed himself on the pitch, there was rage. Despite identifying Rimbaud and Picasso as his heroes, despite extolling the virtues of Mozart, Cantona didn’t always exist in a calm, soothing place. On the occasions when he lost control, the aggression took him over completely. A darkness swathed him, rendering him unable to control the urges. But it was no ordinary aggression.

Cantona appeared to revel in the acute, piercing sort. With clenched fists and bitten bottom lip, he would gleefully and wildly charge into challenges. The intention was to hurt. A mass of frustration and anger, Cantona would self-sabotage, drawing on the rules of street-fighting to make his mark, thereby ramping up the quick and easy and misguided conclusions of him merely being a product of his upbringing – with Cantona having grown up on those cliched tough, uncompromising and working-class streets of Marseille. In fact, Cantona grew up peering down at them from the foothills, nestled deep in the warmth of a loving family environment. But, always print the legend.

Soccer - FA Cup - Fourth Round - Norwich City v Manchester United - Carrow Road Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

His first season with Manchester United offered little in the way of controversy – only a smattering of bookings. But throughout the 1993/94 campaign, Cantona involved himself in a strange succession of violent incidents. In one game against Norwich, he was booked for a horrible challenge on Jeremy Goss. Later, as he grappled with John Polston, he flicked his foot at the defender’s head, catching him with his studs. It was nasty. Somehow, he stayed on the pitch.

Further into the campaign, he was sent-off twice in four days. Against Swindon, he stamped on John Moncur’s chest. But the ad-hoc eruptions were overshadowed by genuine moments of jaw-dropping beauty. There was the nonchalant chip against Southampton, the thunder-bolt strike against Arsenal, the almost slow-motion lob from the half-way line against Chelsea that bounced back off the crossbar, the fine individual effort against QPR, the delicate finish against Sheffield United, the outrageous volley against Wimbledon. But, in spite of his irresistible form, the eruptions continued.

Soccer - Premier League - Manchester United v Manchester City Source: Barry Coombs/EMPICS Sport

In the summer of 1994, during a pre-season game against Glasgow Rangers, Cantona inexplicably flew into another frenzied, studs-up challenge. He didn’t make much contact but instantly and instinctively, he was already walking towards the touchline before the red card was even brandished.

Yet, the general attitude of stakeholders seemed to lack any real understanding. To many, Cantona was the archetypal foreigner – an outsider, a guy who stood out for the wrong reasons. He spoke differently, dressed differently, played differently. When he was violent, he even attacked differently. 

But the pock-marks had spoiled his professional complexion well before he moved to England. Yet, despite the consistent run-ins with authority, despite the disdain for ill-discipline, no one seemed interested in what fuelled it.

“I can’t think of people deploring what he was doing or people trying to defend him”, Auclair continues.

People tend to have an opinion of Eric Cantona that’s very trenchant and very clear and very defined far too much. When something happened, which it did quite regularly, there was no attempt to go into psycho-analysis of the man. There were the people who didn’t take him seriously at all, who thought he was just a joke, somebody who was a bit unbalanced and best left aside. And then there were those who thought he was a rebel, who bought the whole message of rebelliousness and the poetry of football. And there were very few people who tried to go deeper into his character.”

You also have to take into account that football isn’t necessarily part of a higher culture in France and therefore wouldn’t attract the kind of writers or thinkers that it would in Britain. He was seen as a enfant terrible, he was seen as a rebel by some, as a liability by many. He was seen as a nutcase by others, as someone that was misunderstood by the minority. No one was interested in finding out why this man was so unreliable and prone to explosions – not just of lyricism but also violence. And why it was almost impossible to separate one from the other. You had to take the whole package.”       

SOCCER - Premier League ... Manchester Untied v Nottingham Forest Source: Laurence Griffiths/EMPICS Sport

A soldier, very young, lies open-mouthed,

A pillow made of fern beneath his head,

Asleep; stretched in the heavy undergrowth,

Pale in his warm, green, sun-soaked bed.

His feet among the flowers, he sleeps. His smile

Is like an infant’s – gentle, without guile.

Ah, Nature, keep him warm; he may catch cold.

The humming insects don’t disturb his rest;

He sleeps in sunlight, one hand on his breast;

At peace. In his side there are two red holes.

                                                                                      Arthur Rimbaud, Asleep in the Valley

There are various ways to look at what happened at Selhurst Park two decades ago this weekend. On one hand, Cantona was a mindless thug who needed little excuse in embracing his violent streak. On the other, Cantona was an anti-hero, a man who literally jumped through a barrier to inflict pain and suffering upon those who had specialised for so long in delivering it to so many.

It helped Cantona that his victim at Selhurst Park, Matthew Simmons, was such a stereotype. In 1992, he had been convicted of assault, was fined and placed on two years’ probation. He had attended rallies for the British National Party and the National Front. As much as Cantona – the troubled foreigner – fitted so snugly into a box, so too did Simmons.

So, what did Simmons say to Cantona that elicited such a reaction? It depends on who you believe. The general consensus seems to be a version of ‘Fuck off back to France, you French motherfucker’. In court, Cantona said Simmons verbally abused his mother.

Simmons, speaking to The Guardian in 2004, said Cantona lied.

What he did in saying that was totally unjustified. The man is filth. How can he accuse me of saying such a thing? Where has this allegation against me come from? From him. It ruined my life. And that is why it is inexcusable.”

