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Gary Lineker: the political footballer

Gary Lineker speaks during a pro-Remain rally rejecting Brexit. Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

He is the breakout star of Brexit, the Jacob Rees-Mogg of Remain… Gary Lineker is loved by some and derided by others. MARTIN SAMUEL assesses his many careers.

Gary Lineker’s new book contains a recipe for asparagus risotto, but it’s not a cookbook. It contains personal anecdotes and stories, too, but nor is it an autobiography. It’s the literary cash-in on a podcast he hosts with broadcaster Danny Baker.

It is well known to listeners that the show is recorded at Lineker’s home, and that he cooks each week for the crew. So now there is an appetite for Lineker’s take on Italian vegetarian staples, as well as his view on Manchester City’s defensive formation, Steve Smith’s batting, Brexit, or anything, really.

There’s a bit of a myth about risotto, too. A lot of home cooks will say it’s hard to master, but it isn’t. It’s comparatively formulaic. It begins with a sofrito base of onion and garlic, maybe celery; there will be a stage in which the main ingredient is added, wine to deglaze the pan, rice, then stock, poured in gradually ladle by ladle; finally butter and Parmesan cheese giving a creamy finish. For asparagus risotto, it is best to cook the stems for longer than the tips, which can be blanched and placed on top. Stems might be blended or broken down for a greener finish. Apologies if you already know this. Most competent cooks do.

And as Lineker is, by all accounts, a competent cook, his recipe will not differ greatly to the above. If it does, it really isn’t asparagus risotto. Nevertheless, this mundane detail goes to make a page in his book. Because people aren’t really interested in asparagus risotto; they’re interested in Gary Lineker’s Asparagus Risotto – much as their attention is captured by Reese Witherspoon’s Fried Chicken or Gwyneth Paltrow’s Butternut Squash Tacos.

Just as he was as a footballer, Lineker is now the consummate performer on his chosen stage. He negotiates his way through modern media and celebrity as expertly as he judged his runs in the shirts of Leicester, Everton, Barcelona, Tottenham or England. Better, in fact, because with age has come a certain understanding of his place in the world and wisdom on how to remain there.

Lineker’s intuition as a footballer was natural. His post-playing career needed more work, but Lineker knows who he is, and what he is about now. Footballers always receive and demand coaching, until the day they retire. Lineker, 59 this month, no longer requires steering by a superior. He is a slyly witty presence in the television studio and on social media, a sometimes outspoken political influencer and one of the most instantly recognisable faces in Britain today. Those who do not remember him as a gifted goalscorer know him as the long-standing presenter of Match of the Day and mischievous huckster for Walkers crisps, where he plays the inverse of his old goody-two-shoes persona. Not that he wears the halo any more, now the world has been introduced to the politicised, sweary, call-it-as-you-see-it Lineker on Twitter.

It began with a humanitarian defence of refugees, at a time when the fashion was for demonisation for political ends. The backlash to this – the Sun abandoned the standard of free speech and called for his dismissal, as did several Conservative MPs – has if anything been emboldening. “Whatever the result, Farage will always be a dick,” he tweeted around the time of the referendum in 2016.

And, no, this is hardly revelatory stuff, either. Farage has failed to win election to parliament on seven occasions personally and his Brexit Party couldn’t take Leave-voting Peterborough even when the incumbent Labour MP turned out to be a crook. He cosies up to Donald Trump and the alt-right and he used overtly racist tropes while campaigning to leave the European Union. The engorged penis of Johnny Wadd, the legendary porn star, was not as much of a dick as Nigel Farage. So it’s not that Lineker is saying much that is new. More that if he thinks Farage is a dick, it carries much greater cachet than, say, half the population agreeing.

It is this Lineker, and his status as the most prominent Remainer in Britain, that affords him such prominence in modern public life. At a time of extremes he is often the most influential embodiment of centrist reason. “I’d like to take it back three years and just eradicate everything,” he told LBC, sorrowfully. “We’ve turned into such a hateful place, it’s so sad.” Amen to that.

