Portrait of an icon: Gary Lineker

Daniel Storey

It is the perfect Gary Lineker anecdote. Having famously retired without ever receiving a yellow or red card, Lineker was asked during an interview with FourFourTwo how close he had come to being cautioned.

“I almost got booked for grinning at a ref in Spain,” he said. “He actually warned me, ‘stop smiling’ and started to go for his pocket.” Lineker: The only man who could be punished for being too nice.

It’s hard to accept that there is a generation for whom Lineker is just a Match of the Day presenter, a starker reminder of time’s incessant passing than spotting grey hairs in the mirror. Lineker is the second most recognisable face in UK sport behind David Beckham, hugely impressive given that he retired over 20 years ago. He is regarded fondly by both grandmothers and grandsons, the king of football’s light entertainment.

It is impossible to not be impressed by the longevity and popularity of Lineker’s media career. At a time when sports media was changing at a faster rate than ever before, he has remained the ideal presenter of the country’s flagship football television programme, 16 years in the job. Were Lineker to leave the BBC permanently, it would be mourned as a huge loss. He is still at the very top of the sporting A-list.

The tendency is to castigate Lineker for his ubiquity and lack of sharp edges, but he is (recent masturbation joke aside), the safest pair of hands in the business, if you’ll excuse the pun. He is not a man for whimsy, but in the confines of MOTD’s tight time schedule, that is a necessary limitation. During a cold winter for sports punditry, where mouth triumphs brain and brash opinion beats insight, Lineker is the antidote. The new rule of ‘he who shouts loudest wins’ has its glaring exception.

Yet long before becoming a nation’s sweetheart, Lineker was a national hero. He is the only Englishman ever to win the World Cup’s golden shoe, and our greatest modern-day goalscorer. Wayne Rooney may now have three more England goals, but also 29 more caps. Nine of Rooney’s goals have come against San Marino, Andorra and Kazakhstan.

In 2013, Lineker participated in the television programme Who Do You Think You Are?, in which he delved into his family heritage. It what must be one of the finest recorded cases of ancestral determinism, Lineker was told that his great, great, great grandfather had been a poacher in Leicestershire.

Lineker was one of English football’s last great poachers. He was a penalty box predator, capable of finishing chances for club and country with an aptitude boasted only by a select few. Watch back now at his England goals, and note the number that are scored with his first touch of the move. Only a handful involved Lineker touching the ball before his finish. Every one of his six goals at World Cup ‘86 was scored from inside the six-yard box.

“[Pippo] Inzaghi can’t actually play football,” Johan Cruyff once said. “But he just always seems to be in the right place in the right time.” There is a slight exaggeration to that statement, but Lineker sums up his own career in a similar manner: “In my day, I wasn’t the best footballer, but I was the best goalscorer for two or three years.”

It feels obligatory to say ‘right place, right time’ at this juncture, but Lineker actually rejects that description: “Everybody says it’s being in the right place at the right time. But it’s more than that, it’s being in the right place all the time. If I make 20 runs to the near post and each time I lose my defender, and 19 times the ball goes over my head or behind me – then one time I’m three yards out, the ball comes to the right place and I tap it in – then people say ‘right place, right time.’ And I was there all the time.”

While strikers like Gabriel Batistuta, Jurgen Klinsmann and Marco van Basten could reasonably be expected to have flourished in the modern day, the same cannot be said of Lineker. As the typical formation has shifted from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 and 4-5-1, strikers are asked to be multi-functional. They must hold up play, shield the ball, bring teammates into play and create chances. Lineker would have struggled on every one of those requirements.

That is now seen as a deficiency, a black mark in his book. “He only scored goals? How terribly vulgar,” is the accusation. Yet Lineker transformed ‘one-dimensional’ from a criticism into a compliment. Simplicity was the core of his art.

‘Gary was an out and out finisher,’ wrote Bryan Robson in his autobiography. ‘He made no bones about it. He used to tell us “I’m not getting involved in any of that physical stuff. Just give me the ball and I’ll score.” More often than not, he did.’

