Eric Cantona's 'kung fu' style kick on Crystal Palace supporter Matthew Simmons in January 1995 remains one of the most shocking acts committed by a player in an English stadium.
Frustrated by the treatment he was receiving from Palace defender Richard Shaw, and referee Alan Wilkie’s reluctance to yellow card his opponent, the Manchester United forward was sent-off for kicking the player after having his shirt pulled.
As he made his way off the pitch, Simmons rushed down 11 rows of the stand (he later claimed in an interview with The Observer, that he was on the way to the toilet) to deride the volatile Frenchman, who had a history of disciplinary issues. Cantona jumped over the advertising hoarding and aimed a kick at Simmons, followed by several punches, before being restrained by a member of United’s coaching staff.
Cantona was arrested and convicted for assault, resulting in a two-week prison sentence. This was overturned after an appeal and instead he was sentenced to 120 hours of community service.
United suspended Cantona for the remaining four months of the 1994-95 season, and he was also fined £20,000. Cantona was also docked two weeks’ wages and stripped of the French captaincy.
The English Football Association then increased the ban to eight months and fined him a further £10,000.
FA chief executive Graham Kelly labeled the kick ‘a stain on the game’, while United manager Sir Alex Ferguson initially considered selling the player, but after discussing the issue with a friend, he decided to help Cantona, who after returning on October 1, 1995 against Liverpool, helped United win the Premier League and FA Cup double. Cantona scored the only goal in that FA Cup final, also against Liverpool.
The press conference called after the kick would prove one of the most memorable and bizarre in soccer history. Cantona said: "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much".
He then got up from his seat, and walked out of the room, leaving journalists bemused. It was later suggested that Cantona was using a metaphor to suggest that he was merely providing a media so obsessed by his actions with the drama they craved.
Simmons claimed in English daily The Sun that he had only told Cantona he was to have "an early bath" but other accounts suggest that he launched an abusive tirade concerning the player’s mother and nationality.
The British tabloids quickly discovered that Simmons had a checkered past of his own, having been convicted for assault with intent to rob. He was also a BNP and National Front sympathizer. He maintained in that interview with The Observer in 2004 that he said “not much at all. It was so trivial I can't even remember”.
In the same newspaper that year, Cantona, who has never apologized to Simmons, showed little remorse. He claimed that had there not been a barrier he would have “steamed in with [his] fists. You meet thousands of people like him...The most important thing to me is that I was who I was. I was myself. Even if you understood why you did something, it doesn’t mean you won’t go and do the same thing again. The best thing you can do is go and take a step back and laugh at yourself. A bit of self-derision”.