the cantona affair: Palace offer Frenchman no sympathy

the eye witnessES

Crystal Palace was an unlikely place to find any sympathy for Eric Cantona yesterday. Variations on the word "scum" were the most common epithet for the French forward.

Matthew Simmons, the 20-year-old victim of Cantona's flying drop-kick, achieved the instant fame accorded to individuals in such circumstances and was soon whisked away from his south London home by representatives of a national newspaper.

Friends described him as a normal upstanding bloke who was enjoying a bit of "verbal" after the sending-off. The verbal, said by Michael Pickett, a friend, to be along the lines of "dirty French bastard, fuck off home to France", was accompanied by an obscene gesticulation.

Mr Pickett, 30, who was with Mr Simmons at the time of the incident, said most of the crowd was shouting at Cantona. "We think he is scum. As he came along the line my mate and loads of other people were giving him abuse.

"I know he gave the wanker sign. Then all I saw was Cantona lashing out. He jumped up and kicked him right in the chest, then he punched him. I was amazed. I have never seen anything like it. There was a dear old lady in front of me and she got flattenedin the scuffle.

"It's a family enclosure there. He should be deported and disbarred from football altogether."

Mr Pickett, who plays in the same pub football team as Mr Simmons, said that if an ordinary fan had been fighting, he would have been arrested immediately.

"If that was me in the crowd fighting, I would have been arrested there and then, dragged out of the ground and up in court the following morning. With Cantona the police did nothing. They just let him walk away."

Fans at Crystal Palace do not have a violent reputation and the incident happened in a family enclosure of home supporters. John Ellis, assistant editor of the Palace Echo, a club fanzine, said there would have been a riot if it had happened at Millwall or Chelsea.

"There are parts of that stand where you have to wear a collar and tie. It's a family enclosure where people go with children.

"Eric Cantona is admired by just about everybody because he is a good player," he said. "But that means he is going to get a lot of abuse as he's in a very public position. Lots of people know that there is going to be a reaction, that's why they have a go at him. It's part of the pantomime that's football.

"Manchester United have a reputation down here as a bunch of moaning, whingeing buggers who keep complaining to the ref and the linesmen. It gets the crowd going. That's what it was like last night".

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