His transition into presenting represents yet another triumph for Lineker, and he’s successfully been engrained into the British psyche in this guise. (Hence England games just aren’t quite right on ITV).
Certainly, broadcasting and the BBC has become such a natural habitat for Gary that, when watching MOTD with my girlfriend last season, my dearly beloved turned to me and innocently asked ‘was Gary Lineker actually a good player?’. I smiled at her sweet little face, explained that he was once a fine player indeed, and then softly sighed as my love and affection swiftly drained away, drifting into the cold night sky…
Anyway, one of England’s greatest strikers, and a Leicester City, Everton and Tottenham legend, Lineker deserves a succinct address:
We’ll eulogise about his talents in a moment – though it’s implicitly done just by noting his goal scoring record – but firstly let’s track his career. Born in Leicester (1960), Lineker proudly began his career representing his ‘home-town’ upon leaving school in 1977. (This was, however, after he received a school report asserting that ‘he must devote less of his time to sport if he wants to be a success’; Proof, if proof be needed, that all school kids should never, EVER, listen to their teachers, and should instead smash up the class-room, pillage the building, ruthlessly assault the head-teacher and run free with reckless abandon…perhaps).
He broke into the first-team at an early age and duly made a name for himself. During his time at Leicester he amassed a scoring ratio of nearly one goal every two games; scoring 95 goals in just under 200 appearances. His goals also helped the Foxes achieve promotion to the First Division in 1983. An all-time Leicester legend, by 1985 the big boys inevitably came knocking and Lineker eventually moved to defending League Champions Everton for £800,000.
At Goodison he continued to prosper. His potency in front of goal led to him to bagging 38 goals in 52 games, and finishing the league’s top scorer (a feat he also achieved at the Walkers Stadium). Personal achievement was almost accompanied by club success, but the old foe from across the Park put a double dent in that; Everton finishing second in the league and losing in the FA Cup final to double-winning Liverpool, during a decade largely Merseyside dominated. Lineker has subsequently stated ‘there’s no doubt at all that Everton was the best team I ever played in’.
After an impressive 1986 World Cup showing in Mexico, little Gary, the slender Leicester lad, was off to the glitz and the glamour of the Nou Camp. Signed for £2.2miilion by Terry Venables, Lineker predictably continued his prolific goal scoring record at Barcelona and must be commended for making the leap abroad – something very few English footballers attempt or successfully do. His first season saw him score 21goals in 41 games, including a memorable El Clásico hat-trick against the old nemesis Real Madrid, thus ensuring ‘fan-favourite’ status from the local Catalans. His time at Barca also entailed Spanish Cup and European Cup Winners Cup success, however Johan Cruyff pushed Lineker out of position and out-wide, and he was soon on a plane back to Blighty.
Reportedly spurning an offer from Alex Ferguson, Lineker instead headed to White Hart Lane in 1989. His time at Tottenham saw him at his zenith, scoring 67 goals from 105 games. He finished the leagues’ top scorer, again, in his first season – thus remarkably doing so for three different clubs – and helped Spurs win the FA Cup in 1991; the Gazza and Gary axis.
Finally, with the sun setting on his top-flight days, he ‘did one’ to the land of the rising sun in a surprise transfer to Nagoya Grampus Eight in 1992, before retiring in 1994. Famously he was never booked or sent off during his illustrious career; a ‘Mr Nice guy’, a gentlemen, a sportsman, a really sweetie pie.
The old adage is that Lineker was a great goal scorer rather than a scorer of great goals. This may well be true, but should certainly not be seen as detraction; putting the ball in the net is, notoriously, the hardest thing to do in football and he made it look easy. He was a true poacher, living and breathing goals…goals, goals, GOALS! Always in the right place at the right time, Lineker’s skills may not have been flashy but they were impressive nonetheless. With immaculate timing, instinct and composure, Lineker was deadly in the penalty area and, though sometimes criticised for doing little else, one should always take into account his shrewd off the ball movement. Lineker brilliantly exploited the talents he had; finding that little bit of space, losing his marker, working the defence and finishing with instinctive aplomb. This type of player is a dying breed in the modern game. Indeed, system shifts and the evolution of the striker means ‘the poacher’ is fading fast and is often not a viable option, however Lineker will go down in the annals of history as one of the greatest.
These attributes, and his club form, were successfully transferred to the international scene. Indeed, he reliably delivered and represents the sort of luminary we would relish having now (though I’ve actually just said ‘system shifts and the evolution of the striker means ‘the poacher’ is fading fast and is often not a viable option’ so I’ve hideously contradicted myself in a few swift tip-taps of the keyboard). He boats a record of 48 goals from 80 England caps, putting him second behind Bobby Charlton (49 goals from 106 appearances) in the all-time top England goal scorers chart. Most memorably he hit a hat-trick past Poland to take England through to the knock-out stages at Mexico 1986, then bagged a brace against Paraguay, before notching a consolation strike in the ‘hand of god’ quarter-final defeat to Argentina. This was enough to secure Lineker the World Cup ‘Golden Boot’; the only English player ever to do so. Four years later, at Italia 90, he scored four goals as England reached the semi-final. Enter stage right, the Germans…exit stage left, England (but not before Gary pulled a strange face and did that infamous ‘keep an eye on him’ Gazza signal thingy).
Prolific goal scorer, a legend for club(s) and country, OBE, golden boot winner, crisp wielding maniac, presenter, the face of BBC sport and actively involved in charitable causes (most notably children’s cancer charity), raise a glass to one of England’s finest gentlemen; the ‘goal hanging’ Gary Winston Lineker.
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