Gary Lineker: I almost joined Manchester United – but then Spurs pulled it off

Would he have tried the Hand of God? Why didn’t he sign for Fergie? Is Shearer really as good as G-Nev? And is he fed up  of talking about his on-pitch ‘evacuation’? James Maw asks all...

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There are few mugs more recognisable to the people of England – football fans or otherwise – than that of Gary Lineker. Scoring a near-record 48 goals for his country, presenting Match of the Day for 16 years and appearing in more quirky advertisements than the PG Tips chimps has made Lineker one of the most famous men in the country.


“The massive change for me was after Mexico 86,” Lineker tells FourFourTwo. “Before then, although I’d done well at Leicester and had a great season at Everton, I could still just about go about my business. But after that first World Cup, I couldn’t go anywhere without being jumped upon – it was a different world.”

No wonder. Six goals that summer won Lineker the Golden Boot and earned him 
a move to Barcelona. “Obviously it’s not quite the same now,” he says, settling down for our chat, “although being on TV every week means you get recognised by a new generation.”

There’s a lot for us to get through, then…

I read that one of your schoolteachers said you “wouldn’t make a career from football”. What do you think you would have done had he or she been proved right?
Earl Stewart, Chesterfield
It’s true, I think it may have been my chemistry teacher who said it. I was particularly useless at chemistry – I just couldn’t get my head around it. If I hadn’t made it as a footballer, I would have at least tried to become a cricketer. If I’d failed there too, I think I would have had a bash at journalism, which I suppose is ultimately where I’ve wound up anyway. I’m not sure I would have been given quite the same opportunities without the football, though.

Leicester forged a strong partnership with Alan Smith at Leicester

I wasn’t an instant superstar like Michael Owen or Wayne Rooney – I was 21 or 22 before I was a regular in the Leicester team

How tough was it to break into the Leicester team at first? Was it intimidating to have a lot of competition up front?
Patrick Russell, via Facebook
It’s always tough when you break through as a youngster. I first got my chance playing out of position on the wing. I probably played my first 30 games out there, basically because I was pretty quick. I wasn’t an instant superstar like Michael Owen or Wayne Rooney – I was 21 or 22 before I was a regular in the Leicester team, and didn’t play for England until I was 24. Mine was a more gradual rise, but I think that helped me. It’s easier to cope with the change of becoming famous if that happens over time rather than just overnight.

Do you feel you have to hide your affection for Leicester a bit now you’re the ‘neutral’ host of Match of the Day?
Linda Martin, via Facebook
No, not at all. We’re not dealing with the world of politics here; we don’t have any need to hide our allegiances. I don’t think people expect us to, either. Obviously you’ve got to be sensible with it – I can’t push Leicester to first on Match of the Day every week! Most people are critical of their own team because they care so much, but if they see somebody else being critical, they get very defensive. It’s almost like family: you can slag your brother off to kingdom come, but if somebody else has a pop, you’ll defend him. If you believed everything you read on Twitter, you’d think we were biased against every club. I’ve even had people accusing me of being biased against Leicester. I’m not sure what they’ve been watching! 

The local lad started scoring prolifically when the Foxes dropped to the Second Division in 1982

We were very unlucky not to win the title in the season I was at Everton, and I think if I’d stayed we would still have won it in 1987

You scored 30 goals in one year at Everton, yet they won the title either side of your season there. Is there a danger that sides can be over-reliant on one goalscorer?
Ryan Francis, via email
No, I don’t think so. We were very unlucky not to win the title in the season I was at Everton (1985/86), and I think if I’d stayed we would still have won it in 1987. Every team needs a goalscorer – it dramatically enhances your chances if you have someone who can score 30 goals in a season. That Everton team was unquestionably the best club side I played in. We could easily have done the Double in 1986 – we finished second in the league, then lost the FA Cup final. If I’d ended up staying there for three or four years rather than just the one, I’m sure I would have won lots of trophies.

