The history of Palace and Man U is one of occasional path crossing in otherwise separate existences. One a mighty Titan of the Premiership and Europe, the other a gang of upstart wannabes led by an assortment of largely bonkers (now broke/criminal/dead) Chairman. Of course Palace have Man U stories but largely ones I suspect never registered on the Old Trafford Richter scale. I don’t think much sleep was lost in Manchester about Les Sealey being allowed to step in for Jim Leighton…. But the night 20 years ago when Eric Cantona leapt into the Selhurst crowd to kick a Palace fan is one of those moments that has earned its place in a wider folklore.
I was in the Old Stand that night, a couple of blocks down from incident. What is often forgotten was that Eric was having a spell of discipline problems at the time. He had been recently sent off in another game and had a long track record of rather unusual behaviour. Whether deliberate or not Richard Shaw, the Palace defender was irritating the hell out of the mega star with his close marking. Cantona was getting no change out of him and finally lost what cool he had. In front of where we were sitting he kicked out at Shaw with a needless petulance. It was clear enough and an obvious red card.
For the Palace crowd this was heady stuff. Probably the biggest name in English football at the time, and certainly a massive threat to us was being sent off for kicking one of ours. His short fuse was well known but seeing it played out in front of us was incredible. Not quite being there for Kennedy’s assassination but…. However it was nothing compared to what was about to follow as he stalked towards the tunnel. It has always remained amazing to me that Cantona could pick out what one fan was shouting amongst the wall of baying euphoric wrath that followed him. But he claimed he did. What happened next is history. Cantona was handed a long ban by the FA, though lightly punished in the criminal courts. Man U didn't win with the title that year and Palace ended up being relegated rather unluckily. It was to prove a pretty disappointing year for both clubs.
They met in the FA cup semis. Palace took it to a replay, but ultimately lost 2-0. Some non Cantona related acrimony lead to Palace fans refusing to travel to Villa Park for that replay. Man U lost out to Everton in the final (at a time when an FA cup win still mattered).
This Saturday's rather routine victory was Man U's 3rd post ‘Kung Fu Cantona’ league visit to Selhurst Park. Occasionally the likes of Brighton will sing about Cantona as a token of their anti Palace sentiment. Though on the previous Man U visits there was the odd squawk about Cantona, but it all seemed much more vociferous yesterday. Why? My guess is two reasons. The passing of time has allowed an act to stupidity that potentially cost them the title to become part of loveable Eric's myth. A post ban Cantona came back the following year and the record speaks for itself. Like Beckham kicking out at Simeone subsequent success has washed away the shame. But I think there is another reason for today’s Man U fan to look back with nostalgia. 94/95 is a much happier time to live in than today. The Premiership was young, and Fergie's legend was just being made. Foreign signings were something exotic, and we were entering a brave new world. Man U were still recognisable as a football club in the traditional sense. Though they were the biggest and richest it wasn't yet all bankrolled by shadowy distant owners. English clubs, recently allowed back into Europe were beginning to make their presence felt. Now they are adrift from the automatic European places, they are being financially and sportingly outgunned by the likes of Chelsea and Man City and maybe for the first time the future looks genuinely uncertain. Empires fall. Man u spent 20 years watching Liverpool sweep all before them. So a rousing chorus of Cantona to the tune of the 12 days of Christmas is a reminder of better times.