smart, near-post save with his legs and Ian Bishop’s effort was heroically cleared off the line by Denis Irwin, but the visiting backline largely shackled the hosts painlessly, with Steve Bruce and Gary Neville composed in the centre and flanked by the equally alert Irwin and Phil Neville.
Tempers began to simmer, however, as the game entered the final 15 minutes, boiling over as Dicks launched into a reckless, two-footed lunge on Cole. “We were such a close team,” recalls the striker. “If someone took out one of your team-mates, I don’t think there were too many morals around somebody retaliating and sorting it out for you.”
Moments later, Nicky Butt hurtled into a vengeful challenge on Dicks, winning the ball but sending the hulking defender up into the air. Even before Dicks had landed, a gaggle of protagonists were charging towards the scene. The seething Cole was keen to be involved in whatever ruckus was to follow, while Roy Keane’s presence in such a scenario was a foregone conclusion. So too was that of Cantona, already nursing a bloodied mouth after an earlier accidental clash with Marc Rieper. With Butt and Dicks aflame with rage and so many short fuses in attendance, referee Steve Lodge might have feared the worst. Rather, what followed would provide a watershed in Cantona’s United career.
Before Lodge could brandish his yellow card at Butt for the second time in the game, Cole waded into the mire to lament Dicks’ role in proceedings. “It was a bad tackle by Julian,” he recalls. “Someone had to calm me down because they knew that if I’d had the chance, I’d have been sent off as well. Eric was actually the main one calming me down, and it was very, very strange for him to be doing that. Usually, when Eric lost his temper, he lost his temper.