For and against Eric Cantona in an infamous year
19 May ~ One of the major talking points of 1995 was Eric Cantona's kung-fu attack on a spectator at Selhurst Park. In WSC 97 two Manchester United supporters took opposing viewpoints on the controversial striker. Martin Winstone defended "Eric the King", while Sean S Murray was "utterly confused by the sheer hypocrisy of most United fans"
Contrary to what you may have heard or read, United fans are not "split down the middle" by what must soon be called Cantonagate. This misleading impression has been fostered by the media's elementary error of conducting vox pops outside the recently opened megastore, the cathedral of the gloryhunter. People who only started supporting us because we win things will naturally be horrified: how can you honestly expect someone who didn't know what a football was five years ago to take a subjective view?
No, from the thousands singing "Eric the King" and the kids in "Cantona is innocent" facepaint, to Terry Lewis's Commons' motion and the rather incongruous SWP petitioners outside OT, we're all behind the great man.
Like many Reds, I've spent the last few days offering every excuse, every plea of mitigation I can think of. I may be trying to defend the indefensible, but don't expect me to admit it. Instead, I'll argue that players have attacked spectators before, only not on television and not in a Manchester United shirt. I'll point to the provocation at every ground we visit, the almost universal Munich chants. I'd suggest that there was nothing inherently more reprehensible in Eric's behaviour than in the elbows on the pitch and the abuse in the seats which go unpunished at most grounds every week.
If it were any other player at any other club I probably wouldn't have cared. But this isn't any other player. I honestly believe that Eric Cantona is the greatest footballer I have ever seen. Better than Platini, Van Basten, Romario or Robson. Better even than Ralph Milne. Much has been made since 25th January of Eric shaming the red shirt. Well, throughout my childhood and adolescence expensively-acquired centre forwards shamed the red shirt every week, but were miraculously allowed to play for United again. I'd still recommend Eric to today's 11-year-olds as a better role model than Garry Birtles was to me.
But it's not just Eric's ability as a thing in itself that makes him so special and worthy of our support. It's what he's done for United. The people now saying he has cost us a third championship are missing the point – without him we might still be waiting for the first. You only have to hear the awe in the voices of Ryan Giggs and Mark Hughes when they discuss him to appreciate Eric's effect on the whole club.
Perhaps the most sensible comment in the whole affair has come from Shay Brennan. Whilst journalists who'd never met Sir Matt Busby rushed to invoke his name against Eric, Shay, like Paddy Crerand, refused to condemn outright. Of course the old man would have been horrified, he said, but if Denis or Georgie had done this they'd still have played for United again, "because they were great players, and Eric Cantona is a great player." That, I think, is how the vast majority of fans feel. We know that what Eric did was wrong, very wrong. But that won't stop us from meeting every objection with the now familiar mantra, "He shouldn't have done it but..."
I've been brought up as a Red; like father like son. It has never been any kind of effort or strain for me to devote my allegiances to United. Far from it. I love nearly every second of it, from Brian Moore feigning a cardiac on The Big Match as he described George Best dazzling us at Upton Park, Stamford Bridge or Highbury, right up to the sheer life-surge of Cantona scoring that superb winner against Blackburn.
Instead I now find myself utterly confused by the sheer hypocrisy of most United fans I've talked to about what happened that night. I feel like I watched a different game on a different planet from the other Reds, who are now seen digging around in the dirt for excuses for what Cantona did. Even former players seem to be forming a queue to defend what was simply a physical attack – if you or I had done that in the street we would have been arrested.
There is, of course, talk of "provocation" and the allegation that the recipient of Cantona's studs is no Mother Teresa figure himself, with a conviction for assault and sympathies for the fascist BNP. Well forgive me, but can anyone recall an incident where a black player had taken enough to make him do what Eric Cantona did? And the "provocation" defence can be put in context if you recall the reaction of John Barnes at Liverpool to what he had to endure from some sections of opposing teams' supporters.
There is no denying that Cantona has been on the receiving end of some horrific verbal abuse from some Crystal Palace fans, but what's new? Have you never shouted abuse at an opposing team? Some real filth has passed my lips over the years. Common sense says there is a line drawn at racist crap.
But do you really want to attend a football match where the crowd is in fear of shouting too much? A few days after the Cantona incident and football writers were already starting to analyze the crowd's role. I suppose it could be called distraction therapy: "let's just shift the spotlight away from what actually happened and look at its causes". I'm not concerned about the causes. Issues like racism are ones to be dealt with by society as a whole and not to be heaped upon football supporters as though we were guinea pigs for sociologists.
Every single person at Selhurst Park that night could have been a Trappist monk and Eric Cantona would still have flipped. It was only a matter of time; any true United fan knows that. I never wanted Eric to curb his temper, but more importantly I never wanted a Manchester United player to act in the way he did.
Eric broke my heart. He shattered all my deep held beliefs in football, the people who support it and the people who run it. Maybe I was a tad naive and maybe now I'll be judged as moralistic or self-righteous. But right now as I watch the growth of a cottage industry of T-shirts that actually celebrate an act of violence I just wish I could go back to the time before the Selhurst Park match and experience those old feelings that Eric Cantona used to inspire, but I know they are gone forever.
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