Earlier this year he was accosted by an old woman at Euston Station, who pushed him in the back, swearing, and shouting that he would let Isis bride Shamima Begum back in the country. “F**k you. F**king Lineker. You’d have her back, wouldn’t you?” she ranted. Lineker says he was so surprised he didn’t have time to answer properly, before she marched off to a rally in support of Tommy Robinson. Yet it encapsulates his status at the heart of British political life. Lineker is one of those people who have somehow come to own Brexit and the issues around it. And he’s had a very good Brexit. He’s the Jacob Rees-Mogg of Remain. He’s the breakout star. “I get a lot more hate than I’ve ever had in my life,” he told the Daily Mirror, “but I get loads more love, too.”

Lineker has 7.4 million Twitter followers compared to 141,000 for Jo Swinson, leader of the Liberal Democrats, or even 2.1 million for Jeremy Corbyn, so his reach is greater than either of the opposition leaders. Politicians would kill for his influence, which is probably why he gets asked, and frequently, to head up fledgling centrist parties. The nearest he has come is as a prominent supporter of the campaign for a second referendum, People’s Vote. Beyond that, Lineker says, he would hate a life in politics. “It would bore me senseless, shaking people’s hands and holding babies,” he told the Times this year. “I have no interest in that.”

Part of the reason for this – aside from the fact he can make more lucrative use of his time – is it might hold Lineker, personally, up to awkward scrutiny. Not that he’s a bad guy. But politicians, and increasingly those that involve themselves in political affairs, are expected to maintain very high standards. And Lineker has been a footballer, a media personality and spectacularly famous for a very long time. That tends to make a person rather – whisper it – selfish. Lineker’s humanitarianism is sincere – it without doubt trumps any party political line, because he is an admitted swing voter – but, as witnessed first hand, he is also the sort of chap who puts his seat back on airplanes, even when flying short haul from football matches in Europe. And, no, it’s not the crime of the century and plenty of people do it. So what do we learn? That Lineker has led a somewhat privileged life as a professional footballer and television personality, and if preaching became his business, rather than a hobby, he might have a hard time living up to expectations.

And he’s not alone in this. Consider Emma Thompson, whose role as a prominent supporter and voice for Extinction Rebellion went down about as well as her role as a dissident journalist in Imagining Argentina, a film described by Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw as “a cult classic of awfulness”. Thompson flew 5,400 miles from Los Angeles to protest about climate change. Come on; you’d pay good money in the West End for irony as perfect as that. Don’t laugh, though, because she had a very good reason to be in LA. It was her birthday. So there. And it was all of two and a half weeks later when she was spotted boarding another long-haul flight at Heathrow Airport, despite returning to announce “we should fly less”. “If I could fly cleanly, I would,” said Thompson, which rather ignores option B, which is not flying at all.

And if Lineker cops some of the liberal elite backlash, in the press and on social media, it’s because he’s perceived to be, like Thompson, a member of a privileged, distanced, media class that wants to hold others to standards it ignores when it suits. Lineker is also greatly troubled by green issues. This is what he had to say when asked to deliver his cod political manifesto to the Times. “The first thing I’d do is revoke Article 50. And then I think the most important thing on the planet is our planet.” Wise words, mate, as Smashie and Nicey would note. Yet here’s the same man discussing his wealth and lifestyle choices with the Financial Times. “I don’t crave to have billions and buy a yacht or any of that business, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I can have nice things. Money makes life easier. As long as I can eat where I want and have a nice holiday…” So Lineker, like Thompson and many of the highest profile carers for the planet, are green right up until the moment it starts to impact on their choices.

So what was Lineker like as a footballer? Where does he stand among England’s goalscorers? Without doubt, one of the best. Greater than is remembered; better than his achievements show. Lineker is the proof that football is, above all, a results game because his personal record outweighs the successes of the clubs he played for, and of England at that time. Yet because his trophy cabinet is underwhelming, and does not include a major league title – just the FA Cup in England, and the Copa del Rey and European Cup-Winners’ Cup with Barcelona – he is not afforded the same respect as many contemporaries. Tottenham and Everton do not consider him one of their own, unlike Harry Kane and Andy Gray. He missed the golden years at Barcelona, too, which leaves Leicester, his home town and greatest love, the club he still views as pessimistically as any fan – incapable of considering they could win the Premier League title in 2016, which is how he came to present Match of the Day in his underpants. Lineker played the majority of his games – 117 of 216 – for Leicester in the Second Division and was at Filbert Street for seven seasons, before moving to Everton the year after they won the title. There he lasted a single season, yet his scoring record is magnificent: one every 1.36 matches. Gray, whose goals are considered to have powered Everton to the championship in the previous campaign, was good for a goal every 3.09 games. Yet Gray is recalled more fondly, for obvious reasons.

