Archive piece from 2014.
To a younger generation, Gary Lineker is the man who makes TV commercials to sell Walkers crisps, and presents a national institution, Match Of The Day, every Saturday night of the football season, to a theme tune that is almost as old as he is (53). But, as I explained to my daughter on the day I went to interview Lineker in Barnes, west London, he was also, once upon a time, what pundits like to call “a top top player”.
Lineker’s record as a goalscorer for England – 48 goals in 80 internationals- – is second only to Sir Bobby Charlton, who scored one more goal in 106 games. Lineker is the only Englishman to have won the Golden Boot for scoring the most goals at a World Cup, and the only one to have won the Golden Boot in England with three different clubs. In addition, he was never booked in a career of 567 matches for England, Leicester, Everton, Barcelona, Spurs and Nagoya Grampus Eight. This means he even has a Fifa Fair Play award in his trophy cabinet, though given his views on Fifa corruption, Sepp Blatter’s “dictatorship” and the decision to hand the next two World Cups to Russia and Qatar, they might soon ask for it back.
‘We should stand up for what is right, and if that means never hosting the World Cup again, fine’
As Match Of The Day returns to celebrate its 50th anniversary this month, it does so with Lineker inevitably at the helm. Though in his fifties, he is trim, still keeps in shape and is married to his second wife, model and actress Danielle, who is 18 years younger than him and has got him into Shakespeare.
Lineker and I went to the same school in Leicester. With two highly lucrative careers under his belt, he can afford to reflect with some amusement that one of our teachers once wrote on his report that he spent too much time thinking about football, warning him that he would “never make a living at that”.
AC: Let’s start by telling GQ readers that you and I…
GL: Went to the same school.
AC: Indeed. So City Boys Leicester must be the only school in the world that produced a Golden Boot winner (you) and someone who played with Pelé and Diego Maradona (me).
GL: I know; absolutely extraordinary.
AC: Now, the World Cup: be honest, the chances are England will never again win it in our lifetime.
GL: You can’t say no chance because strange things happen in football.
AC: England fell behind because Spain and Germany especially were innovating and strategising, and now England are just catching up.
GL: Exactly. Technically, we have always lagged behind.
AC: But why?
GL: Education and culture. It is changing, though – finally we are getting used to seeing smaller pitches, smaller goals. If you have 22 tiny kids on a full-sized pitch, the only way to get to the other end is boot it as hard as you can. It doesn’t encourage passing, dribbling; kids do not learn technique like that. Also, there is a culture of fear put on us by parents ranting at the sidelines, “Boot it; get stuck in,” – all this nonsense, this obsession with winning an under-eights match, which is absurd. It makes the kids treat the ball like it is a bomb – get rid of it before it blows up. Things are getting better though, with the academies…
AC: That is all about the clubs. Do Premier League managers care about whether England do well?
GL: No, they care about the club, but the new changes will develop and the net will grow and we will have more and better younger players. I do see encouraging signs for the future.
AC: Be honest, Gary, if we’d been Argentine or Brazilian talking about the greatest players in Rio, there is not one English player we would mention.
GL: Probably true.
AC: Barcelona alone have six world-class players, and didn’t even win the league title. England have none that compare.
GL: Spain struggled in Brazil, but what a run. They changed their whole thinking about how to coach young players, then the Germans did it. We have done it to a degree, but half-heartedly. But there are signs. There is a nucleus there with some good young players.
AC: Is the German League better than ours?
GL: I don’t think so. If you look outside Bayern Munich and maybe Dortmund, the league as a whole is weaker. It is a better-run league and they produce a lot of quality players. But Bayern Munich are so far ahead, beating everyone easily, so it is not nearly as competitive.
AC: Their FA and the Bundesliga work far better together than the FA and the Premier League. Their strategies are more aligned.
GL: That is the problem we have.
‘You can never really justify wages in the entertainment business’
AC: And Greg Dyke [chairman of the FA] is talking nonsense when he blames foreign players for England’s decline. It’s about coaching and grass-roots development.
