Ask most football fans of my age their opinion of Gary Lineker and their answer more than likely won’t centre on his playing career. He’s achieved such a level of success in his post-playing media career that, to some, it’s all they know him for. Be it his slick, smooth and capable hosting of the BBC’s flagship Match of the Day programme, his unrivalled ability to eat crisps no matter the ludicrous circumstances that befall him or his new status as a voice for the voiceless on Twitter, Lineker’s time as one of the world’s best forwards is easily forgotten. It is, after all, 23 years since the Leicester-born striker hung up his boots and, in that time, there’s a whole generation of football fans who have grown up never having been around to see him at his brilliant peak.
The word ‘peak’, in Lineker’s case, is perhaps misleading. Anyone with even a vague knowledge of his footballing career will be aware that he did the same thing wherever he went. He scored goals – and lots of them. There was never a point for Lineker, it seems, where that didn’t happen and so his career enjoyed less ‘brilliant peaks’ and more of a ‘constant high’.
Gary Lineker’s brilliant career began at hometown club Leicester City in 1978
It wasn’t an inevitability that Gary would become a footballer, however. His school report card from Caldecote Juniors Primary School stated that he ‘concentrates too much on football’ and that he would ‘never make a living from that’. It’s something Lineker himself admitted could have easily been the case. ‘If I’d known how difficult it was to be a footballer, I’d have worked harder at school,’ he wrote in The Independent in 2010.
Thankfully for hometown club Leicester City, Lineker would never need the A grades he achieved in O-Level English and Maths. Leaving school in 1977, he would turn professional a year later, before finally making his first team debut for the Foxes as a fresh faced 18 year-old on New Year’s Day 1979. It would be another two years, however, before the striker would become a first team regular at Filbert Street. He made 19 appearances and scored 3 goals in the ’79/80 season that saw Leicester promoted from the second division, but would rarely feature in the following year, with the midlands club going straight back down in ’80/81.
Things weren’t easy for a young Lineker and it took him some time to establish himself in Leicester’s first team
As well as the turmoil of being a bit-part player for a yo-yo-ing club, Lineker had the added complication of trying to prove himself to notoriously fierce Scottish manager Jock Wallace. “The first time I came across him was when I was 17 and I was playing for Leicester reserves,” Lineker told ESPN FC in 2016. “It was half-time, I was sat in the dressing room and Jock came in. He was absolutely fuming, his blood was boiling. He was shouting and swearing and looking at me. ‘You lazy fucking English wee shite!”
Quite an introduction for a young player trying to make his way in the game. As it turned out, however, Lineker’s impression of his new gaffer wasn’t one that necessarily revealed the true nature of Wallace’s feelings towards his prodigious young striker. Alan Young was signed by Wallace just as Lineker was establishing himself at Filbert Street and distinctly remembers the potential Wallace saw in Lineker. Young spoke to the Leicester Mercury in 2014, remembering Wallace’s assurances that he and Lineker would make an ideal partnership. “I recall him saying, ‘The Leicester City bandwagon is on the move and if I were you, I’d get on. I’ve got this young lad, Gary Lineker, he’s gonna be a cracker and I need someone to look after him, and that’s you’. Wallace wasn’t wrong. The Leicester City bandwagon would soon be in motion and Lineker would be at the helm of it. Guiding the Foxes back into the First Division in 1983, he would go on to score an incredible 95 goals in 194 appearances in all competitions during his time at the club.
Lineker’s lethal form for Leicester earned him a move to Everton in 1985
Such lethal form saw Lineker earn a move to Merseyside and the blue of Everton in 1985. Having left Leicester as the First Division’s joint top scorer for that season, expectations were high at Goodison Park. Lineker had already earned his first England cap and, at the age of 24, was becoming recognised as one of the most dangerous goal threats in the country.
Lineker may have only spent one season with the Toffees but this was no indication of failure on his part. In what he has since referred to as perhaps the happiest and most prolific period in his career, Lineker scored 30 goals in just 41 appearances, helping Everton capture both the FA Charity Shield and a second place finish in the First Division. On a personal note, Lineker would again finish top scorer in the league for the second season in a row, inviting interest from clubs at home and in Europe. What would happen in the following months would ensure Lineker soon found a home on the world stage. His achievements would see him become renowned as one of the most lethal strikers in world football.
It was at the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 where Lineker really made his name
Like so may before and since, it was Lineker’s outstanding performance in an international tournament that saw his star rise into the stratosphere. The World Cup in Mexico in 1986 was the player’s first appearance at a major internatonal competition. He had already done his fair share in ensuring England’s place at the finals, scoring a hat-trick in a 5-0 win over Turkey in qualifying. There was no doubt amongst fans and media alike in his homeland that Lineker would be a key part of any success at the South American tournament.
The striker more than lived up to expectations. Scoring six goals in five matches, including yet another hat-trick against Poland, Lineker would go on to be top scorer at the tournament, earning him the Golden Boot. It’s an achievement that has never been equalled by any of his compatriots before or since. Only an unforgettable performance from one Diego Maradona would stop Lineker and co in their hunt for World Cup glory. The infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal, combined with his second mazy run with finish saw El Diego knock-out his English opponents at the quarter-final stage. The fact that he did it by scoring two of the most iconic goals in football history only worsened Lineker’s agony.
“The second goal that Maradona scored against England in Mexico was the best goal ever,” he once told Sky Sports. “That was the first time in my career that I almost applauded on the pitch something the opposition had done because it was a really good goal. If it hadn’t have been such an important game I would have applauded it – it’s really impressive to score a goal like that.”
