The Kick That Stunned Football
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
Eric Cantona's attack on Matthew Simmons. |
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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?
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
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?
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.'
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.
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
seat, no one would ever have questioned his behaviour, but
it needed questioning.
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.'
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
The Kick That Changed