GL: It’s nothing to do with that, I agree, though I think he was talking about the quantity of foreign players. But the real issue, the thing we have never got right, is the way we coach young players. It is changing. The FA Commission is too late in a way, because finally we are doing the right thing.
AC: What did you think of the Richard Scudamore [chief executive of the Premier League] “sexist” emails? [In May this year, offensive correspondence between Scudamore and a friend was leaked to the press by his former PA.] Should he have resigned?
GL: Well, it wasn’t good, but I don’t think any of us would come out well if every text or email we ever sent was published. He is in an important position, did something silly, apologised, and that was right. Definitely should be reprimanded, not sure it was a sacking offence.
AC: If he was not so powerful in the game he would have been fired, wouldn’t he?
GL: Probably, but everyone recognises he has done a good job for the Premier League.
AC: Where do you stand on alcohol sponsorship of sport?
GL: Don’t like it. I have turned down deals with alcohol firms over the years. I do not agree with it. The other thing that worries me is all the betting advertising and sponsorship in sport. All you ever see is commercials for gambling and apps, it is really dangerous, and I think we need to do something about both of them, alcohol and gambling. Gambling is just too easy to do now, and as a parent I worry about it, all those ads bombarding you with in-play betting.
AC: So you would take alcohol out of sport sponsorship, like Russia and France?
GL: Yes, I would. It does not fit with sport.
AC: But crisps are OK? [Lineker has appeared in Walkers adverts since 1995.]
GL: Crisps are fine. They do no harm at all.
GL: We ate snacks when we were growing up. Obesity is about more than that. It’s about other changes. We didn’t have computers, didn’t have dozens of TV channels, we walked to school, we didn’t have much to do so we played sport. Obesity is as much about exercise.
AC: With all those Walkers crisps ads you’ve done, have you never had any acting offers?
GL: No, disappointing. I was in Bend It Like Beckham, though – as myself.
AC: What did you think about Russia and Qatar getting the next two World Cups?
GL: I’m going to have to name-drop here, but I was with David Beckham having a burger the night before the Qatar decision. We were out trying to get support; Prince William and David Cameron were out there, too, and I said to Becks, “We are the only country doing this. The whole thing smells; it is a done deal.” It makes you feel sick, actually, the whole Fifa thing, the corruption at the top level is nauseating. Sepp Blatter likewise has run it like a dictatorship for so long and he comes out with so much nonsense.
AC: If things carry on as they are [allegations of corruption] maybe Russia and Qatar will lose it?
GL: With what is happening in Ukraine, it doesn’t look like it’s going to get resolved quickly. So let’s see what happens. If not, if you are looking for countries who could stage it at ten minutes’ notice, you’re really talking us or Germany I think.
AC: Qatar. Good place for a World Cup?
GL: Ludicrous. I am not against it going to different parts of the world, but you’d have thought they might have known it would be very hot in summer. You have to be careful what you say, but the corruption is just… yuk.
AC: You basically see Fifa as corrupt, not fit for purpose?
GL: Yes, and it is such a shame because it is a massive sport and means so much to so many people. [England] are too straight, in a way – and I am not saying that as a criticism. We should stand up for what is right and if that means never hosting the World Cup again, fine. The only way it might change is for the clean countries to turn around and say, “You know what, we are not taking part in your tournaments.” But I can’t see it happening. There is too much at stake.
AC: So if someone had said, “Here’s a briefcase with a million dollars, go and give it to that delegate over there to buy his vote…”
GL: No way. It is not worth having on that basis.
AC: Now TV – what do you watch more, BBC or Sky?
GL: Well, I watch a lot of football, and Sky has more football, so probably Sky, but I do watch a lot of stuff on the BBC.
AC: Has Sky been good for football?
GL: Really good. It has put football in a strong financial position and made it massively more popular. Sky is important, but so is Match Of The Day, it still gets great numbers, still sets trends.
