Former Man Utd director reveals role in Cantona speech after Crystal Palace kick
16:34 26 November 2012
Maurice Watkins often wonders what happened to the piece of paper upon which one of the most famous phrases football has ever known was written.
It was after an appeal hearing at Croydon Magistrates’ Court following his assault on Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons that Eric Cantona delivered the words: “When seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”
At the time it seemed like a bizarre off-the-cuff remark before Cantona ended his brief press conference.
Later, it was revealed to be the Frenchman’s assessment of the media pack following him around on the hunt for a story. And Cantona knew what he was going to say all along.
“The whole case had been so big I felt Eric had to say something,” said Watkins, at the time a United director and their legal advisor.
“We started to draft a speech on a piece of paper and he asked what the boat was that catches fish. Then he asked what the birds were that fly over the sea.
“Eric went on writing then showed me what he wanted to say.
“Everyone thinks because of the expression on my face that I didn’t know what he was going to say. But I did and I often wonder what happened to that piece of paper.”
Cantona’s words brought some kind of closure to one of the most infamous chapters in football history.
Sent off for a challenge on Palace defender Richard Shaw, Cantona was making his way to the dressing rooms in the corner of Selhurst Park when he heard Simmons shout at him.
Cantona launched himself at the supporter with a kung-fu kick, before following up with a couple of well-aimed punches.
“I was having a cup of tea in the directors’ room before being called to the dressing room because police were contemplating some sort of action,” said Watkins.
“From then it became clear what a significant event it was. Legally, I will probably never have a case like that again.”
Almost immediately, United banned Cantona for the remainder of the season - a total of 21 matches - which the Football Association increased to eight months.
Watkins, and Sir Alex Ferguson, remain of the view that the additional punishment was unfair and borne out of the FA’s need to look as though they were actually doing something.
Yet the loss of Cantona’s liberty was almost worse.
“We made an immediate mistake on the day of the case because we decided to walk to the court with a police escort,” said Watkins.
“It was only 100 yards but there were so many press people about it was very difficult to move. I was nearly knocked down on more than one occasion.
“We thought it was going rather well until the magistrate sentenced Eric to two weeks in prison.
“We lodged an immediate appeal and bail application but Eric was pretty upset when he was whipped down to the cells.”
There then followed an almost comic three-and-a-half hours during which a bail application to the same bench was turned down, forcing Watkins and his legal team to dash up the road to the nearby crown court to make a further attempt to get Cantona released.
“It was a mad three hours,” said Watkins.
“I did manage to see Eric for a little while but there was not much time to do anything.
“The thing was, whilst you go prepared for anything we were surprised at the sentence because it went against all the established protocols.”