The Kick That Stunned Football

Selhurst Park, 25 January 1995, 9.00pm. The most enigmatic, charismatic footballer in England aims the most shocking, unforgettable and undeniably glamorous kick of the decade - at a fan. Brian Oliver reports on the lasting impact of that lunge while Cantona, his victim and a full supporting cast recall the night.

Sunday October 31, 2004
The Observer

Download Eric Cantona's attack on Matthew Simmons.

Think back to the 1980s - Bradford, Heysel, Hillsborough, Thatcher, hooligans, ID cards - and it is easier to understand why the 1990s was the most important decade for football in this country since the Football League was founded in the 1880s. As spectators were treated less like animals and more like human beings, most, though by no means all of them, began to behave better. Businesses invested in the game. The Premier League was created, the Champions League, too, and Sky's TV money changed a local, provincial game into something altogether different. A new audience was attracted to football; crowds grew year after year, from 20,000 per match in the top division to more than 30,000.

Football became more than a game, and there will be no turning back. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is open to question. It happened.

There are half a dozen images that define this decade of change, which help to show why football widened its appeal. First, and most important, is the sight of Paul Gascoigne crying into his England shirt after being booked in the 1990 World Cup semi-final against West Germany. Unaggressive and emotional, a billboard image that helped to start an apparently unstoppable surge in popularity for the national team.

'Poor Gazza - the human side of football' was the unwritten caption, even if poor England made his tears irrelevant by losing on penalties. There followed, in the next eight years, memorable front-page images of poor Gary, poor Gareth, and poor David. Lineker was substituted in his last England appearance in Euro 92, Southgate's miss led to another shoot-out defeat against the Germans in the Euro 96 semi-final, and Beckham was sent off for kicking the Argentine Diego Simeone in the 1998 World Cup, in another game that England would lose on penalties.

It took a while for Beckham to win the sympathy vote, but he got there in the end. As did the grey shirts of Bayern Munich, who provided one of the two unforgettable images from club football in the 1990s: their defenders flat out in tears after conceding two goals in the last minute of the 1999 Champions League final, which Manchester United won to become the first, and to date only, English champions of Europe since the arrival of 'new football'.

The other abiding image from club football is the violent and truly shocking picture of Eric Cantona leaping over an advertising hoarding to kick Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons at Selhurst Park on 25 January 1995. Cantona had just been sent off, Simmons came down 11 rows to tell him to 'Fuck off back to France, you French motherfucker', or 'French bastard' depending on whose version you accept. Cantona crossed a line no player had crossed before in English football: he attacked a fan.

There was a fascination in this Hollywood moment that goes into the dark world of 'the glamour of violence' as a recent book on boxing by Kevin Mitchell was subtitled. Cantona's kick was unquestionably glamorous: because it was Cantona (dressed all in black), because it was Manchester United, because it had never happened before, because it was so shocking.

Was there sympathy for Cantona? Never, judging by the media coverage of what Trevor Brooking, among others, described as 'the most horrendous incident involving a player I have ever witnessed at an English football ground'.

" What about analysing the responsibility of Simmons and every foul-mouthed yob who thinks his £10 admission gives him the right to say what he likes to a man..."

The most commonly used adjective in the coverage of Cantona's assault, and the subsequent court case and nine-month ban from football imposed on the Frenchman, was 'shameful'. As the 10th anniversary of 'kung-fu Cantona' draws near, it is tempting to look back and ask: shameful for whom?

To Cantona and his club, certainly. He deserved his lengthy ban. But apart from three or four articles, and most notably a column by Jimmy Greaves in the Sun, nobody in the national press asked the most important question of all: why? Why had it happened?

The who, what, where and when of the Selhurst Park incident were detailed in many thousands of words and the widespread conclusion was that Cantona should be banned for life from 'the game that's dying of shame'. But why, apart from the obvious loss of self-control, did Cantona do something quite so outrageous?

'We've heard a lot about Cantona's responsibilities,' Greaves wrote. 'What about analysing the responsibility of Simmons and every foul-mouthed yob who thinks his £10 admission gives him the right to say what he likes to a man... to abuse, taunt, spit and behave in a way that would get you locked up if you repeated it in the high street.'

Tom Carty, who was at the match, is one of the senior figures in the British advertising industry and has worked with Cantona, whom he describes as 'a warm, kind, genuine, creative man, a thinker', on film shoots. He believes some good came of the kick.

'It made people think twice about how they behave, about abusing a player,' he says. 'The behaviour of some fans was so bad, so tribalistic. There was so much hate. If Simmons had stayed in

his seat, no one would ever have questioned his behaviour, but it needed questioning.

'Just imagine if a black player had done that in the 1970s - someone like Clyde Best when they were chucking bananas at him. There would have been a riot. But it would have changed the way people behaved, some good would have come of it. Maybe that's what happened with Cantona.'

There are those, particularly in south London, who believe Cantona got off lightly, that the Manchester United PR machine made racism an issue when it was not. John Barnes was never part of the Old Trafford spin machine. Here's his view in 2004: 'It's very ironic that it took a white Frenchman to bring home to the nation the issue of racism in football.'

· Brian Oliver is sports editor of The Observer

Related Articles:
The Assailant
The Kick That Changed Football
The Reaction
The Target

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