By Multimedia Producer Narbeh Minassian
The man often credited as the catalyst behind Manchester United’s dominance in the 90’s was also responsible for arguably the most notorious moment in Premier League history.
He had already racked up two red cards in as many seasons at United but it was his third and final dismissal that emphasised how perilously the enfant terrible tip-toed the line between genius and insanity.
One of those there to witness was former England international John Salako, who lined up for Crystal Palace that night in Selhurst Park exactly 25 years ago on Saturday.
“I was on that side of the pitch when he got sent off,” Salako told ITV News.
“He was getting a lot of stick from the fans as he walked off and that one lad was coming down to get in his face and I was actually wondering if there could be any harm to Eric.
“But then of course he kicked out with his kung-fu kick and I can remember Chris Armstrong going over, concerned that it doesn’t blow up even more.”
Matthew Simmons was the man who came running down and ended up feeling Cantona’s studs thumped on his chest.
He was alleged to have told him “F*** off back to France, you French b******” – but Mr Simmons maintains he merely said something along the lines of “it’s an early bath for you”.
“There were a couple of minutes when I just thought ‘what has just happened?' The biggest player in English football has just kicked a fan,” Salako said.
“The only thing I can think that comes close was Zinedine Zidane [head-butting Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup Final].
“You can understand when players lash out at other players but I can’t remember a player clashing with a fan like that.”
What happened at full-time?
Despite tempers running high in the game - which finished 1-1 - Salako says there was no animosity between the players.
“I can’t remember speaking to any of their players, we were all really shocked,” he said.
“They got out pretty sharpish. They would have been back on the coach as soon as possible.”
While Salako spoke of Palace manager Alan Smith’s calm at full-time, United winger Lee Sharpe gave a drastically different account of United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
“The manager comes in and he's absolutely fuming," Sharpe said in 2017.
“The door smashes off the back of its hinges. The jacket is off, shirt sleeves are up, he's got steam coming out of his ears and frothing at the corner of his mouth. Scarlet face on.
“There's benches in the middle of the room with shirts and balls to be signed. Plates of sandwiches, pots of tea and coffee. They're sent flying everywhere.
“We're getting scalded. Egg cress sandwiches down the back of our necks. We look at each other, thinking, 'F****** hell, Cantona!'
“And then he starts, the manager. 'F****** Pallister, you can't head anything, you can't tackle. Incey, you've not laid a glove on anybody where the f*** have you been? Sharpey, my grandmother's quicker than you! You're all a f****** disgrace.
"And Eric... you can't go around doing things like that son'.”
While details of Sharpe's story were no doubt exaggerated, the essence of his story is backed up by United defender David May, who scored United's only goal.
He claimed he was on the end of Sir Alex’s dreaded ‘hairdryer treatment’ for not marking someone in the game while Cantona seemed to get off relatively lightly.
What happened next?
Even if Cantona was spared during Sir Alex’s dressing down at full-time, the club was quick to lay down the law and banned their star man from playing.
He was then dropped from the French national team and would never feature for his country again.
The tabloids pulled no punches on the morning after either.
The Daily Express splashed with ‘The shame of Cantona’ and ran a double-page spread headlined ‘Sheer madness as Eric sees red’.
Editors at The Sun took a more direct aim, plastering ‘YOU THUG’ on their front page, while the Daily Mail described the incident as ‘THE SHAMING OF SOCCER’.
Despite the uproar, there didn’t seem to be any immediate sign of remorse – in fact, years later Cantona would say he should have kicked him harder.
But the FA’s David Davies said Cantona’s ‘expression of regret’ and the ‘apologies he offered’ were taken into account when deciding his punishment.
The FA decided to suspend the Frenchman from all football activities until September 30, 1995 – essentially an eight-month ban.
And the consequences for Cantona didn’t stop there.
The fiery Frenchman was originally handed jailtime for two weeks over the incident, but the sentence was overturned and replaced by 120-hours of community service.
His penalty? To run football skills sessions for children.
Not everyone was satisfied by the punishment. John Ryan, who served community service at the time for deception and is quoted as saying: “I was sort of disgusted.
“It isn't a punishment what he's got, is it? I mean he enjoys kicking the ball around on the field, so he hasn't been punished. He should be out there doing the same as what we're doing.”
But what about Eric?
Would the proud and charismatic Frenchman turn in a humble apology?The truth is nobody could have expected what he was about to say.
In his first press conference since his sentence was overturned, a typically suave-looking Cantona strutted in to a room full of reporters, cameramen and photographers.
He took his seat and uttered perhaps the most iconic – if not bizarre – words in English football history.
“When the seagulls,” opened Cantona, pausing for a sip of water and surely aware the world was waiting on his every word.
“Follow the trawler… it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.”
And, with that, a now cool-headed Cantona cemented his place in football folklore.
How did he come back?
His future at Old Trafford, on the other hand, was far from certain.
Cantona was said to be angered by the FA’s treatment of him and was the subject of interest from Italian club Inter Milan.
United stammered to the end of the 1994/95 season sans Cantona and finished without a trophy, losing out on the Premier League trophy on the final day.
This left Sir Alex all the more determined. He wasn’t about to lose the man he saw as crucial to a rebuild at the club and to guiding the now-fabled Class of ’92.
A trip to Paris, the story goes, and all the powers of his persuasion were enough to keep Cantona at United.
And, as fate would have it, his return came at Old Trafford against arch-rivals Liverpool.
A regular thorn in Liverpool’s side, Cantona would bookend his first season back with a goal and assist against the Reds in September and the winning goal in the FA Cup final against the same team in May.
He was named club captain at the start of the 1996/97 season, lifting his fourth Premier League trophy in five years.
This would be his final season before retiring as a professional footballer at age 30, passing his iconic number 7 shirt to a young David Beckham.