New Eric Cantona book explains Sir Alex Ferguson shock at infamous kung-fu kick

Eric Cantona was the Premier League's leader of the French foreign legion, the man who won the title in consecutive seasons at Leeds and Manchester United.

The Frenchman became an instant hit at Old Trafford, winning four English top-flight crowns and two FA Cups during a memorable five-year stint under Sir Alex Ferguson's stewardship.

A new book, King Eric: Portrait of the Artist who changed English football, tells Cantona's story with eyewitness statements from key moments in his career.

Here, in Mirror Sport's first extract, we revisit the night when his red card for kicking out at Crystal Palace defender Richard Shaw erupted into one of football's craziest episodes.

The sheer, unprecedented scale of what happened at Selhurst Park on January 25, 1995 meant everyone had an opinion – and everyone wanted to voice it.

A 1-1 draw in south London has become arguably the most written-about game in Premier League history.

In the fall-out from his red card, Eric Cantona was charged with assault, banned for nine months and fined £10,000.

While Manchester United manager Ferguson didn’t see anything of the incident, chairman Martin Edwards was looking straight at it.

“It happened right in perfect view of the directors box,” said Edwards. “As soon as Eric got involved with the player you knew he was going to be sent off. As he was walking down the touchline there were a few of us looking at the players and wondering what had been said.

“Eric’s being led down the touchline and suddenly he breaks off and throws himself into a kung-fu kick at a supporter. I was thinking, ‘Bloody hell, he’s lost it. He’s gone mad.’

“I went into the dressing room afterwards and it was dead quiet. We were all stunned, really. I don’t think Alex said anything to him.

“The controversy went with the territory of being at Manchester United, but I had never seen anything like Selhurst before and I don’t think anybody else had. It was deeply unusual.”

Palace manager Alan Smith, speaking to the BBC in 2015, appeared to have been seduced by a theatrical vision, saying: “What distinctly hit me was that they played in all black that night.

“None of them had shaved and they looked a pretty ferocious team. I was thinking, ‘This is going to be a long evening.'

“I don’t have a lot of sympathy with Cantona. He is a big man and he had given a fair amount out.”

Ferguson went to bed at 2am but couldn’t sleep, and got up at 5.25am to watch the video. He confessed what he saw was “pretty appalling".

He said: “I have never been able to elicit an explanation from Eric but my own feeling is that anger at himself over the ordering off, and resentment at the referee’s earlier inaction, combined to take him over the brink. I am sure Eric is haunted by it all now. But I felt he had to go.”

It would take a month for Ferguson to do an about-turn and become defensive over his player, as he was in his diary entry of 21st February: “We are proud of the credibility of the club and we tried to uphold it.

“The Cantona thing really hit us badly. You can’t leave your character in the dressing room, it goes out onto the field with you.”

Ferguson's initial stance softened because he felt his player was being hung out to dry in a public trial by media.

United banned Cantona for the rest of the season. He was told to attend a meeting with Ferguson at Old Trafford, where he was informed of the club’s position.

While he was there, he took his son Raphael to the club store to get a replica shirt with ‘Cantona 7’ on the back.

Weeks later, when Cantona was suspended for nine months and fined £10,000 by an FA disciplinary commission, Ferguson said the only way he expected another player to receive a similar ban was if they “ran over (FA chairman) Bert Millichip’s dog.”

He said: “I think the commission went too far. You can’t have people in charge of an organisation like the FA being dictated to by the media.”

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