Looking for Eric

by Lorenzo Piccoli

For the first half of the season things went smoothly. Man United had won two league titles in a row and is was trying to get a third one home. Cantona had been scoring consistently and at the end of January is the top player of the league. He might even win the Ballon d’Or. He was close enough in 1993. Just not quite. He got third, behind Roberto Baggio, behind Denis Bergkamp. This was a good year, though.

Until Crystal Palace. January 25th, 1995. The match is intense. Richard Shaw. Tough defender. He drags Cantona down, pulling his t-shirt. Cantona reacts. Nothing clamourous. Not this time. Just a little kick. Not so little. The referee takes notice. He runs towards Cantona. Red card, straight. Cantona is sent off. While walking towards the bench, he can’t help but noticing Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons running down 11 rows of stairs and shouting at him. Cantona can’t hear everything clearly, but it must have been something along these lines. “Fuck off back to France, you French motherfucker”. Cantona turns. Cantona runs. Cantona launches a ‘kung-fu’ style kick into the crowd. Then he follows the kick with a series of punches. It is quite clamorous, after all.

Cantona is arrested and convicted for assault, resulting in a two-week prison sentence that will be later overturned into 120 hours of community service. Cantona’s kick is in the top 5 of the most shocking moments in the history of football.

But this is not what people remember about him. People remember the press conference. Because at the press conference, a few days after the assault, Cantona does something even more unexpected. Cantona walks into the room to meet the press, that is eagerly waiting for a new ferocious attack against Crystal Palace fans or, perhaps, for apologies. Cantona sits down slowly, takes a sip from a glass of water and then says, in a slow and deliberate manner: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.” He then gets up from his seat and leaves, leaving the assembled crowd completely at loss.