“Normally I wouldn’t have backed off a fight, but even I wasn’t up for this one.”
Manchester United qualified for the Champions League in 1993 after winning their first league title in 26 years. Alex Ferguson had some brilliant players on his squad. Yet, the Red Devils’ campaign ended in disaster after an infamous night in Istanbul when a police officer attacked Eric Cantona.
Man United v Galatasaray.
Man United cruised past Honvéd of Hungary in the opening round of the Champions League, which was a straight knockout tournament at the time.
Galatasaray, who recorded a narrow victory over Irish side Cork City in the previous round, lay in wait for Ferguson’s team. The Turks had some talented players, such as Hakan Suker and Tugay Kerimoğlu, but Man United were strong favourites for the tie.
The first-leg was a topsy-turvy 3-3 draw at Old Trafford, which gave Galatasaray the advantage for the return tie. The Turkish champions had three away goals, which meant Cantona and co. had to win in Istanbul to progress.
There were fanatical Galatasaray supporters waiting at the airport for Man United when they touched down in Turkey.
“Welcome to hell.”
At the Ali Sami Yen Stadium, nicknamed “hell” by the supporters, there were 30,000 fans in attendance. They created a fervent, intimidating atmosphere for the away side.
Man United were unable to find the goal required to advance to the next stage. The match finished nil-all and with a few minutes to go, the referee showed Cantona a red card.
The French forward became frustrated with Galatasaray’s time-wasting and gamesmanship. He was sent-off after kicking the ball away and getting into an altercation with opposition players.
As the Man United players made their way back to the dressing room, down a tunnel at the side of the pitch, the police officers are said to have attacked them
In the dark, narrow tunnel, Bryan Robson, who was Man United’s captain at the time, was struck by an officer, as was Eric Cantona. According to Keane, it was bedlam and the United players were thankful to get back to the relative safety of the dressing room.
Yet, Cantona wanted to go back and fight the police officer who attacked him.
Roy Keane: Eric Cantona wanted to fight a police officer after he was attacked.
“Galatasaray were tough and wily,” Keane writes about the match in his first autobiography.
“They pulled every stroke in the book – diving, time-wasting, badgering the referee.”
“It had been rough, nasty at times, and at the end, all hell broke loose.
“Eric was sent off. In the tunnel on the way back to the dressing room, Bryan Robson was hit on the head by a policeman who was laying into everyone around him.
“Eric got involved in hand-to-hand combat.
“In the dressing room, Eric went crazy. While the rest of us just wanted to get out of there, he was determined to go back outside to sort out the rogue cop who’d been wielding his truncheon.
“Eric was a big, strong lad. He was serious.
“He insisted he was going to kill ‘that fucker’. It took the combined efforts of the manager, Brian Kidd, and a few of the players to restrain him.
“Normally I wouldn’t have backed off a fight, but even I wasn’t up for this one. There were a lot of Turks out there!”
Eric Cantona on what happened in Istanbul.
Cantona confirmed Keane’s story in 2017, telling James O’Brien on JOE’s Unfiltered podcast that he wanted to fight the “weak man” who struck him from behind.
“Were you just furious or did you feel that you had been a victim of an injustice that night?” O’Brien asked.
“A policeman is there to protect us, and he ‘protected’ me from behind,” Cantona replied.
“He killed me from behind, not kill me… but he beat me from behind and disappeared. And I’m sure that the images from the video are somewhere, but they lost everything. Convenient.
“If it was someone else other than the policeman, then maybe I would have reacted differently. But a policeman?! He disappeared, disappeared like a weak man.”
The following season, Man United returned to Istanbul for another Champions League tie and, once again, played out a goalless draw with Galatasaray. They did, however, beat the Turkish team 4-0 at Old Trafford in the other group game.
After some teething problems in their early years in the Champions League, Ferguson’s side eventually became European champions in 1999, two years after Cantona retired.