In the Manchester United dressing room at Selhurst Park, Sir Alex Ferguson was ripping into Eric Cantona “with a fury he’d rarely used before”, only to suddenly stop himself. It was as if the Old Trafford great had just registered the inherent madness of what he was saying. Ferguson actually laughed.
“When the boss is having a go at Eric, it wasn’t like a bad challenge or pass,” United right-back Paul Parker tells The Independent now. “He decided to jump two-footed into the chest of a supporter. And then the boss kind of starts grinning, and we start sniggering ourselves.”
This was mostly nervous laughter of disbelief, of course, and that was despite the fact neither Ferguson nor the squad had at that point realised just how bad that incident on 25 January 1995 was.
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It wouldn’t occur to Ferguson until 4am the next morning. Inevitably unable to sleep on his return to Manchester, he forced himself to watch a video of United’s 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace, and sat there “appalled” as he witnessed his star launch himself at hooligan Matthew Simmons.
If the sensational nature of that moment was so difficult to get your head around 25 years ago, it is almost the opposite now.
Cantona’s “kung-fu kick” has become such a part of football culture that its seriousness – a criminal offence – is almost underplayed as a piece of pantomime.
It is tempting to wonder what the reaction would be if similar took place in today’s uber-digital age. Back then, the first a general audience knew of it was with Des Lynam’s solemn introduction to Biorports’s Sportsnight, a good hour after the incident.
“Two big Premiership games on Sportsnight tonight, and at one of them, some of the most extraordinary scenes witnessed at a football ground in this country.”
Or since. It was still a quainter age, with that itself represented by Cantona’s very exoticness in a mostly monochrome British and Irish Premier League.
That moment genuinely remains unmatched, though. It was, to quote Parker, “madness”.
It was also so astounding that it actually historically overshadowed the madness of what happened next, even as Cantona’s kick itself kick-started a chain reaction of moment that tested credulity themselves. Ferguson had another description: “a sequence of disasters”.
The story of that night at Selhurst Park has now been well told, but the story of what it provoked is probably more interesting, and much more relevant today.
It is not so much Cantona’s story, either. It is Ferguson’s. He displayed a will, vision, adaptability and absolute steel nerve that is sorely missing at Old Trafford now, and that an even more testing time.
It is not an exaggeration to call 1995 one of the most tempestuous years of United’s history. Martin Edwards wrote in his book that the “whole affair was a complete nightmare”. Virtually everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
Aside from having to deal with the loss of his finest player in a tight league race with Blackburn Rovers and all the fall-out from that – right down to a criminal case – Ferguson faced further disciplinary issues; three other key players agitating for moves; one of the most “miserable” ever finishes to a season, the break-up of a champion team and the open criticism of Ferguson by supporters and officials. All of it culminated in one of football’s great gambles.
“No manager anywhere had ever faced a test such as this,” Roy Keane wrote in his first autobiography. “So for starters you could throw away the textbooks on management techniques. Ferguson had only his instinct to guide him.”
It would set him, and United, apart.
Mere hours after the kick happened, Edwards met with David Davies of the FA, with one sentence summing up the severity of it.
“We’re not talking a life ban here, are we?” Edwards asked.
It is with the benefit of hindsight that it almost feels Cantona’s entire life in football had been building to something like this. Moments like disgraceful stamps on John Moncur – the only other time Ferguson had vented such anger at Cantona – were mere steps to this, the build-up.
“Everyone was shocked by the incident, but not surprised,” Parker says. “You can relate it more now because of Eric’s character.”
It is now almost impossible to imagine Cantona without this career moment. At the time, however, it was almost impossible to imagine how this wouldn’t be the end of that career – at least in England. Even Ferguson admitted his “initial feeling was for letting Eric go”.
That quickly passed, and among a number of influences was a call from Sir Richard Greenbury, the head of Marks and Spencer. A United fan, he impressed upon Ferguson the distinctiveness of Cantona’s sporting personality, likening him to John McEnroe. So, United have Marks and Spencer to someway thank for some of their greatest moments. This wasn’t just any player, they might say.
