K is for kung-fu…
Kung-fu, football and the Premier League: when this jumble of words begins to form into a discussion, you can be fairly sure whatever conversation you’re in the midst of is about to swing towards Eric Cantona’s 1995 kick rather than the movie, Shaolin Soccer.
Offside’s Roy Beardsworth, David Davies and Mark Leech were all at Selhurst Park for the fateful fixture in which the Frenchman dived into the crowd to kick out at Matthew Simmons. Yet this was more than a simple act of violence. The fall out and aftermath unearthed layers upon layers of intrigue and melodrama that elevated Cantona’s kick into one of the most defining moments of the Premier League era.
Even the target of his attack was a far from simple character. After the fact, it turned out that Simmons was a paid-up member of the BNP, sympathiser of the National Front, himself formerly convicted of assault and a qualified referee.
None of that excused or justified Cantona’s actions but it did show him to be as complicated a “victim” as you could want to add to such a story. Chin stroking increased and column inches only grew over the event and the question of who was the true antagonist. The Manchester United striker even became something of a vigilante hero in the eyes of some.
Simmons claimed that he rushed down to the front of stand to hurl such banalities as “off you go Cantona! It’s an early bath for you!” after the player was given a red card for a foul on Richard Shaw. With its strangely polite and almost archaic tone, it all seemed rather improbable compared to alternative collection of words he was accused of spouting: “fuck off, you mother-fucking French bastard!”
It didn’t take long for a number of Crystal Palace fans to try distancing themselves and their club from him, claiming that Simmons was in fact a wandering Fulham supporter.
The result of Cantona’s actions landed him with a nine month ban, and almost saw him leave England for Serie A due to the perceived injustice he had suffered. His reaction to the press and their wall of flash bulbs and dicta-phones at his press conference after being handed the sentence of 120 hours of community service led to those infamous words:
When seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.
It’s unlikely that his marketing team could have played the situation any better.
Yet United were able to retain their man, and he returned against the club’s greatest rivals, Liverpool, to create a goal for Nicky Butt after just two minutes before firing home a penalty to ensure they grabbed a point in a 2-2 draw.
Cantona and his club mates would go on to secure the double at the end of the 1996 season before retiring with another Premier League title under his belt in 1997 as a bona fide cult idol. Simmons on the other hand lost his job following the incident and became one of the most hated figures in English football.
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