Would you have stayed at Goodison longer had it not been for the European ban?
Oyvind Fiska, via Twitter
Maybe. Everton would perhaps have been in a better position to keep me. It was very much Howard [Kendall]’s decision to take the money. When your club tells you they’ve accepted a bid, you take that as a sign that you’re not wanted. The opportunity to join a club like Barcelona comes along once in a lifetime, so I had to take it. It was a shame, because in an ideal world I’d be able to say: “Give me another couple of years at Everton, let me win a few things, and then I’ll go.”

Trophies and shorts. Short shorts

Any regrets that the prevailing fashion in your pomp was very short shorts? Looking back at footage of you in your prime is quite revealing...
Tina, Bolton
They certainly were short in those days! It’s not something that keeps me awake at night. Looking back now is a bit embarrassing, but they’re only legs – we all have them!

Maradona’s improvisational skills were something to be admired, I suppose. It’s not something that would enter my head

Had the opportunity arisen, would you have performed Diego Maradona’s Hand of God at the other end of the pitch?
Tim B, Croydon
His improvisational skills were something to be admired, I suppose. It’s not something that would enter my head, which is a sign of the difference in football culture between the continents in that era. Over there it was seen as clever; here it’d be seen as cheating. It’s a different mindset, not something I was ever tempted to do. Now, the cultures have merged. I don’t think you can say the foreign players dive more than British players, for example. That’s what kids have grown up watching.

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Is the Golden Boot right- or left-footed?
‘Funky’, via Twitter
Good question. [Pauses] You know, I think it might be a straight boot – so not really a left or right boot. That’s the first thing I’ll check when I get home. It’s my most treasured piece of memorabilia. It changed my life, really.

Thumping home a hat-trick against Poland at Mexico 86

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I got a third just after half-time, then Madrid quickly got two back and suddenly I was terrified my moment would be overshadowed by their comeback. Fortunately, we held on

Who were the best players you played with at Barcelona? Was your Clasico 
hat-trick the highlight of your time there?
Jordi Escales, Barcelona
It was a transitional phase for the club. I arrived a year after Terry Venables’ team had won the club’s first title in over a decade, and left before Johan Cruyff had put together his ‘dream team’. The club had just lost the European Cup final on penalties to Steaua Bucharest, and while I was there Bernd Schuster left and Juan Carlos Rojo got a really bad knee injury that pretty much ended his career. Andoni Zubizarreta, Migueli, Julio Alberto, our captain Jose Ramon Alexanko, Jose Mari Bakero and Txiki Begiristain were all very talented, but not quite on the level of recent Barcelona sides. The hat-trick (in January 1987) was one of the great nights of my career.

It was the first Clasico I played in the Nou Camp, there were 120,000 people there and pretty much every one of them was a Barcelona fan. I scored twice in the first five minutes and the noise gave me goosebumps. I got a third just after half-time, then Madrid quickly got two back and suddenly I was terrified my moment would be overshadowed by their comeback. Fortunately, we held on.

You were a prolific scorer throughout your career, but if you’d played in Spain now, do you think you’d have been anywhere near Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo?
Stuart Thomas, Isle of Wight
No way [laughs]. They’re on a different level to anything else I’ve seen in terms of goalscoring. My record would be better if I was playing now – the rules have changed in ways that benefit attacking players, and the pitches are better too – but to do what those two do is ridiculous. 

Tell us something about El Tel in Barcelona…
Gary Dickinson, Blackburn
Terry Venables’ Spanish was very good. His vocabulary was broad, but grammatically he wasn’t great – a bit like his English [laughs]. He mainly spoke Spanish around the players, but every now and then he’d speak a bit of English and some of the other players picked up the odd phrase. During my time in Spain, England played a friendly away in Madrid. I was playing against half of my team-mates, including the goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta. I scored four, we won 4-2 and after the match Zubizarreta came into the dressing room and cried in this thick cockney accent: “F**kin’ell Gary!” Terry had clearly rubbed off on him.

