Offside, 10 October
Cantona's kung-fu victim, seven years on.
Remember Matthew Simmons? He was the Crystal Palace supporter who was famously attacked by Eric Cantona.
The kung-fu kick has become an iconic sporting moment. Observer readers voted it the thirty-first greatest sporting moment of all time, ahead of England’s 4-1 win over Holland in Euro 96 and Jesse Owens’ four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Far from destroying his career, the assault has cemented Cantona’s legendary status as a persecuted, passionate genius. When asked in a recent interview what his best moment at United was, Cantona replied: ‘My best moment? I have had a lot of good moments but the one I prefer is when I kicked the hooligan at Crystal Palace.’
These days Cantona spends his time promoting beach football and making bad films. But what became of his foul-mouthed victim? I recently came across an interview with Matthew Simmons tucked away in the Observer Magazine (1). After the court case Simmons says he was ostracised by friends, work-mates, and even some members of his family. Now aged 27, with a young son and a job as a bricklayer, he claims to be a reformed character. ‘I’m quite calm and laid back now, but I was different then’, he says.
All Crystal Palace fans remember exactly what they were doing on the evening of 25 January 1995. I was driving home listening to the game on the car radio. Cantona’s touchline fracas was pure theatre but it hardly merited the frothing hysteria that ensued.
The FA piously declared that: ‘Such an incident brings shame on those involved as well as, more importantly, on the game itself.’ If Cantona had pulled down his shorts and taken a dump on the hallowed Selhurst Park turf I might have been inclined to agree. But leaping Bruce Lee-style over the advertising boards to attack an abusive fan? Well that was just plain comical. Matthew Simmons himself is quite philosophical about Cantona’s flying kick. ‘To be honest, Cantona’s attack wasn’t that bad’, he says. ‘It didn’t hurt and it was over in seconds.’
The nation was divided over the Cantona affair. He was hounded by the press but treated as a martyr by his acolytes. One sympathetic commentator described Cantona’s assault as the ‘instinctive expression of a flawless moral judgement’.
Matthew Simmons, by contrast, was universally vilified as a racist thug. Maybe Simmons did have an unsavoury past. But what exactly did he do wrong that particular night? Cantona had just been sent off and was walking towards the tunnel when Simmons left his seat, walked to the fence, and hurled a volley of abuse at him. Simmons claimed that he shouted ‘Off, off, off, it’s an early bath for you, Cantona’ – but it is believed that his actual words were ‘You dirty French bastard. F*** off back to France ‘.
Admittedly, this is not the kind of language you’d expect from a tourist information officer at Dover. But this was a football match. As far as I’m concerned, Simmons was only doing his duty as a football fan: to insult, ridicule, offend, goad, taunt and unsettle the opposition. And clearly, he did a good job. Cantona lost his cool and landed an eight-month ban and United, deprived of their talismanic playmaker, ended the season trophy-less. Now that’s what I call fan power!
The last time Palace played Manchester United was in 1998. ‘There’s only one Matthew Simmons’, sang the Palace fans. But if Palace supporters are tempted to view Simmons as someone unjustly victimised for a crime of passion, think again. Simmons himself has long since given up on the Eagles. ‘I had a season ticket at Crystal Palace and they asked me to give it back. I didn’t mind because the team was rubbish’, he told the Observer.
Didn’t mind? What kind of attitude is that? If every Palace fan jacked it in just because the team was rubbish there’d be nobody left at Selhurst. Sadly, hotheaded fanatics aren’t what they used to be.
(1) ‘What happened next?’, Observer Magazine, 29 September 2002
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