Lineker scored 41 goals in two seasons at Barcelona, before Johan Cruyff moved him to the wing, and even his final season at Tottenham was prolific, with 35 goals in 50 matches, before finishing his career as a trailblazer with Grampus Eight in Japan. For England, he was outstanding. Wayne Rooney broke his scoring record, yet Lineker remains the benchmark for England in tournaments (where Rooney disappointed, beyond the 2004 European Championship). Lineker was top scorer at the 1986 World Cup, and still holds England’s record for goals scored in World Cup finals.

Technically, what set him apart was his reaction to the game, his runs, his timing, his anticipation. He was not a player who scored spectacular goals, or shot from range. If anything, he did not strike the ball as cleanly as contemporaries such as Clive Allen and often appeared to be losing his balance just at the moment the ball was hitting the net. Yet Lineker knew when to go; he had an innate sense of where he had to be in the penalty area and if his skills were not always the best, his instincts made up for that. And he scored goals in torrents, such as his three against Poland in 1986, or his hat-trick for Barcelona against Real Madrid in January 1987.

The footage can be found quite easily and tells the viewer all he needs to know about the man in the number nine shirt. For his first goal, Lineker makes an exquisitely judged run, in front of his marker, to convert a cross from Victor Muñoz, without the need for a second touch. The next goal, he is in the right place again at the far post, to pick up the rebound from a Carrasco shot. The third comes when he gambles, instinctively, that Madrid’s central defence will not get to a long clearance by Barcelona goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta. Lineker makes his run – much as Luis Suárez did to score the winner for Uruguay against England at the 2014 World Cup – controls the ball cleanly and finishes bravely. There is nothing spectacular in this performance, nothing that would make the highlights reel for, say, a more artistic player from the same time like, say, Matt Le Tissier. Yet in every scene the native intelligence of a born matchwinner is visible. Barcelona win 3-2. It shows precisely, and succinctly, what Lineker brought to his teams.

And he was a smart player. Never booked, never sent off, but always aware of his surroundings. When Paul Gascoigne had his breakdown during the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup, it was Lineker who noticed first and brought it to the attention of Bobby Robson, the England manager. Gascoigne collected a second yellow card, meaning he would miss the World Cup final if England got there. Emotionally fragile even then, he couldn’t handle this possibility. His features crumble, tears begin to flow. Any one of his team-mates could have noticed this. Yet it fell to Lineker to signal the crisis to Robson. His gestures – recognisable as “keep an eye on him” – became one of the defining images of a match England would eventually lose.

Lineker was famously unenthusiastic about training – preferring a soak in a lukewarm bath and a little running – hiding behind the excuse that he did not want to use up his luck as a scorer, banging in goals cheaply for fun in practice. More likely, he was self-conscious about his scruffy Gerd Müller-like finishing. Terry Venables believed Lineker thought it would tarnish his mystique as the focal point of play if his team-mates saw his limitations striking the ball. When a goal is scored during a game, technique is immaterial. Who cares how it happens? Everyone celebrates the scorer, few consider the method. Yet, in training, everyone is watching, and taking mental notes. Maybe Lineker didn’t want it getting around that he had a weakness. Yet he wasn’t lazy, and he was always alert to the play. And despite the angelic reputation and an unblemished disciplinary record, he was very capable of being one of the chaps.

Tottenham’s dressing-room, in particular, was spiteful in its verbal exchanges and pranks, to the extent that Venables, the manager, was frequently appalled. “Nothing is off-limits,” he would say, frowning. “Wives, girlfriends, it’s horrible.” Paul Gascoigne was very conscious of his teeth and underwent a process of improvement. The players, a wicked clique that Lineker was around but not part of, then teased him mercilessly – and without foundation – that they were turning green. On another occasion, there was a dare – accepted, by the way – to eat the toilet soap at the bottom of a public urinal. Tottenham, like most clubs, had a gofer who hung around the training ground running errands for players. These sad souls, who usually just want to be part of their favourite club, with the reflected glory of knowing famous names, are often treated abominably. The chap at Leeds in the Don Revie era had a glass eye, which the players used to persuade him to take out, and then hide. A coach driver at Liverpool was paid many times his salary – but nothing to the players – to drink a glass of fresh urine for the amusement of the team.

