‘Legally Red’ book review

OF Sardines, Seagulls and Trawlers isn’t about some idyll waterfront-located novel episode or scene – but rather about a soccer-related incident referred to as the most famous common assault in the history of the English legal system!

It occurred on the Wednesday of January 25, 1995 at Selhurst Park, a football stadium which is the home of the football club, Crystal Palace. Said incident involved Manchester United Football Club’s French forward, Eric Cantona’s Kung-Fu kick assault on a Palace fan named Matthew Simmons.

The poetic sounding title per se is veiled in a cryptic play with words scribbled by a then besieged Cantona pending a press conference assembled in the aftermath of his escaping with a sentence of 120 hours of community service in lieu of two weeks’ imprisonment, for the afore-mentioned assault a lesser sanction successfully appealed by his legal representatives!

“What’s that big boat called that catches fish?” the footballer had enquired from Manchester United’s solicitor, Maurice Watkins – who was representing him in the matter. “Do you mean a trawler?” Watkins had responded. “And the big bird that flies over the sea?” further pressed the forward. “You mean a seagull?” again Watkins filled in the gap.

A short while thereafter, the star revealed to the legal eagle what he had put together – which read thus: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think that sardines will be thrown into the sea.” Cantona informed Watkins that he wished to read out these words before the conference – adding that he did not want Watkins to explain what they meant, a stance a BBC TV reporter took umbrage of as he deemed the comment to cock a snook at those gathered.

If Watkins got to read the cryptic way with written words Cantona was capable of conjuring during the Kung-Fu saga litigation, he also got to hear his intriguing way with spoken words when, during a Football Association hearing appertaining to the same matter, Cantona – in addition to apologizing to the football community at large – uttered the following colourful line: “And I want to apologize to the prostitute who shared my bed last evening.”

An FA bigwig, scarcely believing what he’d just heard, turned to another to seek clarification – who in a state of embarrassment diluted the line to: “He prostrates himself before the FA.”

In an even more intriguing development surrounding the case, a lawyer named Jeffrey McCann representing Matthew Simmons – who himself faced offences appertaining to the Public Order Act – phoned Watkins to inform him that, upon being sentenced, Simmons suddenly leapt from a court’s witness box and appeared to kick him, incredulously as had Cantona done to him, in the chest!

For his ill-advised impulse Simmons was jailed for seven days for contempt of court – in addition to a 500 pounds sterling fine and a twelve months’ exclusion from setting foot in a football stadium!

Pending the infamous incident, Watkins was witnessing or learning of behavior which bothered upon the risible such as where a member of the FA’s disciplinary commission put it to Cantona: “isn’t it a fact that you are a Kung-Fu expert?” – all the while whilst he was aiming to get the sportsman’s autograph! Unlike the FA inquisitor, a prison officer who momentarily was Cantona’s jailer pending a three-and-a-half-hour spell he spent in a cell whilst his representatives scrambled to secure bail for him, did garner himself an autograph from the Frenchman!

The Cantona saga and a whole lot more anecdotes feature in the tome, Legally Red, a 296-page trade paperback about Manchester United FC’s solicitor, viz, Maurice Watkins – now late – who for thirty-six years the world-renown club turned to, to navigate and manoeuvre through legal minefields.

It is a testament of the legacy of a figure who not only oversaw to the legal battles of arguably the most supported football brands in the whole world, but as a director and a board member – “the team behind the team”, as captioned on one of the featured images – was positioned at the front and centre for the club’s triumphs pending its most successful epoch.

Among the inside stories contained within the read is how Watkins and MUFC’s chairman between the years 1980 and 2002, Martin Edwards, travelled by car to Scotland from England to strike a deal with Alex Ferguson to take over as the new manager of a club whose fortunes during the 1985 season under Ron Atkinson were flagging rather alarmingly. A discreet trip in which the Man U executives met with Ferguson – then the manager of Aberdeen F.C. – at a motorway service station under the cover of night and had to thereafter convince Fergie’s wife Cathy to relocate to Manchester.

Pragmatically, Watkins points out in his account that Ferguson’s arrival at Old Trafford did not quickly improve the club’s fortunes.

In a chapter titled The Director’s Cut, Watkins relates circumstance behind how he got to join the all-powerful board of Manchester United alongside the 1966 World Cup-winning Bobby Charlton.

Coming on board owning a certain amount of shares, Watkins – who states that the business of Manchester United was always his primary concern rather than the results on the pitch – makes mention of how he increased his stake when one of the club’s largest shareholders sold him a substantial block of his shares, thus increasing his influence on the board!

Included in his tale is the painful moment Watkins lost his son, Christopher from cystic fibrosis at the young age of 10 on March 2, 1981. His is an account of a man of whom Sir Alex avers in the foreword: “His energy levels must have been exhausted dealing with all the situations that come up at a club the size of Manchester United. But his calm demeanour and his wisdom helped to steer the ship through all manner of situations.”

Legally Red is a trade paperback published by Hodder & Stoughton and distributed across South Africa by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

Available at leading bookstores countrywide, it retails for R470.

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