Being Gary Lineker: The clean-cut anchorman is this summer's Mr Sport
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 26 May 2012
A cold wind blows across the concrete desert of the new BBC TV centre that taxi drivers know as MediaCityUK. On the edge of the Salford Docks, the Corporation has leased three big adjacent buildings – Bridge House, Dock House and Quay House – whose reflective skin of glass, chrome and steel reflect the chilly sunlight with a hard glitter.
On the first floor of Quay House, new home to BBC Sport, 20-odd journalists from the national press and media are gathered in a long, low-ceilinged, strip-lit meeting room the length of a football pitch, to hear the BBC line-up for Euro2012.
They are Britain's ace sports correspondents, a breed apart, like keyholders in a secret society. They know everything about the beautiful game: every strength and shortcoming of every player, every multi-million transfer, every goal and offside infringement, every dive, duck and display of temper. They look like hard men in their shapeless coats and impassive expressions, but they soften visibly when meeting the titans of sport broadcasting: there's Alan Hansen the scar-browed Glaswegian, Alan Shearer the tight-lipped Geordie, Gabby Logan the former gymnast and 18-carat blonde dreamboat, there's Martin Keown the broodingly simian Arsenal veteran. And in the midst of these footie princelings, smiling modestly in welcome, is the king: Gary Lineker.
At 51, Lineker is unbothered by the ravages of time. For a man with apparently inexhaustible, year-round access to a brand of potato crisps, he looks fit and lean. His face is tanned, his hair pepper-and-salt with hints of silver fox and brown sauce. His suit is a formal, charcoal two-piece, well cut. He moves with the urgency of one accustomed to having his time wasted by fans, wannabes, hangers-on. He's one of the nation's most famous telly faces, having fronted Match of the Day for over a decade. And this summer, you'll be seeing that face all over the shop. Not only is he fronting the Euro2012 matches, he's also in charge of Olympics coverage, with Sue Barker and Clare Balding. For most of June and the first half of August, Gary Lineker will be ubiquitous.
He's more than just a broadcaster, of course, he's a national sporting hero: 80 appearances for England, in which he scored 48 goals, more than anyone has ever scored, apart from Bobby Charlton. In his first World Cup, he scored a hat-trick against Poland, whacked in two against Paraguay and won the high-prestige World Cup Golden Boot. To small boys and grizzled terrace fans he was, for seven years, the "fox in the box", the nippy, opportunistic, darting terrier of a striker who seemed to live in the penalty area and goalmouth and was, as one pundit termed it, "lethal from six inches".
But he's not just a sporting hero, either: he's a moral exemplar; the footballer who was never in trouble, never performed a crunch-tackle or took a dive, was never shown a yellow card, let alone a red one. His career ended in 1994 with a leg injury – but never a whiff of disgrace. He's a gentleman, everyone said, a credit to the game, a thoroughly decent good egg...
Which is why, presumably, so many viewers, bloggers, tweeters and gossips love to speculate about Gary's dark side. Nature abhors not just a vacuum but an unstained reputation, an unblotted escutcheon. Ask about Gary Lineker and you encounter a fusillade of winks, hints and nudges that he's not really as nice as he comes across. The splenetic footballer Joey Barton, captain of Queens Park Rangers, recently tweeted to Lineker that he knew all about the latter's "vast cupboard of skeletons", but lots of people with no professional connection to Lineker will assure you he's a tireless swordsman of the boudoir, that his tan is fake, his hair dyed, his accent the result of elocution lessons (but then shouldn't he sound slightly less regional?) and his temper secretly volcanic. None of it seems to bear much scrutiny.
Meeting him, therefore, you're prepared for anything. What I wasn't prepared for was The Dazzle. It goes like this. You and Gary settle on a banquette, side by side. His minder, a capable-looking dame with black bobbed hair, sits nearby, ready to steer the conversation away from anything controversial, boring or in need of clarification. You adjust your recording devices, gather the sheaf of questions in your hands and look up...
And there is Gary Lineker's face before you in full dazzle mode. His features are set to Handsome, his grin is crinkly, his big hazel eyes are gazing at you with an inexplicable melting fondness, as though a TV director has shouted "Dazzle!" – just as Shirley Temple's mother used to shout "Sparkle, Shirley, sparkle!" seconds before the cameras rolled. Just as the girls in Stringfellows are (I'm told) rehearsed to present a face of full-on, wide-eyed, sexy animation to nervous punters shortly before getting their kit off.
"Are you concerned," I quaver, "about the political situation in the Ukraine?" (It sounded precisely the sort of question a nervous punter in Stringfellows might ask.) "I mean, are you worried by the bombs in the streets and Yulia Tymoshenko's hunger strike and, er..." Gary's encouraging smile freezes as if he's been tricked into giving an interview to Incomprehensible Politics Monthly. "Heads of state are threatening to boycott Euro2012," I squawk. "Is there a danger England might have to pull out? Do you know what's happening in the Ukraine?"