Venables admired the way Lineker and his then wife Michelle had immersed themselves in Catalan life, enjoying the culture, learning the language. Ian Rush moved to Juventus, failed to settle and famously described Italy as “like a foreign country” in an interview bemoaning the scarcity of baked beans in Turin. But Lineker was an enlightened soul, even then. He did not share the stereotypical insularity of British travellers in the 1980s. Venables – who was savvy enough to speak in Catalan, not Spanish, during his first public appearance at Nou Camp as Barcelona manager – was a kindred spirit in that sense, and the professional admiration was mutual. Lineker said that after he left Leicester, Venables was the only coach who taught him anything about goalscoring that he didn’t know already. And this man worked with Johan Cruyff.

In broadcasting, Lineker was a quick learner, too. And from the best. At the BBC, he succeeded Des Lynam, a studio anchor so comfortable in his relationship with his audience that he opened the broadcast of the first match of England’s 1998 World Cup campaign by looking directly into the camera as if peering personally into every home in the country. It was early Monday afternoon. Lynam didn’t even bother with hello. “Shouldn’t you be at work?” he asked, sardonically. It is the sort of quip one might imagine Lineker making now. Knowing, and witty, but with enough edge to be memorable. At the 1990 World Cup, Lineker’s England team-mates were already mocking him as “Junior Des”, because of his interest in the way journalism worked. He wrote his own columns, initially, for the Sunday Telegraph and is still proud that not much needed to be changed. One of the reasons he gives for never writing a proper autobiography is he wants the time to do the job himself.

Yet broadcast media was the best fit for Lineker’s talents, even if his first forays on to Match of the Day were unconvincing – ironically, the criticism was that his opinions were rather bland. Making the Match of the Day job his own, given whom he succeeded, is a feat comparable to succeeding adequately Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, which, so far, no manager has been able to do. We were discussing the Ferguson succession when I rather clumsily forgot his own circumstances. “You don’t want to be the guy who follows Ferguson,” I remarked. “You want to be the guy who follows the guy who follows Ferguson.” “Yes, I must remember that,” he replied, with a mocking eye roll. He hadn’t long started his shift holding Match of the Day together but was already looking more at home in the role than David Moyes ever appeared at Manchester United. “I used to ask a lot of questions about the things Des did,” Lineker recalled, “and picked up some of his nuances.”

He certainly picked up Lynam’s lightness of touch, which has allowed him to tiptoe through some heavily laid minefields, not least the row over his salary. When the BBC became obliged to document how much their star performers earned, Lineker turned out once again to be the centre-forward. He was the second highest, on £1.8 million annually. Despite the fact that, undoubtedly, he could be paid even more to perform a similar role for Sky – his defence has always been that this is the “market rate” for his job – this was very easily juxtaposed with his status as bleeding-heart liberal and conscience of a nation. Against a backdrop of controversy over gender inequalities on pay, controversy on the use of national funds to finance extravagant salaries, for Mr Liberal Luvvie Elite Remainer to be top of the tree was a tap into an empty net for right-wing commentators.

But, deftly, Lineker dealt with the matter head on. “This whole BBC salary exposure business is an absolute outrage,” he tweeted. “I mean, how can Chris Evans be on more than me?” And in one fell, 140-character swoop Lineker was free. He had acknowledged the issue, poked fun at himself, put someone else in the frame and disarmed the angry mob. And when, this September, Lineker offered to take a cut on what was by then the BBC’s highest salary – Evans having left – somehow that news leaked into the media. It was as beautifully played as the rest of Lineker’s media career. He doesn’t really need the BBC’s money. He has so many other avenues – Walkers crisps, BT Sport, podcasts, TM Lewin shirts – he can afford to be the good guy. Others have done it, too, but once again – he’s Gary Lineker. This means more.

Lineker is the son of Barry, a market trader, a greengrocer, a hard worker. Lots of early mornings, lots of standing out in all weathers. It is a life that tends to promote conservatism: The value of graft, the importance of earned wealth. So it is easy to imagine the political background from which Lineker originated. His middle name is Winston. Lineker admitted that before Barry passed away – they had one of those awkward father-son relationships in which love was felt, but unspoken, until it was far too late – he could never bring himself to ask how his dad voted in the EU referendum, mainly because he was scared of the answer. Yet it is still there, in glimpses: Lineker’s political upbringing.

