The night Eric saw red

Manchester United fans want to use today's trip to Crystal Palace to mark the 10th anniversary of Eric Cantona's kung-fu attack on a fan. But, asks Paul Newman, is the incident really worth celebrating?
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The Independent Football

Cathy Churchman still shudders when she remembers the look in Eric Cantona's eyes. The hotel manageress was watching in the front row of the main stand at Selhurst Park with her 15-year-old son, Steven, and 12-year-old daughter, Laura, as the Manchester United player headed for the tunnel, having received a red card for kicking Crystal Palace's Richard Shaw.

"There was a lot of cheering and jeering, though nothing worse than you would expect," she recalled yesterday. "Cantona was walking off with an arrogant 'Why me?' look on his face. He kept looking back towards the referee as if to say: 'Why have you done this to me?'

"Then I saw his eyes change. I saw this anger suddenly come over him. I thought he was looking at my son, who was just standing there with his hands in his pocket. I thought: 'What is he going to do to Steven?' Then, in a split second, it all happened."

"It" was arguably the most notorious moment in English football history. Cathy Churchman suddenly noticed a man standing between the front row and the pitchside barrier. Cantona's anger was directed not at her son but at 20-year-old Matthew Simmons, who had left his seat 11 rows back to give the Frenchman a farewell message. Cantona leapt over the barrier feet first, hitting Simmons in the chest with a kung-fu kick which brushed Cathy Churchman's coat and came within inches of her face. After a brief flurry of punches, Cantona was pulled away and escorted from the pitch.

The Frenchman was sentenced to 120 hours' community service and suspended for eight months. After winning his appeal against his 14-day prison sentence Cantona delivered one message to a bewildered press conference: "When seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea."

Simmons, who had a previous conviction for a violent attack on a petrol pump attendant and was revealed to have attended British National Party rallies, was found guilty of threatening behaviour, fined £500 and banned from every football ground for 12 months. After the verdict he leapt over a table and attacked the prosecuting lawyer. He was sent to prison for seven days for contempt of court.

To this day Simmons insists that what he said to Cantona was neither offensive nor rude. In court he claimed he had told him: "Off, off, off, go on Cantona, go for an early shower." However, Cantona himself and some spectators said that Simmons had, to paraphrase, described him as a Frenchman with an Oedipus complex who should go forth and multiply in France. Cathy Churchman insists the noise made it impossible for anyone to hear what Simmons had said.

The Premier League eventually decided the incident was so damaging to football that it banned use of the video footage, but it remains a vivid memory for those who were there, many of whom will be back this afternoon for United's latest visit to Selhurst Park. Both of today's managers were present on that January night in 1995, Alex Ferguson in the dug-out and Iain Dowie on the pitch, playing his second game for Palace after joining from Southampton. Every other Palace player has since moved on, but Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs are still going strong.

While United fans claimed Shaw had been persistently fouling Cantona, John Salako, who played on Palace's left wing that night, remembers differently. "When we played Man United we had certain tactics and one of them was to man-mark certain players," Salako said. "Richard Shaw in my view was one of the best man-markers in the business. He was very strong and used that body strength well. He was a very clever defender.

"Richard did a fantastic job. He used his strength, his arms, he used everything he had to stop Eric. You could see Eric getting frustrated. I can remember him kicking Richard in frustration and getting sent off - I thought: 'We've done our job. Fantastic. Full marks to Richard. Eric's lost the plot.' We'd already been thinking: 'This is a great chance to beat Man United'."

However, within eight minutes of Cantona's 49th-minute dismissal, David May gave United the lead. Palace, 17th in the Premiership and fighting an ultimately losing battle against relegation, equalised 10 minutes from time through Gareth Southgate. United were second in the table, a position they were unable to improve in the remaining weeks of the season.

Little more than two months later the two teams met in an FA Cup semi-final, which United won in a replay, both games at Villa Park. The Cantona affair hung over the tie and tensions soared after a Palace fan was killed in an incident outside a pub before the first game. Paul Nixon, a 35-year-old father of four, was in a group of 35 fans ambushed by United supporters. He was run over by the Palace fans' own coach after being stabbed and suffering serious head injuries when hit with a brick.

While the Selhurst Park incident served only to add to the Cantona legend - he made a goalscoring return later that year but retired at the age of 31 to pursue a career in acting - Palace fans' memories are dominated by the later fatality. When it was revealed this week that some United supporters were planning to attend today's match in Cantona masks, Palace said they would eject anyone wearing them.

Andy Walsh, of the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association, accused Palace of "over-reaction" and said that visiting fans simply wanted to pay homage to their hero. However, Neil Witherow, editor of the Palace Echo fanzine, said: "We're just asking for a bit of respect. People still associate the death of a Palace fan before the semi-final with the Cantona incident. There was real poison in the air at the first semi-final match. Everybody in the Palace end was complaining about the abuse they suffered outside the ground.

"Last year I was invited to go on a 'Premiership panel' organised by Sky to look at the Premiership's greatest moments. One of their top 10 was the Cantona incident. I refused to take part and walked out. You can't celebrate something like that. And if United fans want to pay tribute to Cantona they should do it at one of the 18 other Premiership grounds where there isn't a clear link like this to the death of a fan."

Walsh believes that some good came of the Selhurst Park incident. "The dignity with which Cantona carried himself after the incident said a lot about himself and the sort of support he received from Manchester United Football Club, the staff, the players and the supporters. He threw himself into his community activities and as a result there are loads of kids in Manchester who've had the benefit of that punishment that Cantona undertook. As United fans we also learned that you can put people up on a pedestal but they're still human. The level of abuse that players receive from the sidelines was also re-analysed and you do not see the same levels today in this country."

Ten years on leading lights of that notorious night

Eric Cantona The Player

Occasional actor, director and beach footballer.

Matthew Simmons The Victim

Fulham fan, "construction worker" and semi-recluse.

Alan Wilkie The Referee

FA referee development, crowd safety specialist.

Alan Smith The Home Manager

Sports management and property developer.

Alex Ferguson The Away Manager

Still occupies the same job.

Cathy Churchman The Fan

Crystal Palace supporter and human resources manager. Forever known as "that fan".