Sideline Cut: Cantona’s kung-fu kick is the Zapruder film of the Premier League

Everyone of age remembers where they were on January 25th, 1995

It is clear that referee Alan Wilkie’s regulation Umbro shorts are at least two inches too short, as if they have shrunk in the machine. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/AllSport

It is clear that referee Alan Wilkie’s regulation Umbro shorts are at least two inches too short, as if they have shrunk in the machine. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/AllSport

 

The infamous three minutes of footage from what should have been another poxy and soon-forgotten 1-1 English league match is like the Zapruder film of the Premier League. Everyone of age remembers where they were on January 25th, 1995.

I was in a bar in Sligo town, surrounded by hordes of newly-hatched United fans, an unavoidable species in the mid-1990s. Surprisingly, the crowd was nonplussed. A friend said “it wasn’t so bad, when you look at it.” But then, there are parts of Sligo town where to launch yourself at a stranger Bruce Lee-style is regarded as no more than a demonstration of affection.

Eric Cantona’s night was also the first time the Premier League felt as though something was at stake, as opposed to a makey-uppy money spinner of a competition designed for pay-per-view television in which United got to win everything all the time because they were the team most people liked and therefore watched.

The camera angle of Cantona’s foul on Crystal Palace’s Richard Shaw is blurry and indistinct; football coverage was still in the dark ages 20 years ago. Thankfully, the cameraman does manage to get clear focus on Cantona’s immediate act following referee Alan Wilkie’s issuing of the red card, which is to fold his collar down, signalling that the James Dean upturned collar image he patented was limited to football-related demonstrations of genius.

The gesture makes it seem as if the collar was an actual weapon and the care he takes to make sure that it is folded just so, is reminiscent of a cricketer removing his helmet as he leaves the crease as if to signal to everyone: my work here is done.

Referee

Alex Ferguson

The Newcastle official managed to combine top-flight whistling with his day-job as an engineer, a feat both admirable and daft. It demonstrates nothing so much as the fact that in 1995, English football was still in transition from the old model to new. It is clear that he is disturbed by what is happening at Selhurst Park as he attempts to restore order with completely ineffective calm-down signals.

It is also clear that Wilkie’s regulation Umbro shorts are at least two inches too short, as if they have shrunk in the machine. This doesn’t help him in his quest to present himself as the authoritative figure on a field bearing egos such as Roy Keane, Paul Ince and Peter Schmeichel. Wilkie gives an account of his role in the drama in a rather lonesome memoir: One Night At The Palace: A Referee’s Story.

Cantona may not have been the only French man living in England in the mid-1990s but it certainly seemed that way. He shakes his head in dismay after his red card and walks away as if saddened by the state of England. In his few seasons kicking ball in the Premier League, he forced England to think about what it was to be a French man in a way they hadn’t done since the heyday of Napoleon.

Was there ever a garish sponsor’s coat that Fergie was able to resist? There he is in one of the array of incredibly naff sports-anorak things in which he used to habitually win championships, grimly chewing gum and making a point of ignoring Cantona’s existence, which unnerves the French man and leaves him uncertain as to what he should do. A soothing word from Fergie and the kick may never have happened.

It was not the worst attempt at a flying kick I have ever seen. The worst occurred a few years earlier in a now sadly defunct nightclub in the northwest of Ireland.

One participant decided to use the railings to showcase his martial arts expertise, climbing up before launching himself through the air with gusto, legs akimbo. The lighting caught his silhouette perfectly and for the 1.3 seconds the guy was airborne, it was an impressive sight. You had to fear that he was about to decapitate his intended victim.

Fortunately, the flying kick connected with nothing but the smoky air and the would-be assailant crashed to the floor with a force that promised degenerative-disc trouble in later life. That was the least of his problems as he lay there with no real sense of spatial awareness but a dawning realisation that his would-be victim was standing over him, intent on revenge. So Cantona’s was not the worst kick of its kind ever executed in western Europe. But it was still pretty bad.

So much so that at first glance, most television viewers presumed that he had hurled himself at the poor dear in the beige coat, who looked like she’d just popped in for a quick look at the footie on her way home from Sainbury’s. Other people thought he had attacked the advertising hoarding. You wouldn’t put it past him either: he was French, after all.

Provocation

Matthew SimmonsMr Cantona

I have always wished that it were true and that Cantona invoked his Gallic right to violently object to being spoken to so haughtily by an English man. You can’t imagine that French men, particularly footballer types with poetical temperaments, take kindly to being instructed on their ablutions by English men.

Peter Schmeichel. What can you say? Great goalkeeper and all that. But really. There he is yelling at people in the crowd. Always yelling, that man.

The news reports are worth watching because they are such so comically grave, as if Cantona had just been outed as a mass murderer. The broadcasters were just delighted to have a bad news English football story that starred a foreigner.

Cantona’s volatility and the reasons for his attack have been over-analysed. He was 29. He was playing for the best club in England. He understood that apart from Johnny Marr, he was the coolest cat in Manchester. He had a reputation for moodiness and unpredictability to uphold. His blood was up. He was annoyed. He was a bloody footballer. He was young-ish. Like he said: “It was a mistake. That’s life. That’s me.”

Nobody was hurt.

“When the seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” Cantona’s official explanation remains a treasure, a delight.

Where’ve ‘em 20 years gone anyway?

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