Manchester United 1
Eric Cantona's entire future in English football was placed in serious jeopardy last night, after the Manchester United striker became embroiled in amazing and disgraceful scenes in which he traded punches and launched himself two-footed at a supporter after he had been sent off at Selhurst Park.
As mayhem ensued, other United players joined in the fracas and Paul Ince was also seen to aim a punch. Both players look certain to be charged by the police, but both were allowed to return home on the team coach. The Football Association has already promised action, it announced late last night that charges will follow. The two fans who had levelled complaints against Cantona and Ince were taken to South Norwood police station, where they underwent a medical examination.
There had been no hint before of what was to come when, in the 49th minute, the volatile Frenchman suddenly lost his head and then proceeded to lose any remaining respect that football followers, in fact any human being, still retained for a player of unquestioned ability but who periodically descends into the behaviour of an ale-house brawler. It was the fourth time he had been sent off in less than 12 months and the fifth time in all over the last two seasons.
When the ball was played into the United half, Cantona, preparing to challenge for it with Richard Shaw, suddenly lashed out at the defender's legs. The red card from the referee, Alan Wilkie, was immediately brandished.
Cantona began the long walk along the touchline to the dressing-room and in front of the main stand at Selhurst Park, only yards from the home supporters. He heard something and turned, then, sensationally, he moved towards a fan who was on his feet and appeared to be gesturing at him and took off, in kick-boxing fashion, landing his feet into the chest of the man. Cantona staggered back, recovered his balance and then landed at least two punches on the fan and received one in return.
Eye-witnesses said the spectator had run down 11 rows to confront the United player. They said he had made abusive signs to Cantona. David Haddock, a Crystal Palace fan for 41 years, told what happened: "As Cantona was walking away, the crowd were givinghim a lot of abuse. He turned to one guy and then jumped through the awning with a two-footed kick into the guy's stomach. The fan retaliated and Cantona punched him as well. It must have gone on for about 20 seconds."
Eventually Cantona was dragged away by a steward and the United kit man, Norman Davies. The police and stewards tried to restore order as tempers escalated. United players raced to the scene and a red-faced Alex Ferguson jumped out of the dug-out, pointing animatedly at the area of the stand where the incident took place.
When the game resumed, police officers took statements from more than two dozen spectators who were willing to offer evidence. The head of police at Selhurst Park, Chief Superintendent Terry Collins, of the South Norwood Police, said: "We have received serious allegations from two fans. They are now at the police station for medical examination, which is the usual procedure in the case of assault. No charges have been made as yet, but they could follow. They could be to do with assault and incitement. The players concerned, Eric Cantona and Paul Ince, have been allowed to go home and they will be interviewed at a later date."
The flashpoint was seen by David Davies, the FA's Director of Media Affairs, who was at the game. In a statement issued late last night, the FA announced that it intended to issue charges as a matter of priority.
However much Cantona was provoked, his response was totally outrageous and he deserves to be banned for a very long time, possibly for life. The temperamental French national captain was, of course in trouble even before he set foot on these shores. Thatwas why he came to England in the first place because, after a series of outbursts, he had refused to play on in his native country. But never has he degenerated to these depths before.
Ferguson refused to attend the post-match press conference and Alan Smith, the Palace manager, did not want to discuss what had happened. He said only: "Obviously I was pleased my players did not get involved but it would be wrong of me to comment because I don't want to make things more difficult for Alex and Manchester United."
Paddy Crerand, a former United player, was at the game in his role as a radio summariser. He said: "There is no excuse for what Cantona did. I've never seen anything like it in my life, but you have got to ask what the stewards were doing, were they justhaving a night out?"
The outcome of the game was very secondary. Eight minutes after the red card, David May gave United the lead with his first goal for the club, heading in at the far post after Lee Sharpe had crossed from the left. After Andy Cole had missed a good chanceand Sharpe had hit the bar, Gareth Southgate equalised 10 minutes from time with a neat shot on the turn, after a hectic goalmouth scramble.
Crystal Palace (4-4-2): Martyn; Patterson, Shaw, Coleman, Gordon; Southgate, Pitcher, Newman, Salako; Armstrong, Dowie (Preece, 75). Substitutes not used: Bowry, Wilmot (gk).
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Keane, May, Pallister, Irwin; Giggs, Ince, McClair, Sharpe (Kanchelskis, 83); Cantona, Cole. Substitutes not used: Scholes, Walsh (gk).
Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).