Like Cantona, Simmons accepted his own version of what happened that night. It made sense in his head. Years later, in a BBC interview, Cantona talked about the attack in almost exalted terms.

“I think, maybe, it’s like a dream for some people – to kick these kind of people (hooligans). So, I did it for them. So, they’re happy. Sometimes people feel pressure in their job, in their business and they want to do something and they cannot do it. So when somebody does do something, it’s a kind of freedom for them. I’ve seen so many players scoring goals – they know this kind of feeling but this one – a player jumps and kicks a hooligan – it’s not the kind of thing you see everyday. It was a mistake but that’s life. That’s me.”

Cantona has played many roles. The footballer, the philosopher, the painter, the pianist, the activist. But he’s also an actor. And not a bad one. In brushing off what happened that night at Selhurst Park, he’s merely playing a role. The role that he feels he should play. The role he cast himself in a long time ago. The one he’ll forever be remembered for: the disinterested, cool, calm, sophisticated figure that goes out of his way to be different. The man who refuses to talk about memories or the past. The man that wants to talk only about his next project. The perennial outsider.

Cantona Appeal - Croydon Crown Court Eric Cantona walks free after winning his appeal against a two week jail sentence. Source: NEIL MUNNS/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Yet, his struggles were real in January 1995. There was talk of a life ban prior to the FA’s ultimate decision to fine him £10,000 and suspend him until September 30th (United had already suspended him for the remainder of the 94/95 season and fined him two weeks’ wages).  But, Croydon Magistrates’ Court also handed him a two-week prison sentence. Though it was subsequently reduced on appeal to 120 hours of community service, it was a testing time. Cantona, who had finally found a professional home and a professional family who cared for him and sheltered him and understood him, was facing more upheaval.

Auclair agrees that Cantona, though he’d never admit it, was worried.

“It was very difficult for him to get through that. When you read some of the later interviews, when he said he was proud to have done it, that it was the best moment of his career, it’s very much Eric Cantona re-writing Eric Cantona’s history. It’s certainly not the way he reacted when it happened. He was very, very down. He was wondering what on earth was going to happen to him. He was wondering what was going to happen to his family. He was wondering how he was going to fight the charges. Remember, there were criminal charges to start with – this whole nonsense of him being sent to jail. He didn’t brush it aside.

But there is a particular version of Eric Cantona’s life which is being proposed by Eric Cantona. The aim is to make you believe that Eric Cantona is in control of what he does. He’s not. Not always. And I think he struggles with that. He’s a genuinely violent man. The red mist comes over him and he can’t control it. There is this streak of genuine anger, almost existential anger, that will push him a little further, almost to the tipping point.”

In 2004, Cantona did discuss the past. He gave an interview to the Observer and discussed his assault on Simmons.

‘There was a barrier between us so I had to jump over it. That’s all, otherwise I might have just steamed in with my fists. You know, you meet thousands of people like him [Simmons]. And how things turn out can hinge on the precise moment you run into them. If I’d met that guy on another day, things may have happened very differently even if he had said exactly the same things. Life is weird like that. You’re on a tightrope every day.”

Though appearing somewhat philosophical about the whole incident, the anger still resonates within Cantona. But the anger isn’t felt towards the instigator. He chooses to ignore certain pieces of his past. Others, he can’t let go of so easily. And therein lies the biggest complexity of all. For in some weird way, Cantona doesn’t rage at Simmons – the hooligan. He rages at those who dismissed him and ridiculed him and judged him and condemned him for what he did.

In 2001, there was a bizarre footnote. Cantona appeared on a French TV show, Cote Tribune, with two football writers from L’Equipe. Cantona still carried a grudge because of the headline (‘INDEFENDABLE’) that accompanied the newspaper’s immediate coverage of his assault on Simmons six years earlier. He raged at the pair (‘I piss on your arses’), unleashing a vile, relentless verbal assault because of one word chosen to describe the moment he delivered a kung-fu kick to the chest of a football supporter.

So, as much as Cantona preaches of the future and not caring of his past, he still remembers it. He still carries it. He still suffers because of it.

The whys and the wherefores of that evening twenty years ago? Perhaps, do what the main characters in the story have done. Pick your truth.

Soccer - FA Cup - Semi-Final - Manchester United v Chelsea Source: Steve Morton/EMPICS Sport

“It’s not that he wasn’t used to insults and people having a go at him”, Auclair says.

“Far from it. This is a man for whom being insulted was an everyday occurrence when he was at Marseille, for example, in the latter stages of his stay there. He was the butt of so many jokes and so many insults. He had gone through all of that already.

Why it happened on that particular night? We will never know. Nobody quite understood why it happened. I’ve talked to his ex-wife about it and she has no idea. He was in a heightened state at the time because his father was quite ill and they were quite worried about him. When you understand the depth, intensity and complexity of his feelings towards his father and the closeness of the clan, perhaps part of his mind was in Marseille and not in Selhurst Park that night.

But I don’t think we should necessarily try to find a rational explanation. It’s like The Double Life of Veronique – the Krzysztof Kieslowski film: you board the train, you stay on the platform, you leave the station – three different scenarios. Who could’ve predicted what they’d be?”

With Eric Cantona, the unpredictability was what made him fascinating. It’s what continues to make him fascinating.

– This article was first published on 25 January 2015

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