Hughes and Lineker joined Barça in the same summer

Instead of coming over

How surprised were you the first time Johan Cruyff put you on the right wing? Would it be fair to say you didn’t always see eye-to-eye?
Joe Sprightly, via email
Very fair! In those days clubs were only allowed two foreign players and it was quite clear from an early stage that Cruyff wanted his own foreign players. That’s understandable, but instead of coming over to me and saying, “I want my own people; maybe we can get you a move that works for everyone”, he messed me about. While he clearly should’ve played me up front, because his system was made for a striker like me, he stuck me out on the right wing.

He did it to piss me off in the hope I’d go squealing to the press, but I wasn’t that daft. I understood what he was doing. I knew his game, so I did the professional thing and got on with it. I buggered up my goal ratio that season! He was a great coach. It was fabulous to be involved in his training sessions – he had such innovative ideas. He was a pundit for the BBC at Euro 2000 and we were fine. It’s certainly not something that still bothers me.

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Lineker spent three seasons at the Camp Nou

Is it true Fergie tried to reunite you with Mark Hughes at Manchester United before you moved to Tottenham? 
Graham Whelton, via Twitter
I was quite open-minded about my next move. It looked like I was going to Fiorentina for a while, but then Sven-Goran Eriksson left and so did Roberto Baggio, so that option went away. Then Terry Venables came along and did a deal with Barcelona very quickly. Right at the 11th hour it suddenly appeared that Spurs might not be able to do the deal, financially. That’s when my agent spoke with Alex Ferguson, who was keen to take me to Old Trafford. It was close to being done, but then Tottenham came back and said they could do it. You have to remember that the Manchester United of 1989 weren’t the Manchester United of four or five years later. 

Does it annoy you a bit that your two goals against Arsenal at Wembley in 1991 seem to be largely forgotten, with everybody still going on about Gazza’s free-kick?
Ben King, via email
Not at all – Gazza’s free-kick was unbelievable! [laughs] We all still remember that game and I’m sure all the Spurs fans do, too, as one of their fondest memories. My goals weren’t often memorable, but there were a few of them, so it’s all right.

Is it true you were suffering from hepatitis during Euro 88? How did this affect you? 
Keith Butler, Darlington
It was certainly the main reason I struggled! I went into the tournament feeling a bit weary; I played the first game against Ireland and was nowhere near sharp. In the second game against the Netherlands I felt lethargic again, then after the game I sat down and just couldn’t get up. We only had a couple of days before the third match against the Soviet Union, and in training the day before, I could barely lift my legs. We were already out of the tournament and I know Don Howe and Bobby Robson thought I was just trying to get out of the game – they all but said as much. I played against the Soviet Union and came off after about an hour. I’d never played in a game where I was so certain I shouldn’t be on the pitch. I was in a dreadful state. The next morning at the hotel I picked up one of the English papers and saw Bobby Robson having a pop at the players ‘not wanting to play’. I threw the paper at him! I went to hospital as soon as I got back home and ended up staying there for two weeks. I lost a stone-and-a-half. About three days in, Bobby Robson came to visit me and apologise. That was the measure of the man. 

Expectations for England were pretty low before Italia 90. Why was it that the team defied the odds and did so well? 
Doug, via Twitter
We’d played some good stuff going into the tournament, but I suppose expectations were still low because of what happened in ’88. There’s always been this belief that it was player power that led to us changing the system [after the opening game against Ireland] but it was Bobby who came to us  and said that he thought playing three at the back against the Netherlands would suit us. It gave us that little bit more flexibility and made us a little more difficult to play against. In the next game [against Egypt] we went back to 4-4-2 and weren’t that great, so we switched it again for the knockout stage. Bobby was good at taking those big decisions when other managers perhaps wouldn’t.

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Which World Cup did you prefer: ’86 or ’90?
Amy Foster, Kent 
It’s hard to say. Mexico 86 changed my life, and I was in better shape – I crushed my toe at Italia 90 and was playing in a lot of pain. That said, I really enjoyed playing in the ’90 team. It was a better team. I think it was the best England side since 1966, and results show that – we were the only England team to reach a World Cup semi-final outside these shores.

Is it true Blackburn’s Jack Walker wanted to sign you before you left Spurs for Japan? Would Shearer and Lineker have been a better partnership than Shearer and Sutton?
Matty Cobb, Lancashire
It’s true, although my agent actually phoned me and said: “I think this is some kind of publicity stunt.” Obviously, 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. 