AC: Do you get angry at all the sneering at you guys?
GL: No, I understand it. Usually it is because people don’t like Pundit A or B. But most people love it.
AC: You said somewhere that Alan Shearer comes out second top in public ratings. Is that true?
GL: He is right up there. When he first came, he was thinking he would be a manager, and around 18 months ago [realised], “No, this is what I want to do,” and since then he has been better, works hard, has strong opinions.
AC: Do you not think Gary Neville tells us what we don’t see, whereas Shearer tells us what we do see?
GL: No I don’t agree, I think Alan Shearer does tell you what you don’t see. Alan Hansen has always done that too, he’s brilliant at that, so does Danny Murphy. It is easier on Sky because they have so much time, they are on for hours. On Match Of The Day it is always tight for time. We pack a lot in.
AC: You have far too many replays during the highlights.
GL: I agree with that, I said that to them recently. Fair enough for goals, but sometimes we have half-a-dozen replays of a shot or a save. It cuts into time for the game, and we can do the good bits in analysis, so I agree with you there.
AC: Is Alan Hansen a friend? Will you miss him?
GL: I will, yes. We have been doing this for 20 years now. I think he was the one who really changed pundit analysis. Even now, he points out things I didn’t notice.
AC: He seems such a tough and articulate guy. Why was he never a manager?
GL: He is actually a really nervous guy beneath all the confidence. He used to get sick with nerves before a game and he does the same before a programme. So I think being a manager, the stress those guys are under, just not for him.
AC: Will Match Of The Day last forever?
GL: It’s a very competitive world, but it is an important programme.
AC: Will you be openly biased in favour of Leicester, now they are back in the Premier League?
GL: Yes. Definitely. It is not a political programme.
AC: Best ever edition?
GL: Has to be the Sergio Agüero moment; Manchester United thinking they had won the League and Manchester City scoring with virtually the last kick of the season.
AC: The press have a go at you over salaries at the BBC. You and Hansen, especially. Do you think the criticism is fair?
GL: I can see why people criticise us for earning good money for doing what we enjoy. You can never really justify wages in the entertainment business, but it is what it is.
AC: If the BBC said you had to take a pay cut, would you?
GL: I took a pay cut the last time and I understood why.
AC: When will you call it a day? You’ve been doing Match Of The Day since 1999.
GL: Don’t know. You never know with the rights what will happen. We have them for two and a half seasons, then four years of the FA Cup.
AC: Are you sad the way people seem to care less about the FA Cup?
GL: What I don’t understand is mid-table teams playing weakened sides. When we grew up the FA Cup was the only live show in town. It was the big event but now you can watch football all day, it has been eclipsed
by the Premier League, and the Champions League, but I still like it.
AC: What with the crisps and the punditry, there’s a generation out there that hardly knows of your football career.
GL: It is 20 years since I played. I’m a broadcaster. I haven’t played since the day I retired. I couldn’t do it. I loved playing but I didn’t like training, and I hated friendlies. It was all about the big game for me. The thought of being in a dressing room with a load of geriatrics for a charity match…
AC: When you do the trailer just before the ten o’clock news, are you never tempted to say, “Go to bed – it was really rubbish today?”
GL: I did once, and I got a bollocking from the BBC One controller. I said, “If there’s one to miss, it might be this one.” But I do think I have to be honest, or else why should people believe me when I say it’s going to be amazing? Sometimes I say, “Interesting.”
AC: So if you say, “Interesting,” you mean boring, and we can go to bed?
GL: Yeah, something like that.
AC: Rate these four managers in order of greatness – Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger, José Mourinho, Pep Guardiola?
GL: At the moment you would have to put Ferguson top, but he was there longer. José is something else. I think Wenger would be fourth but I still really rate and respect him, and Guardiola could well top the lot one day.
AC: Anyone I have missed?
GL: Not in modern times. Brian Clough. What he did was extraordinary. Two European Cups with Nottingham Forest – we don’t like them at Leicester, but he did it. What he did at Derby too… incredible, really.
