PL25: Selhurst Park hosts football’s JFK moment

To celebrate 25 years of the Premier League each week in Football Fancast we’re going to be looking back at a memorable game that took place on the corresponding date. This time out we revisit an infamous evening in south London.

So far in 2018 this feature has cast its mind back to two unforgettable Premier League classics at Anfield and a ding-dong affair at Carrow Road. Combined those three games lavished us with twenty goals. This time out we head to Selhurst Park for a 1-1 draw played out between Crystal Palace and Manchester United in 1995. Both scorers were centre-backs.

So what gives? On first glance the ordinariness of this contest jars and you wonder why it is that when the referee blew up in the ninety-gazillionth minute to conclude a clash that represented two precious points dropped for the visitors this low-scoring draw entered the pantheon of all-time greats.

Then your memory catches up. Oh, it was that game.

Four days earlier United had beaten Blackburn Rovers 1-0 to claw back a slim deficit at the top as Jack Walker’s expensively assembled side looked on course to parade a major trophy around Ewood Park for the first time in seventy years. That match had been all about Andy Cole, Ferguson’s guarantee of goals whose arrival for £7m ten days before had shocked British football to the core. Only Cole flattered to deceive on his debut – in fact the pressure was so great that he was virtually anonymous throughout. Instead the deciding, crucial goal came from the boot of Eric Cantona.

The following Wednesday evening Cole was again in the spotlight with all eyes on his performance but away from his initial toils a fascinating sub-drama was brewing that the more astute of observers switched over to. Palace defender Richard Shaw had been instructed to man-mark Cantona and was doing his job a little too well, bumping and shirt-pulling and generally being a rash on the Frenchman’s patience. Having been sent off on three occasions the previous season the stocky virtuoso was undoubtedly a man with a short fuse and by the time half-time came around it had been whittled down to a nub. “Yellow card!” he plaintively cried to the referee as they headed to the tunnel. Ferguson, typically, was more forthcoming, telling Alan Wilkie to ‘just do your f***ing job’.

Cantona endured another four minutes of smothering before he snapped. A long punt downfield by Peter Schemichel had Shaw on his heels and straight after on the deck as Cantona kicked out in sheer petulance. Alan Wilkie had no other option but to do his f***ing job and brandish a straight red.

The part-time poets’ reaction to this is pertinent. For a short while he stays rooted to the spot not in outrage but similarly with scant surprise. It’s as if he’s absorbing his actions and subsequent decision that may now cost his team the chance to get their nose in front in the title race. It’s as if somebody else lashed out in anger on his behalf and he’s just been told about it.

Instinctively he strays towards the dug-out but Ferguson doesn’t want to know, studiously staring away, and perhaps it’s this indication of disorientation that prompts a member of United’s backroom staff to begin shepherding Cantona towards the exit.

This right here is football’s version of Kennedy’s final wave on Dealey Plaza, those insignificant few seconds before history is made and forever seared onto our consciousness.

As Cantona is buffered along close-by the touchline a 20-year-old double glazing fitter named Matthew Simmons rushes past 11 rows of seating unknowingly casting himself in infamy. “Off you go Cantona, it’s an early shower for you,” is what he hilariously claimed later to be his words. Others more realistically attest there were mentions of the player’s nationality mingled up with a litany of f-bombs. A lady unfortunate enough to be stationed on the front row, standing mere yards from the controversy as it unfolded, later insisted that so great was the noise that Simmons’ words were drowned out by it.

Whatever the truth – and we can of course rule out the first option – Cantona’s alter-ego took over once again and he released himself of his chaperone. It could be said this was the first time all night that he’d slipped his man-marker.

The kick that knocked Simmons staggering backwards has gone down in legend as being karate in origin. If so it’s the inelegant fling a child takes on his first lesson. The punch that followed, well that was straight from any rough boozer on a Friday night.

“Millions of times people say these things, and then one day you don’t accept it,” the enigmatic striker offered up on a later date. Once that day came he was off for an early shower.

What happened next?

Blackburn pipped United to the title by a single point while Palace were relegated despite finishing fourth from bottom due to a rejigging of the league structure.

As for the player, the seagulls that followed the trawler gleefully reported on an eight month ban and 120 hours of community service.