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John Nicholson and Alan Tyers look at some of football's pundits and commentators and try to pin down what makes them good, what makes them bad, and what makes them ugly. This week it's the Queen Mum of Football, Mr Gary Lineker. A man of whom it was once said, even his farts smell of perfume.
Playful, fond of a pun and plain but very expensive-looking soft tailoring. Dark pants worn with pale coloured shirt gets him through most days from the golf club to a fashionable fish restaurant and to the studio. Never wears anything ostentatious, possibly for fear of being given a wedgie by Alan Shearer. Despite being one of the few footballers to admit browning his own shorts mid-match, Gary seems to be the very epitome of the well-scrubbed, well-brought-up chap. Never not reasonable and measured. Smiles like he means it. And if you can fake that...
The England team. Gary genuinely seems to care, and not just to care, but to feel it deeply. Having played in what passes for England's finest hour in the last five decades (losing a World Cup semi), he has been there and done it when it comes to national side pain. Manages to convey a boyish enthusiasm for the fate of the Three Lions, yet tempered with a suitable helping of resignation. There's never a doubt that he is feeling what the majority of his English viewers are feeling and that may be a key to his success.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Is he a ferociously acute analyst of football tactics? No. Is he a superb interviewer? Not really. Is he a brilliantly gifted wordsmith and entertainer? No. But what Gary does have up his sleeve is solid competence in all aspects of the job. He's got what must be surely one of the most varied audiences in broadcasting - everyone from the teenage football nerd to the granny tuning in during the World Cup. He manages to appeal, to some degree, to everyone, and that is a major achievement in these polarised times. While the mugging of puns grates, and whoever writes his scripts needs to be taken outside and given a talking-to, when given a little more unscripted time, such as during World Cups, Gary is actually a much more engaging conversationalist. He's also a good coper when live TV goes wrong because he's never afraid to self-deprecate or have a laugh as the scenery falls around him.
Tactical genius or tactics truck?
It's worth mentioning at this point that there are people about to enter their thirties that can probably not even remember Gary playing football as he retired in 1994 (feel old?). He was possibly the finest goal poacher England ever made. This mostly involved hanging around the penalty box a lot and tapping one in from half an inch and running away, arms aloft, like he had scored a 40-yard volley. So he never needed to know much about tactics, only where the goal was.
The role of presenter doesn't really call for him to offer anything especially profound in this department. Some may decry him for lack of insight but that's to critique him on a false basis. You may as well criticise Black Sabbath for not playing enough Take That songs. Insight really isn't his gig. His role is that of a frontispiece and a facilitator. In limited time he has to try and tease the insights out of Alan Shearer and company. And if you think that's an easy job...
Leg squeezer geezer?
Gary likes a josh with the fellow ex-pros but mainly confines himself to "you'd have liked to get on the end of a cross like that, eh Alan?" sports-related hilarity. Doesn't give off the vibe of the hard-boozing, medals-and-knobs-on-the-table former player. Rather, we suspect he is the nice boy who the hard kids try to bully while being secretly jealous.
Gary just seems like a really decent bloke who would go into bat for you. It's no coincidence that in the infamous clip of Gazza's tearful breakdown against West Germany in the 1990 World Cup, it is Gary who tries to have a calming word with the troubled Geordie genius, and is then captured saying to the bench, with undoubted real concern in his eyes for his team-mate, "have a word with him". The grimace on his face and worry in his eyes tells its own story. That's the man all over.
He's bright, he's friendly, he's got genuine charm and that's simply something no amount of TV training can give you. His Who Do You Think You Are programme, despite the creaky format, revealed a man who is very relaxed in his own skin, a man with lovely manners who you feel would be able to hold a conversation without alpha male jokes about your golf handicap or unsavoury bedroom antics. Would certainly never leave a stool in your kitbag, nor use scissors on your clothing.
Low but when he uses them, you know he knows he's using them. Some of his puns and pre-scripted bits of wordplay stink, but he manages to sell them, just about, often purely because he seems to recognise this is a bit of hokey old nonsense.
Why does he get gigs?
Initially, the BBC put a lot of faith and time and no doubt, money into Gary to get him up to presenting speed. The result is, 20 years later, it is more or less impossible to imagine someone else who could do all the things that he does to a competent degree. He's become a pro, a man who most of Britain, whatever their class, are happy to have in their homes. To feel anything overly negative towards him except perhaps jealousy, we feel, is just not appropriate. After all, it's nice to be nice and there's not enough of the real nice around.
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers
See extracts from Alan's new book 'Tutenkhamen's Tracksuit: The History of Sport in 100ish Objects' here.
Check out John's new series of crime novels about a football fan, set in Middlesbrough, are here.