And this is how serious it was. Club solicitor Maurice Watkins warned the club that tough action or an apology could prejudice the player’s defence. For their part, United knew this wasn’t just about the player, but also about the moral standards of the club. They had to send the right message.
After a day of meetings, while TV crews poked cameras everywhere and the football world demanded Cantona be “kicked out of the game”, United decided upon a four-month ban.
It had been indicated to Ferguson that action this swift and severe would be enough to assuage the FA from further punishment, only for Cantona to be summoned before the governing body for bringing the game into disrepute. During that hearing, Oldham director Ian Stott asked the following: “Isn’t it a fact that you are a kung-fu expert?”
Ferguson burst into laughter. Cantona was just confused, so his manager had to answer for him – saying he wasn’t. There was no laughter when the FA added a further four months’ suspension. Ferguson was furious. Most of the calls were still for Cantona to be kicked out.
The player was himself at that point quiet, but not in his usual louche way.
“Eric is facially a bit of a card player, but he was remorseful,” Parker says. “It was a testing situation, and he was thinking about the implications of what he’d done.”
Watkins said he’d been “under tremendous strain”. That comment came in the press conference after Cantona’s two-week jail sentence had been reduced to 120 hours community service. The initial court case was of course a media circus. It was one of many that doubtless prompted one of the most famous moments of the entire affair, in that same press conference.
“When the seagulls follow the trawler, they think it will be because sardines will be thrown into the sea.”
That Cantona line provoked the most lasting discussion of it all, and even philosophical debates about the meaning of what he said. Both Ferguson and Edwards admitted they never knew. That’s someway surprising, since Cantona has partly explained himself. He didn’t really want to even be at the press conference, so offered a spur-of-the-moment comment on the media’s desperation for coverage.
The real question was the one Cantona was asking internally. Did he really want to stay for this? It genuinely seemed like that kick could be his last for Manchester United. Ferguson was already of a mind to make sure the club kept him. He first had to make sure the club kept the Premier League trophy.
If the United players were in shock at the Selhurst Park incident, the Blackburn players were Bioreports Newsing the air, in delighted disbelief. They couldn’t believe their luck. It was only three days before Selhurst Park, in a moment that showed the supreme side of Cantona worth persisting with, that he had scored the winner over Blackburn in a tight 1-0 that seemed to turn the title race.
Now, as Chris Sutton put it to The Independent, “their talisman had gone!”
United hadn’t gone, however. Their response? They won the next three league games. The champions were back up and running, barely a beat skipped, despite one of the most disruptive controversies in English sporting history.
“A lot of people would never have guessed it with how we were doing as a team,” Parker says. That in itself is testament to the side’s tenacity.
What is really remarkable about it, though, is that there was no rallying call from Ferguson; no big meeting about how they had to pull together.
“It just carried on,” Parker says. “It was just about him knowing the players he had, who didn’t look for excuses.”
That, without saying anything, was Ferguson’s implicit message in all this. He knew that making any kind of big deal out of Cantona’s suspension might have played on the minds of the players, and have the opposite effect than intended. It might have given them the excuse to subconsciously drop off.
He was perfectly willing to play on the minds of the Blackburn players, as the race reached its tensest point. Ferguson had sensed a fragility there, noticing manager Kenny Dalglish was saying all the right things, but that his demeanour was different. He referenced Devon Loch.
“My line was that Blackburn were so much in command that now they could only throw the championship away,” Ferguson wrote in his autobiography, drawing on the analogy of the Queen Mother’s steeplechaser that had collapsed on the Grand National run-in with the race won. “It may have been a pretty corny psychological tactic but it was worth a try.”
Whether it actually worked is hard to say, but Blackburn were feeling the pressure. Sutton said they were “falling over the line”, “running on empty” in their last few games. Ahead of the last day – the new Premier League’s first ever photo finish after two processions by United – Ferguson sincerely told his players Blackburn would “bottle it”.
The aim was to embolden United as they tried to get the win they needed at West Ham United, and so ensure they weren’t in any way thinking about Blackburn’s trip to Liverpool. A win at Anfield, of all places, would give Dalglish’s side the title. This was just another incredible part of the Cantona affair, as it contributed to one of the wildest final days ever seen. It was certainly the Premier League’s most dramatic climax until 2011-12.