If it all sounds so simple, the reality is different. Many of Lineker’s finishes may have been simple, but his goals never were. The finish is just what you see, the perfect speech delivered on the stage at the Old Vic after months of learning lines and practicing diction. A minute part of being a poacher is the final touch. The talent lies in finding space, losing your marker, anticipating where the ball will be played and moving into the appropriate space with speed and stealth.

‘Lineker gave the impression of coasting through a game, until the ball was within playing distance,’ wrote Jimmy Greaves in his own autobiography. ‘What elevates the good to the great is that first yard. With centre forwards it starts with physique. With Lineker it started with the brain.’

Greaves’ ‘first yard in the head’ description is a well-worn cliché, but contains a vital point. Lineker would never lay claim to be the quickest of foot, but his mental sharpness and anticipation, honed over thousands of hours of practice, was exemplary.

It is impossible to overstate just how prolific a finisher Lineker was. His career record of 322 goals in 631 games may seem modest in comparison with other greats, but between 1982 and 1992 he enjoyed a golden decade. His 339 league games brought 207 goals.

Starting at hometown club Leicester City, Lineker was a relatively late bloomer. He was 23 by the time he got going in the First Division, and 24 before he scored his first England goal. Having top-scored in the 1984/85 season, the next seven years were to pass by in a whirlwind.

Lineker moved to Everton in the summer of 1985, but stayed only ten months at Goodison. It was long enough to win another Golden Boot award, before doing exactly the same at the 1986 World Cup. His performances for England earned him a move to Terry Venables’ Barcelona, where he scored 20 goals in his first La Liga season, only outscored by Hugo Sanchez at Real Madrid. A hat-trick and two winners in three El Clasico matches secured his reputation among supporters, as did Lineker’s insistence on becoming fluent in the language.

The arrival of Cruyff at Barcelona led to Lineker being farmed out on the right wing, a bizarre idea that bore very little fruit. He rejected the advances of Manchester United to re-sign for Venables at Tottenham, and promptly won the Golden Boot for a third time. An FA Cup trophy followed in 1991, before Lineker scored 28 goals in 1991/92.

There is no doubt that money played a part in Lineker’s shock move to Nagoya Grampus Eight in 1992, but one can hardly be too critical. His career in England ended before the riches of the Premier League and its broadcasting deal turned football into an industry of multimillionaires. Lineker also desired to see a new part of the world, and learnt workable Japanese to complement his fluent Spanish.

The move was not successful. Lineker scored eight goals in 24 matches, but twice suffered a broken toe, causing extensive layoffs. He was still a huge marketing success, his face being plastered on a remarkable variety of products.

There is no doubt that Lineker was the beneficiary of sides and managers playing to his strengths, though his record made it an entirely logical approach. Never was that more apparent than in Bobby Robson’s England side, which was designed almost solely as a supply line to their striker.

“A big thing for me as a striker was to have the area uncluttered, with room to make runs into,” Lineker said. “Peter [Beardsley] was unselfish, creative and we knew each other’s games.”

Beardsley was more than happy to play the support role: “As far as I was concerned he was a joy to be associated with.” He, John Barnes, Paul Gascoigne, Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle loaded the gun; Lineker invariably hit the target.

The only sadness is that Lineker’s England career was comparatively short. He scored ten goals in 12 World Cup matches, but the gap between his first and last competitive international goal was only a month over six years. Having been shunned by Graham Taylor’s substitution against Sweden, Lineker would long be remembered as the man who didn’t score 49 (Bobby Charlton’s record) rather than the one who scored 48. That’s a travesty.

Lineker’s goals will only ever form part of his reputation, the rest is sculpted by his impeccable on-field behaviour. Driven and ambitious, he became the definition of clean-cut, the anti-party boy within the drinking culture of English football’s 1980s. That has been warped by some into an unfair euphemism for monotony.

“While I would rate Gary Lineker among the greatest finishers football has ever seen, I think he will be remembered more for his marvellous image that for his great skill at putting the ball in the net,” Bobby Charlton once said. The greater of two virtues.

Let’s end with a quote from Sir Bobby. “He was everything I hoped for,” were Robson’s simple words on Lineker. They were spoken after World Cup ‘86, but would have been as equally relevant at any point since. An entire nation nods in agreement.


Daniel Storey – Follow him on Twitter here