I hadn’t seen it coming, I’ll admit. The player seemed to be handling the abuse thrown in his direction fairly stoically before it all exploded in a sea of arms and legs and the stewards had to get involved, pulling him away from the shocked-looking fan, who’d wrongly assumed that the barrier between him and the pitch protected him from any potential repercussions from the target of his bile.
You probably won’t have been there. The incident I relate above took place at a Conference game some five years before Cantona did something similar at Selhurst Park. There was no media coverage of this one, no ban and little further discussion of it afterwards except among the supporters who’d been directly involved. It was one of two such incidents I witnessed in my time reporting on Conference games: the other involved a manager who’d come out from his dugout to attack a young fan who looked absolutely scared out of his wits. Again, nothing happened.
Cantona, of course, got an eight month ban and a tirade of condemnation in the media for doing something very similar. Contrary to what was said at the time, it wasn’t the first time it had happened in a football ground. It was different from the above events because, of course, it happened in the Premiership and in front of the TV cameras. And of course it involved Cantona, already identified as a figure with what was routinely known as a ‘short fuse’, and Manchester United.
Of course, in the days and weeks that followed some would attempt to put the incident in some kind of perspective, arguing that it was actually perfectly understandable for a human being to react to abuse in this way, and pointing out that Dixie Dean had slugged a fan back in the thirties, that Alberto Tarantini had waded into a bunch of his own Birmingham City fans with much the same intent as Cantona and that the great Viv Richards had once ventured way back into the crowd, cricket bat aloft, in order to confront the source of racial abuse.
None, it was said, got an eight month ban. Which is why when I received a tweet from a Crystal Palace fan earlier in the week that if it had been John Salako he’d never have got away with it, I laughed. Because the fact is Cantona was unusual in that he didn’t get away with his actions, unlike the other individuals I’ve mentioned in this article.
Part of the Palace fan’s point, to be fair, was that United fans since have celebrated an incident that was actually pretty deplorable. I’m not going to get into that, other than to say that for United fans, part of Cantona’s appeal was that he was a bit dangerous, a bit liable to go over the edge and, frankly, a bit of an outlaw. That’s why we always found it so ridiculous when Liverpool fans had to stretch credulity by claiming that Suarez had never done anything wrong, ever.
We know Cantona had a touch of a devil about him: it’s part of the identity of our club, we recognise it as such and we don’t have to pretend otherwise. That’s why, for United fans, although it probably cost us the league that season, the Cantona kung fu kick will remain as much a part of United folklore as Best’s mazy runs, Steve Bruce’s two goals against Sheffield Wednesday and even the treble.