A further quirk was that Ferguson was right. Blackburn did bottle it. They lost 2-1. The problem was United couldn’t smash their way through West Ham. Or, more specifically, Ludek Miklosko. He just kept everything out. It was a siege. It was also “one of those games where everything went for me”, Miklosko would later say. Some of that was perhaps down to the absence of one man.
That 1-1 draw was United’s fifth draw out of 17 matches since Cantona had been sent off. Three of them 0-0, as they lost the title by a point. It’s difficult not to think he would have made the difference at least once.
It similarly didn’t help that Keane was suspended for some of the run-in. In a moment that had shades of Cantona, he received a red card in the FA Cup semi-final against – of course – Palace for stamping on Gareth Southgate. The match provoked crowd trouble, and was yet another controversy that season, even if it was all registered somewhat irrelevant by reports a Palace supporter had been killed.
That was true perspective.
The United players weren’t thinking of any of this at Upton Park, though. They could barely think of anything at all. They were crushed. Both Gary Pallister and Edwards used the same words to describe it: “the worst feeling I ever had in football.”
That gloom made the following week’s FA Cup final a fait accompli, as Everton beat a callow United 1-0. Ferguson was furious in the dressing room afterwards. “If some players had let their teammates down, on or off the field, they would not be around Old Trafford much longer,” he later said.
This was not some heat-of-the-moment reaction, though. It had been building. The FA Cup had actually been overshadowed by a board meeting give on the Tuesday before, when Ferguson announced he wanted to sell midfielder Paul Ince to Internazionale.
“The most common reactions were shock and dismay,” Ferguson said. That’s how big a figure Ince was for United. That’s how big a story the summer would become, although it was another headache from the end of that season.
“I felt like the little Dutch boy trying to plug holes in the dyke with his fingers,” Ferguson said.
He had already decided to get rid of top scorer Andre Kanchelskis after the Russian winger’s behaviour bizarrely changed, and even more bizarre meetings with his representatives. There, Ferguson later claimed, agent Grigory Essaoulenko told United “if you don’t transfer him now, you will not be around much longer”.
That had been after Essaoulenko had attempted to give Ferguson a gift of £40,000 as “a thank-you for all you have done”. It was returned, and Kanchelskis was dispatched to Everton.
With Ince, Ferguson was taken aback when asked by a friend about Internazionale’s interest, but already had concerns about his midfielder’s personality. He felt these transfer games were in-keeping with Ince’s declining discipline, and a refusal to follow tactical instructions. Ferguson had been increasingly worried by Ince’s sense of himself, and particularly a propensity for calling himself “the Guv’nor”. The manager, in one notorious exchange during a 4-0 thrashing to Barcelona, called him something else. At half-time, Ferguson had accused Ince of “bottling” the occasion. The player argued back, his pride stung.
“Don’t call me a bottler, gaffer.” Ferguson got right up in his face and declared: “You are a fucking bottler.” He was going to hold his own nerve on this decision, despite questions from nearly everyone at United. Ince was to be sold.
Ferguson had no plans to sell Mark Hughes, but the a problem with the pension arrangement on his new contract meant it went unsigned, and left him to leave for Chelsea in the summer. Hughes had also been put out by the Andy Cole signing, and perturbed at getting dropped for games like that against West Ham, so knew which way things were going.
The problem was no one outside the club knew any of this. No one had seen Ferguson rebuild a title-winning team, in a manner he was to make his greatest virtue. In truth, no one had seen anyone rebuild a title-winning team at all other than Liverpool. Doubt was someway natural.
It looked like something was coming to an end. Three champion players were being sold, with no one being bought to replace them. The only response was to throw a gang of kids in. That gang was highly valued, of course, but they were still just kids.
Ferguson knew a signing could provide the boost badly needed, but only saw an opening on the right, and only saw Darren Anderton as a worthwhile option. Tottenham Hotspur refused to sell. Ferguson refused to go for anyone else. He of course had a greater plan. But few others could really value the merits of that plan, especially when that young side were battered 3-1 by Aston Villa on the opening day of the season.
