Wow, was it really 15 years ago today?! Eric Cantona did this…
… and football was never the same for me. It expanded. It grew. It matured. It became erect. Glorious. Huge. Profound Multifaceted. Interesting!! Interesting enough to hold my interest, my fascination out of the simplicity of childhood and into the complexities of adulthood.
I was at this game. I had turned 13 years old only 5 days before. My United-supporting mother had managed to get hold of some tickets – amongst Palace fans, in their dreary Croydon hole of Selhurst Park. Their bitter jealousy of United electrified me, made me proud. I was only young but I knew resentment like that was a compliment. I was always slightly embarrassed by United being the best supported team in the land, but always exhilarated by them also being the most hated. I really feel the paranoid arrogance of that identity helped forge the person I’ve grown up to be, for better and for worse.
The Palace fans’ hostility towards United manifested itself most spectacularly, most venomously, most complimentarily in their seething hatred of Eric Cantona, as the figurehead and catalyst of United’s recent and long awaited success (strange to think nowadays, but they hadn’t won the English league championship for twenty-six years, between 1967 and 1993).
The Cantona “incident”, the splendid kung-fu attack, the madness, the red mist, the Kicking Of Racism Out Of Football, happened after he’d been sent off for what I believe was a second bookable offence – a nonchalant little kick out at some anonymous waste-of-cultural-space Palace player. He was walking off the pitch, Matthew Sommons, mouth bomber jacket wearing Palace fan, ran down the stand to hurl abuse at Cantona, who then landed not only the above flying kick but also this rather tasty jab to the face…
… The followed a predictable moral panic, a lengthy ban (9 months), rumours of transfers to continental clubs or even retiring from football, and of course the brilliant “Seagulls” line:
My favourite experience of the night came after Cantona’s event. Myself and two similarly young friends stood on our seats amidst the increasingly hostile Palace fans and heartily sang “UNITED! *clap clap clap* UNITED! *clap clap clap* UNITED! *clap clap clap* UNITED! *clap clap clap*” repeatedly. In response HUNDREDS of enraged Palace fans turned their backs on the game to respond “SHIT! SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!” A number of policemen rushed over to shut us up as we were on the verge of sparking a riot. To feel such hatred was an incredible buzz (an ecstatic feeling that I’m still yet to better).
In the match that marked Cantona’s return to football, on the 1st October later that year, against Liverpool, where he dramatically set up a goal within a couple of minutes, a Sky commentator unthinkingly uttered something rather profound: “Well, the fiction writers wouldn’t dare have this on paper.” It’s true, Fiction writers, drama scripters etc. would be too scared of being ‘obvious’, too scared of being ‘pretentious’, too scared of not being seen as a great artist (whatever that means!) Which, I think, neatly summarises the attraction of sport. It doesn’t know that its creating a story, a mythology, a fiction. And is thus both the most believable and the most absurd kind. It is the nearest antithesis to the painstaking knowingness of metafiction. It feels real. It tastes real. It smells real. And that night 15 years ago was the best reality has ever been.
Thank you Eric xxx