AC: Your best manager?
GL: Manager Bobby Robson; coach Terry Venables, or Johan Cruyff.
AC: You didn’t get on with Cruyff, though.
GL: True. The thing was, he came in, I was ill with hepatitis and in those days you could only have two foreign players and when I came back he played me out of position and he was trying to get me to bite, create a fuss, try to get away so he could bring in his own. But as a coach he was so clever.
AC: What was so great about Robson?
GL: He was great at getting the best out of good players. He was not a great coach but a terrific man manager, strong willed, never influenced by the media.
AC: What was so good about Venables?
GL: Always thinking, always innovating. He would pull you aside and say what about this or what about trying that, do you think this might work? What about if we only had four or five back for corners? We did it in a game and I thought wow, the other team didn’t know what to do. Clever guy, Terry.
AC: Your best ever goal?
GL: I only ever scored one screamer in my whole career, a 25-yard curler for Spurs at Old Trafford.
AC: Did you like being described as “lethal from six inches”.
GL: It was getting there that was the craft. It used to mildly irritate me when people said, “He did nothing, but was in the right place at the right time for the goal.” They don’t see the 90 runs before that, I was all about running, losing defenders, gambling on space and where the ball could be, nine times out of ten it would be too high, too low, wrong place, wrong time, but you keep going, keep going and eventually one comes to you. My great strength was converting chances.
AC: Your best single moment?
GL: Probably scoring to win the Cup final for Spurs. I had a great career but didn’t win much, trophy-wise. Nothing with England. At Everton we should have won the double, but missed out on both. Couldn’t be in Europe because of the ban after [the] Heysel [stadium disaster]. At Barcelona I won a Spanish Cup medal and the European Cup Winners’ Cup, and the second-division title with Leicester, but that’s it.
AC: I saw your tweet saying watching Lionel Messi makes you realise how shit you were. You don’t mean that, do you?
GL: I do, really. He is incredible. I mean every time he runs at people he beats them.
AC: Maradona did that.
GL: He was a genius too, but Messi does it more and more consistently. He has two big advantages – all the pitches are great, and defenders cannot just kick him like they did Maradona or Pelé.
AC: What do you think of the David Moyes sacking from Manchester United?
GL: I felt very sorry for him. I always thought that the job to get was the one after the one after Alex Ferguson and I stick to that now. It was always going to be so hard, taking over from such a dominant figure who had run the place like a dictator. I think Ferguson left at the right time. Old guard gone – no Scholes, Giggs finally retiring. Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra struggling, that’s five big players. Also I don’t think he added well in midfield in recent years, Fletcher out with his illness, then Rooney and van Persie injuries, all very difficult. I think maybe the only one who could have held it together and lifted them, because he is just so fearless, is Mourinho. Louis van Gaal is a big character and actually not being in Europe will be a help in terms of their challenge for the Premier League.
AC: Why do the players never cop it, always the manager?
GL: I do think there was an element of the players not supporting Moyes, questioning why he would do things different to before.
AC: How political are you?
GL: I’m interested in it. I will never voice my opinions because there is no point, you just end up with 60 per cent hating you.
AC: Do you vote?
GL: Yes, I always vote and I haven’t always voted the same way, I will say that much.
AC: Does it annoy you as much as it annoys me that the Olympics has come and gone without a real legacy for sport?
GL: It obviously has come at a time when the money is tight, but I have always been baffled – [I’ve] never understood the lack of funding for sport. It would save fortunes in health; you learn so much about life and teamwork. I cannot see how it is less important than science and maths – they are important, but…
AC: Then you hear Michael Gove saying teachers should be able to punish kids by making them go running, like sport is a punishment.
GL: He didn’t say that?
AC: He did. Could you not have a bigger voice in this area?
GL: I do try. I did something with David Cameron recently, a visit in Birmingham when they were announcing money just for sport in schools, and it meant I could spend time with him and put over my views.
