Eric Cantona launches a kung-fu kick at Matthew Simmons (obscured)Seventeen years ago this evening, I was at Selhurst Park to watch Crystal Palace play Manchester United. It wasn't a particularly distinguished game. Andrew Cole had just arrived in Manchester from Newcastle, a signing that somewhat undermines Alex Ferguson's insistence that he has never had much time for the January transfer window. Cole had yet to forge any kind of relationship with his new club's star forward, Eric Cantona. And Cantona spent much of the game looking as if he were unsure the idea would ever get off the ground. He was tetchy and agitated, unhappy with the close attentions of his marker Richard Shaw. So unhappy, indeed, midway through the second half he kicked Shaw forcibly on the shins, right in front of the referee Alan Wilkie who, unlike some of his successors, couldn't help but see it. A red card was shown, and Cantona walked.
On his way to the dressing room, however, his attention was caught by a Palace fan who had run down a flight of steps in the stand to shout something at him. "On your way, Eric, old chap," it wasn't. But however vitriolic the verbal assault, Cantona had heard it all before.
"A million times," he once told me. "And then one day you don't accept it. Why? It's not about words. It's about how you feel at that moment."
And how he felt at that moment was made obvious when he took a detour to his early bath via the gobby fan's chest. Characteristically the Sun fought valiantly not to overplay the incident. The panel on its front page read:
"The Shame of Cantona: full story pages 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 22, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47 & 48".
Chelsea fans abuse their future striker Fernando Torres in 2009Seventeen years later, footballers are still regularly described as shameful. Carlos Tevez is in shameful self-imposed exile. John Terry is shamefully facing charges for racially aggravated abuse of a fellow player. Mario Balotelli is accused of shamefully stamping on an opponent's head. While Wayne Rooney is insistently held up as the epitome of all that is shameful about modern society: venal, self-obsessed, disloyal.
And yet, the one shame nobody has indulged in since Cantona's dispensation of summary justice, is physically assault a fan. Which, given the level of abuse to which they are now routinely subject, is, when you think about it, extraordinary.
It is possible to suggest that everything has improved in English football since that night in 1995. The stadiums are better, the pitches incomparable and the quality of play hugely advanced. Except this: the attitude of the paying customer to the talent. Just take a look at the abuse that rains down on an opposing player when he goes to collect the ball for a throw-in or corner. It makes what Cantona heard that night in Selhurst sound like jolly encouragement. And that's before we even mention the kind of verbal reception that Patrice Evra can expect on Merseyside on Saturday.
Just listen when an opposition player is fouled by a home defender. All round the ground, the bloke will be howled at, accused of cheating, of feigning, of engaging in the assumed widespread conspiracy against the home club. The righteous indignation of the supporters will be scary to watch as they boo themselves silly every time he subsequently touches the ball. And this when, by all objective measure, he was the victim.
Manchester United play Leeds in the 1970 FA CupAlex Ferguson alluded to the change recently. He had just seen a photo of Manchester United and Leeds players fighting on the pitch during an FA Cup tie in the early seventies. Yet in the crowd behind them there appeared very little reaction. Nowadays fans are at the point of self-combusting with self-righteous fury when the linesman awards a throw-in to the opposition.
Frequently these days, they turn on their own. Amazingly, last Sunday at the Emirates the crowd felt entitled to assault the integrity of the Arsenal manager. "You don't know what you're doing" they chanted. At Arsene Wenger, a man who frankly has forgotten more about the game than the 60,000 gathered in the stands will ever know between them.
And yet, the moment such intolerance produces the merest hint of reaction from its target, these self-same abusers squeal in high dudgeon. Never mind kicking a fan, a player need only point to his badge or cup his hands to his ears in goal celebration and the police are inundated with complaints about provocation.
Many reasons have been mooted for this change: it is the fault of the Premier League, agents, social media. Some suggest football merely reflects a wider society in which we are all — via phone-in and TweetDeck - encouraged to rush to instant damning moral judgment. The most compelling explanation is that the huge upturn both in players' wages and ticket prices since Cantona's time has created an unbridgeable disconnect between fan and player. They are no longer one of us. They are mercenaries, whose motives should be open to rigorous scrutiny. These days, in short, we believe with our inflated season ticket we buy the right to criticise as we think fit.
But whatever the causes, it remains something close to miraculous that Cantona did not set a trend for immediate, violent response to abuse. Given the significantly increased pressures under which they perform, it could be argued that today's players demonstrate remarkable levels of self-control. Maybe we should be thankful that — in this as in so many other aspects of his career — 17 years on the Frenchman remains a one-off.