Yet that is part of his balancing act. He may not be the voice of the people on Brexit, but he is not so distanced from what is said in pubs on most matters. The reason A Hard Day’s Night works as a film, and Give My Regards to Broad Street doesn’t, is because The Beatles felt like a gang you could be part of, while Paul and Linda McCartney and their celebrity friends were beyond ordinary imagination and experience. Lineker, on Match of the Day, contrives to make jokes with heroes of the English game, such as Alan Shearer and Ian Wright, without ever giving the impression you would be excluded if bumping into them in the street. He presented Match of the Day in his boxers because, like all fans, he was pessimistic about his team’s chances of success, and made a foolish promise around Leicester winning the league. Yet even standing half-naked in front of the cameras he pulled it off: his body toned enough in middle age to be more triumph than humiliation, the act adding to his reputation as a good sport.

So Lineker is worth it. He holds Match of the Day together, dressed or undressed, effortlessly these days and, if anything, his social media persona adds to the profile of every programme, or event, he touches. Come for ‘Farage is a dick’, stay for ‘what time Manchester United are on’; or vice versa. Stay for pithy observations on football, or cricket. Stay if you want to know the make of shirt he is wearing. It’s whatever works, really; a superlative performance in the arena of modern media, skilfully judged and all his own doing.

And it is important that Lineker is the author, the designer, of his own profile, because so many are not. In February 2018, a footballer for Manchester United, Jesse Lingard, received a tweet from an independent promotional group called I Love Manchester, an organisation that publicises life and events in the city. The message asked when Lingard and his team-mate Marcus Rashford were coming into the office for a few games of FIFA, the football computer game. Lingard replied: “Your not ready for me.”

The problem subsequently was more than just grammatical. Lingard was, at the time, attending a memorial service at Old Trafford for the victims of the Munich air disaster. Condemnation was fierce and immediate. And then a hasty follow-up message appeared. “A member of my media team inadvertently replied to a tweet this afternoon on my Twitter profile during the Munich memorial service at Old Trafford. I was unaware as I was attending the service at the time, and don’t condone the post or the timing in anyway,” Lingard wrote.

In this climate, it is significant that Lineker’s thoughts are authentic, his views or his mis-steps his own. This is not managed. Like it or not, this is him, unplugged. So when, in May, Lineker’s podcast partner Danny Baker became a figure of public opprobrium, all eyes turned to Lineker for his reaction. Baker marked the birth of Archie, son of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, with a photograph of two toffs beside a small chimpanzee wearing a bowler hat, suit, overcoat and carrying a cane. “Royal baby arrives,” read the caption. The Duchess’s family is black. The BBC sacked him immediately; yet still we waited for Lineker’s reaction. He said, nothing. No condemnation, but no message of support either.

And then, when the storm had subsided, and Baker was beginning to work again, and there was less heat and more understanding, and slightly more than six weeks had elapsed, it was leaked, through an “insider”, that Baker and Lineker would work together again. “Gary has decided to stand by his pal,” an unnamed source told the tabloids. And he did, sort of. But he was also mindful to test the water first. And by the time Lineker finally spoke about Baker it was September. The tweet was sent in May. The reason Lineker controls his own output is that, at 58, he knows as much about media management, crisis management, and the point on the Venn diagram where they meet as any adviser. When he recently received an overture from a rival broadcaster, he was confident enough to entertain the emissary at home, without the presence of agents or strategists. Even those born into the world of entertainment are rarely that bold.

Inescapably, this is a man ageing well, a man confident enough to engage enthusiastically with celebrity and popularity wars that have destroyed lesser intellects. Lineker recalls that at his first school, Caldecote Juniors, he was caned for being cheeky, but it is precisely this attribute that wins him so many admirers now. That, and a perceived enlightenment. Beyond having a good Brexit, Lineker is having an outstanding second act in life. “It’s been a bit like my football,” he has said of his various inspired choices. “I’ve made my runs into space at the right time.”

– This story was first published by Tortoise. Copyright Tortoise 2019. To read more slow journalism from Tortoise, become a member for £50 instead of £250 at and use the code “TNE50”. Or, get 13 weeks of The New European and one year’s Tortoise membership, all for just £25.

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