AC: Now, you divorced Michelle, and now you are married to Danielle. Does it not worry you being married to someone your sons probably fancy?
GL: Oh, that is sick.
AC: But probably true.
GL: She is a good-looking woman, sure, but in her thirties. She’s not 20.
AC: Are you not worried about being 75, and she’ll be 57?
GL: I’ll be in better shape, for sure…
AC: How much do you care about your image with the public? Do you like to be liked?
GL: It is preferable to being hated. I have never worked on it though. You are what you are and people will make their own decisions, I don’t go around saying, “I hope he likes me.”
AC: It is amazing you never got a yellow card. What was the closest you came?
GL: In Spain, I laughed at the ref. He went to his pocket and I said, “Come on, you can’t give me a yellow for smiling,” and he put it back. I was competitive but I have not really got a temper.
AC: Did that quality help as a player?
GL: Definitely. Goalscorers have to be cool and calm, it is hard enough even if you are calm. I never retaliated. If I was getting fouled, I was doing my job: free kick, chance. I would moan to the refs but I would never abuse them and never swear at them.
AC: Do you not think the refs should be miked up like in rugby or the NFL?
GL: Yeah, maybe, but what would stop it, and they should do this, is just have a rule, any abuse or swearing at the ref, yellow card, do it twice, red card. There would be chaos and carnage for a month, and then it would stop and the game would be better for it. We have to make players respect referees.
AC: Last time you cried?
GL: I cry all the time, films, I’m rubbish. I cried at Sports Personality last year, the Hillsborough film, got very weepy.
‘I’ve never understood the lack of funding for sport. It would save fortunes in health’
AC: Who is your greatest sportsman of all time?
GL: Maybe Muhammad Ali, he was incredible, but you know the pool is small. Not many people go into heavyweight boxing. Everyone goes into football, so I think it has to be a footballer. Now Maradona was amazing. I have only seen clips of Pelé and he was great but you only ever see the best stuff. I’m going for Messi. I think he is unbelievable.
AC: Best golfer of all time?
GL: Jack Nicklaus. I thought Tiger Woods would eclipse him, but I’m not sure he has.
AC: Are you still playing a lot?
GL: No, I’ve pretty much given up.
AC: You were good.
GL: I know, but I didn’t like myself on the course. I was whingy and whiny and fed up. Then I got an injury and I enjoyed not playing. Then every time I went back I was terrible and after three holes I was thinking, oh no, four more hours of this. So I stopped.
AC: Does Danielle like football?
GL: Can’t stand it. Never watches it.
AC: Not even Match Of The Day?
GL: No, never. If I am watching a match, she’ll just tut and say “Oh, not football again,” and I tell her I’m working.
AC: I hear she has got you into Shakespeare.
GL: She has, yes.
AC: Best play?
GL: We saw Jude Law as Hamlet, brilliant, amazing.
AC: “This above all, to thine own self be true.” Have you lived by that?
GL: I think so, yes. You know what I have discovered, which I didn’t know, is how many words we use every day that he invented.
AC: I know; that is one of my obsessions. Have you googled “words and phrases invented by Shakespeare”?
GL: I have. It is amazing.
AC: Addiction, assassination, elbow, excitement.
GL: Danielle goes spare when people say he didn’t write his own stuff.
AC: Do you think you two will have kids together?
AC: You’re 53. Schoolgate Dad at 60?
GL: Yeah, but look at me. Fit or what?
AC: I hear you write love poems?
GL: I write a bit of poetry, mainly funny rhymes, to be honest, but yeah if I write one for Danielle, it might be a bit romantic.
AC: Would you ever publish your poetry?
AC: How are you with Twitter just now? On or off?
GL: On, love it. Spend a fair bit of time on it if I am travelling. That tweet I did about Messi making me realise how shit I was had 30,000 retweets, by far my biggest ever.
AC: People were shocked to know you swear.
GL: Yeah. “Oh my God, Lineker said “shit!” shock.
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