Football's JFK moment: The night Cantona's crown slipped

The Frenchman's kung-fu kick at Selhurst Park is a defining moment in Premier League history. Some 20 years on Gerry Cox, a journalist who attended the game, recounts the story
By Gerry Cox

Crystal Palace once announced plans to increase the size of Selhurst Park, but they could treble its capacity and still not accommodate all the people who claim they were there on a cold night in January 1995 when Eric Cantona had his 'Carry on Cleo' moment.

"Infamy, infamy – they've all got it in for me," was Julius Caesar's best line in the comedy film, and it looked like Eric was recreating his own version as he strutted down the touchline shortly after flying through the air feet-first in an attack that was either shockingly horrifying, or laugh-out-loud funny, depending on your viewpoint - and mine was a bit of both.

I had one of the best vantage points in the house, the long, glass-fronted press box overlooking the managers' dugouts at Selhurst Park.

It was the Premier League's JFK moment, where we can all remember where we were. Unlike the many Manchester United fans who claimed to have been there - presumably because it was a local fixture for many of them - I really was there when Cantona crossed the line, both metaphorically and literally, that separates players from fans.

I was there at the beginning of the match, I was there when Cantona was sent off and took off, and I was there at South Norwood nick long after midnight, waiting to see what would happen to Cantona and Paul Ince, who had also been taken in for questioning.

It was a long night, but had started inauspiciously.

United were in town for what should have been a straightforward victory. They had won the title in the previous two seasons of the fledgling FA Premiership, as it was called, while Palace were in the middle of one of their yo-yo spells between divisions.

We were all aware that Cantona was a ticking time-bomb, likely to go off at any time, and so it seems were the opposition. The Frenchman was using up his nine lives like a cat in a minefield, having decided he could no longer play in his native country, where his disciplinary record was past the point of no return. Cantona did not fare much better in England, and in the year before Selhurst, had been sent off four times including one red card in a so-called 'friendly'.

So Palace's players knew that if they managed to wind up Cantona he was likely to react. Thus began the drip-drip of sly kicks on and off the ball, designed to frustrate the Frenchman and ignite his temper. Richard Shaw and Chris Coleman, Palace's centre-backs, were no shrinking violets and happy to push their luck with Cantona.

He finally snapped shortly after half-time of what had been a scrappy and almost incident-free game up to that point. YouTube's statistics suggest you have probably seen the video of what happened next – millions of us have, despite it being airbrushed out of the official Premier League archives.

Peter Schmeichel launches a clearance upfield, Cantona tries a sly trip on Shaw and the Palace player goes down. Referee Alan Wilkie is advised by his linesman, as well as several Palace players, that the villain of the piece is the man in black with an upturned collar.

Wilkie wastes no time in brandishing a red card, Cantona looks stunned and walks towards the dugout, where Sir Alex Ferguson does not even look at him. The press box is suddenly alive with the prospect of headlines and a story breaking out at last – but little did we expect what was to happen next.

As Cantona is led down the touchline barely 100 feet in front of us, a leather-jacketed figure bounds down the steps to the edge of the stand. My instincts sense trouble, but I was expecting the aggression to be from fan to player, not the reverse.

Cantona sees him and stops, for what is a split-second but seems much longer, and then flies in, feet up, fists flailing, people pushing, shoving and running to and fro. And then it is over, Cantona back on the touchline, being hustled down towards the dressing room by kit man Norman Davies and also Schmeichel.

I remember cups of coffee being flung at them, a mob of players and fans where Cantona had gone in, and the prospect of it all kicking off. Suddenly we are all distracted by one of our number, who has leapt on to his desk and is pointing down at Cantona shouting: "He can't do that – he can't get away with that."

If he had been on the touchline he might have been led away, too.

The chaos subsides, everyone is on the phone to their desks and wondering what to make of it. The story is clearly going to lead the back pages, and the front, and most of the rest of some papers.

It is the lead item on News at Ten, but by then I am already out of the stadium and on my way to South Norwood police station, where the players are taken (Ince was alleged to have punched a fan but later found not guilty). One newspaper asks me to cover for them until their news reporter can get to the police station, a sure sign this is no longer just a football story.

Shortly after midnight he arrives, asks me what I have seen so far (not much from outside the nick) and thanks me for my efforts. My original match report had gone on the whistle, barely mentioning David May's first goal for United and Gareth Southgate's equaliser.

The match facts were something of a blur and an irrelevance in the scheme of things, and what would happen next was what exercised us all.

I got the first editions of the morning papers at a central London petrol station on my way home, and there was only one story in town. And they all had that picture.

It would run and run, until Cantona had his day in court, greeting his nine-month ban with his infamous, cryptic and nonsensical phrase about seagulls, trawlers and sardines.

And at the end of it all, the legend of Cantona grew and grew, just like the number of people claiming to have been there and seen it all first hand.

The difference with me was that I really was there. And I will never forget it.