"Not much, no," says Lineker, coolly. "Probably about as much as you." And then he's away: "Of course, the political situation out there is worrying. It's something that should concern us all. Obviously it's something we have to monitor. There's always circumstances in which you might have to pull out, but we're nowhere near there yet. And it will be up to Uefa to decide. If the worst comes to the worst, they might decide to play all the Euro2012 matches in Poland."
This is the default Lineker style of discourse – cautious, judicious, balanced, anxious not to risk any direct assertions that might land him in controversy. His commitment to keeping the conversation sweet is admirable if a little, you know, anodyne.
As anchor for the Euro2012 coverage, he'll be staying in Salford, while Gabby Logan hangs out in the England camp and samples the crazy nightlife of Donetsk. "Though it depends how well England do," says Gary. "Obviously we'll go out there if England do well. [Pause.] So we'll probably be staying right here."
We all laugh. Is he a pessimist? "No, I'm an eternal optimist, but I'm sick of optimism so I'm going to sample pessimism for once."
You seem, I say, to have been entertaining negative feelings about England's chances for some time. What was that you said a month ago about the "dearth of quality" in the England squad, what with Rooney not being available for the matches against France and Ukraine, and how we don't have "the individual talent to see off" the top names in European football? Lineker moves smoothly into damage-limitation mode.
"I'm going to have to word that so it's exactly correct. I said we've got a little bit of a dearth of quality in terms of players at their prime at world-class level. We've got some really good talent coming through, for whom this tournament might be a little early. And we've got the so-called Golden Generation, who are just past their very best – with the exception of Rooney and perhaps Joe Hart. Our mid-fielders – Lampard, Parker, Barry, Scholes – are all over 30. It's f not necessarily a bad thing, so long as they can play every three or four days, but then it becomes an issue. So that's what I meant by that."
Whew. That was some clarification. But you can't really envy Gary the task that lies before him, of being chief consoler as England fans watch their heroes crash out at the quarter-finals – or worse. Is he dreading England going out at the group stage and all the viewers switching off? "But they don't switch off," says Lineker with a sudden flash of pride. "The figures for football, for European and World Cups, are incredible. The last World Cup brought one of the biggest audience figures of the year. If England gets to the quarters or semi-final, it'll be the biggest TV audience of the year. We're used to them not doing well in this tournament, but we just soldier on regardless. And we'll still get big numbers because people still love big-time football."
And yes, he says, there will be a team in the editing suite putting together a montage of the England team's goals, near-misses and head-in-hands moments, to be played when all hope is lost, soundtracked by a suitably lachrymose pop song: "Dry Yer Eyes, Mate", "Stop Crying Your Heart Out", "Good Riddance". Once, I pointed out, Des Lynam recited Kipling's If, with its stirring lines about "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two impostors just the same...".
"Yeah, that was Des," says Gary. "I can promise I won't be reading any poetry, in the event of an England defeat or victory. I don't have the voice."
He'll be welcoming Harry Redknapp back to the BBC Sport sofa. The Tottenham manager, and popular choice to succeed Fabio Capello as England boss, was part of the commentary for the 2010 World Cup. What were his strengths as a pundit? "He brings a lot of experience of football and a great knowledge of the game," says Lineker guardedly, "plus some humour, as he did in South Africa. He's got charm and he's entertaining. And he says what he thinks." His eyes twinkle. "I'm not sure he'll say what he really thinks about not getting the England job – but I'll try and make him."
The job went, as everyone knows, to Roy Hodgson. Given the sorry record of managers over the past decade, when was the last time England had a successful manager? "It depends how you quantify success," he says. "Terry Venables did a terrific job in '96 – they were within a whisker of getting to the final, where they'd probably have won. Likewise, Bobby Robson in '90, the best performance ever by an England team outside our own shores. If it's got to be the big trophy or nothing, it's got to be Alf Ramsey, because we've not won the World Cup since 1966 – but I think I'd choose Terry."
What, I ask, is the crucial quality a manager should have? Lineker didn't waste time mulling it over. "To win," he says. "Win: you're great. Lose: you're useless. There really is no middle ground."
Had it been a surprise when the producers said, "Come and be in charge of Olympics coverage as well"? His nostrils flare, in another little flash of pride. "No, I'd known for a while that I'd been lined up to do the prime-time slot. I've been doing the main role in Sports Personality... along with Sue [Barker] for years, so I was hoping to get some part of it. I'm thrilled to be offered the main gig. It brings f a bit of pressure but it's really exciting – it's going to be such a massive event."
Will he write his own scripts? "I always write my own scripts," he says firmly. "I'm guilty. I can only apologise." But isn't it rather out of his comfort zone? "No it's not," says Lineker shortly. "It's sport. I'm a sportoholic."
But Gary, I say, how will you be able to discuss what is gold-medal or silver-medal standard about the synchronised swimming? Or the archery, or the fencing or dressage?
"We'll have experts to do that."
But you're the anchor...
"Yes, I'm the anchor, and I need to know a degree of what's going on, but I don't need detailed knowledge. I'm not there as an analyst. I've got a lot of research to do about the history of various sports and who's good in them – I need to know enough to ask the right questions."
