‘What’s the big boat that catches fish?’ – Watkins recalls famous Cantona speech

Maurice Watkins can still remember the conversation with Eric Cantona which spawned the famous “seagulls and trawlers” speech that became one of the defining moments of the Frenchman’s career.

It was March 31, 1995, and Cantona had just had a 14-day custodial sentence reduced on appeal to community service following a kung-fu attack on Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons, which happened 25 years ago on Saturday.

Both Cantona and Watkins, from 1984 to 2012 a Manchester United director and the club’s legal advisor, felt there was a need to say something to bring closure to the matter.

Cantona is escorted off the pitch after lunging at a fan in the crowd at Selhurst Park
Cantona is escorted off the pitch after lunging at a fan in the crowd at Selhurst Park (PA Archive)

“We sat down and drafted it out,” Watkins told the PA news agency.

“Eric wrote it out and he checked the meaning of certain words, ‘what’s the big boat that catches fish? What’s the big bird that flies over the sea?’”

The completed address, as most football followers will know, was: “When seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”

With that, Cantona strode out of the packed press conference, leaving Watkins facing row upon row of confused reporters.

“He had a drink of water, said his piece and then left me to explain it,” Watkins says.

“But he didn’t want me to explain it, and I didn’t explain it, I felt it was quite clear. I said something to the effect of, ‘I think that says it all’. After the conference was over everyone was asking questions about it.”

It was interpreted as a dig at the press, with Cantona the trawler and the press pack the hungry seagulls.

On January 25, 1995, Cantona had been sent off early in the second half of a Premier League match away to Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. He kicked out at Palace defender Richard Shaw, seemingly unhappy with what he saw as a repeated fouls on him by the same opponent.

As he left the pitch, Simmons ran down from the stands to abuse Cantona, who leapt right leg first over the advertising boards before following up with some punches.

No one could quite believe what had happened, least of all Watkins.

Palace supporter Matthew Simmons was the target of Cantona's kick
Palace supporter Matthew Simmons was the target of Cantona’s kick (David Giles/PA)

“After the game I was asked to go down to the dressing room because there was some concern from the playing staff that there might be some action from the police,” he said.

“We were keen to make sure we didn’t miss our charter flight. We got on the flight and from what I can remember it was a subdued gathering.”

The United board suspended Cantona for the remainder of the 1994-95 season, before the Football Association extended the ban until September 1995.

An ashen-faced Des Lynam opened that night’s Sportsnight by saying: “Two big Premiership games on Sportsnight tonight, and at one of them, some of the most extraordinary scenes witnessed at a football ground in this country.”

The moment was also immortalised on the cover of the ‘Kung Fu’ single by indie band Ash later that year.

So how does Watkins remember it?

“I think one legal periodical called it the most famous common assault in the history of the English legal system,” he said.

“For me it was one of those unique experiences you’d never have or be involved in again.”

Asked what would happen if a similar incident were to occur now, he replied: “I suppose it would depend who does it, but there’s only one Eric Cantona.”

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