Lineker formed part of a British triumvirate at Barcelona in the 1980s along with manager Terry Venables and strike partner Mark Hughes
Despite England’s failure, many in world football viewed the World Cup an individual success for Lineker and it was off the back of that that he would seal a £2.8 million move to Catalan giants FC Barcelona later that summer. There, he joined compatriot and manager Terry Venables, as well as fellow Brit Steve Archibald, to become part of a Barca side that was on the rise.
Having won the La Liga title the season before Lineker’s arrival, many saw his addition to the squad as affirmation that Barca would be looking to dominate rivals Real Madrid in the coming years. Welshman Mark Hughes joined the minor British colony forming at the Camp Nou and, while he didn’t have quite as great an impact as expected, Lineker adapted well to life in Spain.
He would spend three seasons with Barca, scoring a more than respectable 42 goals in 103 appearances. A La Liga title would elude the Englishman, but he did not leave Barcelona empty-handed. A Copa Del Rey winner’s medal, along with one for his part in winning the 1989 Cup Winners Cup would be safely in Lineker’s suitcase for the flight back to England. A hat-trick in a 3-2 victory over Real Madrid in his first season at the club had done more than enough to ensure Lineker would retain as much a place in the heart of Barca fans as they had in his.
A hat-trick in El Clasico ensured Lineker a place in FC Barcelona folklore
The destination of that flight home from Barcelona was London. Though Alex Ferguson allegedly made attempts to sign Lineker for Manchester United on his return to England, the striker opted for Tottenham Hotspur. In returning to his homeland, Lineker hoped to solidify his place in the England squad for the upcoming World Cup in Italy and 1990. Having fallen out of favour at Barca under new coach Johan Cruyff and failed to reproduce his form from Mexico ’86 at the European Championships two years later, Lineker knew his place at the tournament in Italy was not guaranteed.
The move back home proved a wise one. Despite the pressure that accompanied a hefty £1.1 million price tag, Lineker picked up where he had left off when he had departed British shores three years earlier. Part of a vibrant and attacking Spurs side that included a young Paul Gascoigne, Lineker’s goals lit up White Hart Lane.
It was during his time in North London that Lineker got his hands on his first and only piece of major silverware in England. Though he didn’t score in the final, the striker would help his team overcome a talented Nottingham Forest side that included the likes of Des Walker, Stuart Pearce and an energetic young Irishman by the name of Roy Keane. Despite being led by the unshakable Brian Clough in the dugout, Forest couldn’t hold Spurs and, together with his former Barca coach Venables, Lineker brought Tottenham their first major piece of silverware in a decade. It remains, to date, the last FA Cup victory for the club.
Lineker and Gascoigne celebrate Tottenham Hotspur’s 1991 FA Cup semi-final victory over rivals Arsenal
As with previous club Barcelona, Lineker would spend a total of three years with Tottenham. A return of 67 goals in 105 appearances, combined with the FA Cup win, meant that his time with the club was an unqualified success. Moreover, it had the desired effect of helping cement the Leicester native’s place in the England’s World Cup squad for Italia 90.
In what many consider to be the greatest World Cup tournament of all time, Lineker and his fellow countrymen led their nation on an emotional rollercoaster all the way to the semi-finals. Four goals from the striker, including a brace against a Cameroon side performing well above expectations, meant that Lineker had once again proved his quality on the grandest stage of them all. His tournament would end in agonisingly familiar fashion for the English, with them losing on penalties to a West Germany team who would eventually go on to become world champions. Lineker was later famously quoted as saying; “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.”
Lineker scored four goals at Italia 90 in a run that saw England reach the semi finals
Lineker’s career would come to an uncharacteristic end, thousands of miles from home. At age 32, no longer wanted at Tottenham, he had turned down the chance to join Jack Walker’s Blackburn Rovers revolution and the chance to partner Alan Shearer up front. Despite the mouthwatering prospect of such a pairing, it’s not one Lineker felt would work out. Speaking to FourFourTwo in 2015, he said, “It turned out that Jack Walker actually did have a few bob and was ready to spend it. But I was ready to do something different at that stage. My best days were behind me, so I don’t think any partnership would have really prospered.”
Instead, Lineker would opt for Japan and Nagoya Grampus Eight. In a move that very much mirrors the modern-day situation in China, the man many still considered one of the best strikers in world football joined Grampus just as Japan were launching their first professional football league, called J-League. Lineker was well rewarded financially for making the move, but it would prove to be less fruitful for him than any of his spells at previous clubs. A niggling foot injury would plague the player throughout his time in the Far East and contribute to a perhaps premature end to his career at age 34. It’s not a move Lineker himself regrets, however. “I only played about 15 games in those two years in Japan because of my foot,” he said in the same FourFourTwo interview in 2015, “and it wouldn’t have been much different had I stayed over [in England]. So, in hindsight, it was definitely the right thing to do.”
Lineker’s time in Japan did not provide a successful end to his playing career
Gary Lineker may be better known now for his considerable media presence. It’s perhaps no surprise that he has made such a success of his second career, though, when you consider everything he achieved as a player. Today, he applies the same direct, no-nonsense style to his presenting as he did to his method of scoring goals. And yet, just as in his playing days, he retains an affable charm that ensures he remains on the road to ‘national treasure’ status, if it hasn’t already been earned.
Lineker’s love for the game remains obvious, as anyone who followed his observations of his beloved Leicester City’s ascent to the league title last season can attest. It’s refreshing to see such enthusiasm in a day and age where cynicism and wide-spread criticism are king in football. Perhaps if Gary Lineker had played in today’s age, the age of YouTube and Twitter, the age of the video-clip footballer, he might be better remembered for his considerable achievements on the pitch. Either way, his continued presence in the coverage of football that so many of us consume only serves to benefit the game. Where Lineker is, there is only the purest love for football and that, I’m sure we’d all agree, can only be a good thing.