Hand on heart, Gary, have you ever heard people in a pub discussing gymnastics or athletics?
"Discussing people like Usain Bolt? Are you kidding?"
I meant more the discus and the prancing about on parallel bars...
"For those two weeks I think we will. We may never talk about fencing or archery or wrestling – but we do for those 16 days, when they suddenly become important, because we have someone contending for a gold medal and it'll suddenly matter for a few moments."
He was born Gary Winston Lineker on 30 November (Churchill's birthday) 1960. The Lineker home was, he says shortly, "a semi". His father, Barry, was a greengrocer who sold fruit in Leicester market. "He worked hard," says Lineker, "up at 3 or 4am, worked all day, home at six, worked at his bookwork all night, then fell asleep." How did he entertain himself? "There wasn't much TV when I was young. My main childhood memory is of playing football in the garden with my brother [Wayne, two years his junior]."
Who was his sporting hero when he was nine or 10? "I was a big Leicester fan, so it was Peter Shilton, who was in goal." Hadn't they both played together for England in the 1986 Maradona World Cup? "That's right. And when I retired, he was still going strong." Did he remember the 1966 World Cup victory? "I've no recollection of it – I was only five. But I remember 1970. I remember crying when West Germany came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2."
When did people first spot that he was a brilliant finisher? "I always scored goals, from as early as I can remember. A newspaper cutting somewhere says I scored 161 in 40 games one season. Eat your heart out, Messi! I was 12 at the time. But I was always quick. I could sprint through and score." He smiled ruefully. "If only it remained that easy."
Leicester, his home town, was the setting for his first TV ad for Walkers crisps, a brand to which he's been bound for 16 years. Home from Japan, he was seen alighting at the station and walking through the city acknowledging the waves from local folk – Gary, the homecoming prince with the cheeky grin and unblemished record – while in the background Peters and Lee sang "Welcome Home". Then a kid on a park bench offers him one of his Walkers crisps, and Lineker scoffs the lot, while the voiceover grates, "No more Mister Nice Guy".
It was a brilliant piece of reverse image-making, turning the saintly Gary into a selfish crisp addict. Since then, he's been seen fighting Lionel Richie, almost decapitating The Shadows as he recklessly drives a bus, sending Elle Macpherson into a jealous rage and turning down overtures from the Spice Girls. He's suffered for his lucrative contract: drenched with water, splattered with paint and set on fire with rockets under his jumper.
Which had he hated most? "The water – freezing cold water for two long days. I quite like water when I'm on a beach – but not in Kent, in November." Insiders tell me the only time they've known Lineker lose his temper was on a Walkers shoot in which he was enjoying a bicycle tryst with Cat Deeley, to the strains of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head", only to have his face and hair splattered with paint. It's said that he aborted the shoot and stormed off – a rare show of anger for the clean-sheet Lineker.
You spent so many matches, I say, in the penalty box, in the goalmouth. You must have been heavily marked, thumped and elbowed – how come you never retaliated? "It was very physical," says Lineker with masterly understatement. "They didn't book people so frequently then, and they could get away with half-a-dozen whacks before they got warned. But I used to think, if I'm winning free kicks, I'm doing my job."
Oh come on – how could he be so dispassionate after being whacked in the ribs? "To be honest, the ones that really hurt, you'd be rolling around a bit and by the time it was over, your temper had subsided. I was so focused on doing my job, waiting for an opportunity, making the right movements, concentrating on my touch, that I never thought about any nonsense that was going on."
Did he actually have a temper? "Everyone's got a temper if something bad happens, but I never really lost it." He smiles. "I can whinge with the ref with the best of them. But I whinged in a way that wasn't abusive. The closest I got was in Spain when I laughed at a referee's decision, and I thought he was going to book me for laughing."
The only blot on his reputation was the break-up of his 20-year marriage to Michelle Cockayne, his childhood sweetheart, with whom he had four sons. The family took centre-stage in the early 1990s, when their eldest, George, was admitted to Great Ormond Street hospital with acute myeloid leukaemia. It made headline news, and the nation prayed for his recovery. Gary and Michelle divorced in 2006 (she claimed he had caused her "stress and anxiety") and in 2009 he married Danielle Bux, an underwear model.
Today, George, having made a full recovery and enrolled at Bristol University, can often be glimpsed enjoying the early-hours action of London's West End, being snapped climbing into taxis with "mystery blondes" and looking the dead spit of his father. Did Gary try to keep him out of the limelight? "Well, of course I offer him fatherly advice about what he should and shouldn't do," says Lineker fondly, "but that'll remain private, because it's none of anyone's business how you bring up your children. George is a good kid. He has to put up with a degree of interest and I understand why, because of the amazing story of when he was a baby. He finds it hard to understand why they're interested, and I tell him there are advantages and disadvantages that come with that [level of media interest]."
He sighs. "But he's learning. Slowly." Let us hope he doesn't learn too quickly. Having a Mr Squeaky Clean dynasty would be more than human nature could bear.
Coverage of Euro2012 starts on BBC1 on 8 June
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