Alan Hansen said “you can’t win anything with kids”, and Edwards admitted “he wasn’t the only one thinking that”, fearing United would be short. Tempers were certainly short. There was rancour.
The backdrop to this was a Manchester Evening News poll where a majority wanted Ferguson out. The Independent Manchester United Supporters Association were vociferously critical, particularly after Ince reached out to them and tried to make out he wanted to stay.
There was then the question at a board meeting that caused something of a self-reflection in Ferguson. Professor Sir Roland Smith asked him outright: “Do you think you have taken your eye off the ball?”
It had been triggered by the Ince decision, which everyone at the club had widely discussed, but prompted doubt about everything else. Ferguson later said he felt like Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon’, and that his job “was under more threat than in any other period” at Old Trafford”.
He embarked on a soul-searching exercise, and attempted to detach himself and analyse every decision… only to further convince himself he was right. His nerve remained.
That was to prove crucial, as he was next faced with one of the last great problems of that year. He was notified of it in a message from Edwards as he landed in Manchester airport.
“Eric wants away.” The player had become fed up. The fact his ban even prevented him playing practice matches was the final straw. Inter were interested, and he was willing to go.
Ferguson could empathise, and could understand Cantona’s predicament. He was prepared to let him go out of empathy, until his wife Cathy said that was unlike him to give up – “especially against the establishment”. Ferguson realised she was right. He was going to win Cantona round.
Ferguson – literally – got on the back of a motorbike, specifically the Harley Davidson of Cantona’s agent. It was a rescue mission: to save the player’s United legacy. This was what mattered most to him.
“The main concern for Alex was that he didn’t want this to be the end of Eric’s Manchester United career,” Edwards wrote. He was determined to get him motivated again, even if he was necessarily relaxed with Cantona.
In a Parisian restaurant a friend of the player had shut for the night, Ferguson told Cantona of his wife’s chat – which struck a chord. He also played on that idea of Cantona’s legacy, and how his last act for the fans would be Selhurst Park. This won the star around. The story would be changed.
“I never thought he’d go because of how much he loved the club,” Parker says. “More than anything, it was his relationship with the boss. The only manager that could have relationships like that with the players now would be Jurgen Klopp. “The boss was the difference.”
A full 250 days after Selhurst Park, Cantona was back on a pitch and jumping towards the crowd again – but this time in celebration. He was twirling around a pole having scored the decisive equalising penalty in a 2-2 draw with a buoyant Liverpool. Symbolic and triumph as that moment was, more relevant was the toughness of the game. It would take a few months for Cantona to find his form.
This was the period, however, when that young group found their feet. All of David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Paul Scholes began to flourish alongside the established Ryan Giggs. There is an argument that it was the absence of Cantona in 1994-95 that first opened the space for them, and allowed them to learn the way in a situation where there was counter-intuitively less pressure, because so much of the focus elsewhere.
For Ferguson, this was the “dream”, but also the long-held plan. As far back in 1993, he’d said the following: “I have seven or eight kids waiting patiently for the opportunity, young footballers on the threshold of the big time… I believe it is a dream that can be realised.”
The present reality was still that it was going to be hugely difficult to overtake Newcastle United. They were that far behind, especially after an awful winter. They needed something extra. They needed Cantona. This was the true return of the king, when he really came back.
Cantona’s match-winner in the 1-0 victory away to Newcastle on 4 March was one of nine games that season when the French star scored the decisive goal. Five of those were 1-0 wins, with four of those coming in the last 10 games, before the real crowning moment with the winner in the FA Cup final against Liverpool.
Little wonder Keane described Cantona as the best one-on-one finisher he’d seen. He had the nerve for it – reminiscent of his manager’s. This is what Ferguson did. The spectacle of a kung-fu kick had led to one of sport’s great balancing acts, and comebacks.
“He was fearless,” Parker says. “He never gave the impression any of this was a gamble. He gave nothing away. You believed it was going to happen, because he made you believe it was going to happen.”
And there was certainly no disbelief about his laughter at the end. Only celebration.