We're not sure either

Looking back, do you think going to Japan at 32 was the right thing for your career?
Chris Clark, via Twitter
I agreed to sign for Nagoya Grampus Eight about a year before I actually moved. During the interim period I had another half-season playing for Spurs, and in that time I injured my foot pretty badly. I struggled from that point. I only played about 15 games in those two years in Japan because of my foot, and it wouldn’t have been much different had I stayed over here. So, in hindsight, it was definitely the right thing to do. 

You famously went your whole career without being booked. Do you think you would have managed that in the modern era?
Leigh, Devon
No, that will never be done again. These days you see players genuinely fall over and get booked for it, so I imagine I’d suffer from that – I was a little clumsy. And, limited though my tackling was, I would occasionally foul someone. I don’t think I would’ve gotten away with them all. The real miracle was surviving three years in Spain, where I once nearly got booked for laughing at a referee.

Why did you chip that penalty against Brazil with the England scoring record at stake?
Adam Pritchard, via Twitter
The same reason I chipped five or six others: you’ve got to vary them, because people monitor how you take penalties. Every other time I’d done it, I’d scored. I had done a bit of research and noticed their keeper always went down early, so I thought it was perfect for a little dink. I used to practise penalties in the week before a match, so I’d been hitting 30 or 40 of them a day on a crappy surface at Bisham Abbey. Then when it came to taking one at Wembley, the surface was lush and I hit it a bit fat. It was very embarrassing. The annoying thing was that the keeper actually did go down early, but my penalty was so pathetic it still went straight to him. Obviously I knew what scoring it would mean, but I didn’t think at that stage that it would be my last chance to equal the record.

How long did it take you to forgive Graham Taylor for substituting you against Sweden at Euro 92? Assuming you ever have…
Diana Cooper, via email
I never really held it against him. He probably did me a favour by making me a martyr. We were a pretty crappy team, probably England’s worst of recent times. We were poor in that game and weren’t creating chances; if he’d left me on I’d have been pilloried with the rest of them after the tournament. Instead, because he took me off, it was turned against him instead. 

Did it piss you off that Rory McGrath was clearly cheating on They Think It’s All Over?
Alex, Chichester
No, of course not – I was his team captain! Not that he was cheating, of course. It was just that the autocue girl was very friendly with him. [Lineker chuckles; FFT moves swiftly on]

Has Gary Neville raised the bar for football punditry? Which other current pundits do you rate?
Calvin, via Twitter
Gary is obviously one of the best, but Alan Shearer is improving a lot. Since he decided he wasn’t going to be a manager, he’s been really throwing himself into it. Back when he thought he might go into management, I think he felt he needed to be a little bit careful about what he was saying and about who.

Gary might find himself in a similar situation; it may be difficult to be both pundit and coach forever, because it sets you up for some difficult decisions. Ultimately he might be a really good manager, but if I were him I’d stick with what he does, as he does it brilliantly.

Which current players do you see as being the MOTD pundits of the future?
Daniel Herlihy, via Facebook
It’s hard to know. Nowadays, you don’t have to be a massive name to make it – guys like Kevin Kilbane and Robbie Savage have shown that. That said, Frank Lampard is obviously a very intelligent guy and is very well respected, so he could be a potential candidate in the future if that’s the path he wants to take.

Lineker's penultimate England appearance against France at Euro 92

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You’re regularly reminded on Twitter of an occasion you ‘evacuated yourself’ on the pitch. Presumably it’s irritating by now?
Jamie, Rochdale
It was funny for a couple of weeks, then it gradually wore thin. Anybody who makes the same joke 2,000 times must lack any kind of intelligence or wit. It’s happened to plenty of other players, just not on as big a stage as the World Cup, perhaps. I don’t really know why it’s such a big thing now. I went over 20 years with people hardly mentioning it. 

Gary is an ambassador for, where sports fans and personalities can meet and react to breaking sports news as it happens

This interview originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of FourFourTwo magazine.

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