Gary Lineker: Still at the top of our national game

He's the squeaky clean former England captain who netted a top job in television. But is Gary Lineker just too good to be true?

Before there was Becks, there was Gary. Way back in the Eighties, when misbehaviour among footballers revolved around beer, birds and fast cars, rather than roasting, dogging and texting, England had a footballing hero with feet of gold, not clay, whose transition from fox in the (penalty) box to fox on the (goggle) box seemed as effortless as one of his match-winning goals. There's something about Gary Lineker that makes it almost impossible not to admire him.

Indeed, if the Pied Piper himself turned up at the Warren, a football ground tucked away just minutes from the London thoroughfares of Euston Road and Goodge Street, he could scarcely hope to elicit the response that greets Our Hero. As soon as he walks on to the concrete pitch, cleaned up and made useable by the Fitzrovia Youth in Action group, the former England captain is surrounded by keen young footballers. "So who's best here then?" asks Lineker. "They don't come much better than me," pipes up one particularly confident boy. "Not much louder, either," replies Lineker, turning to the group with one of those comedy glares familiar from his Walkers crisps adverts. "And who do you support?" When the majority answers "Arsenal", Lineker continues in the mock-critical vein. "Glory-hunters," he says, adding, "what's wrong with Leicester?" A chorus of coughs signifies that the team which gave a 16-year-old Lineker his first break, and in which he is an investor, is not deemed worthy of any greater comment.

His position as England's second-highest goal scorer (with 48 goals in 80 matches, only one behind Sir Bobby Charlton) and the face of BBC football coverage is not enough to save Lineker the scorn of a group of youngsters who can clearly think of nothing more embarrassing than admitting to supporting Lineker's beloved Leicester City (which even he admits will probably not be spared the ignominy of relegation from the Premier League).

Here to help promote Sport Relief, which tomorrow launches its campaign to persuade the country to run or walk a sponsored mile on July 10, Lineker, now 43, patiently signs endless autographs, muddies his expensive-looking black boots playing keepie-uppie, joke-frowns at a girl who tries to sneak a football behind him when he's not looking (he nimbly stops it, of course) and graciously accepts a packet of Walkers crisps from another young admirer as we leave the court. "If ever I do anything I get given crisps, or people make crisp jokes. It's fairly relentless," he says. "Shows it works, I suppose. It's nice when the kids do it, very generous of them."

Such a reaction is typical of a man who has been called the "Queen Mother of football" and is happy to accept the title, just as he says that he and David Gower did not demur at being the butt of jokes on the television sports quiz They Think It's All Over. Nothing, it seems, can get under his skin.

And why should there be anything to cause him epidermic irritation? His good looks are tempered only by his shyness. He has a contented marriage to Michelle, the childhood sweetheart with whom he has four boys. His considerable wealth is not so ostentatiously worn as to alienate those who invite him into their hearts and homes. He has managed to transcend the world which gave him his fame and become a familiar and trusted face even to those who are strangers to the sports pages.

Everything, or almost everything, has gone his way throughout his 16-year career as a professional footballer (during which he was never booked) and his subsequent career as a presenter. There have been shadows, though. His eldest son, George, was diagnosed with leukaemia at only six weeks old; fortunately, he recovered, although to his father's dismay he has grown up to support Manchester United rather than Leicester. And Lineker might have beaten Charlton's goal-scoring record had the then England manager, Graham "Turnip" Taylor, not taken him off the field in the second half of his final international fixture, a European Championship game in 1992. His career ended with a bang all right, but it was the impact of a toe early into his contract with the Japanese club Grampus Eight that did the job. He returned to the UK in 1994, retired from the game, with his £3m fee intact. The injured toe-joint had fused, and once he felt he couldn't move in the same way, he says, "it was quite an easy decision. And I've never played since." He still owns a pair of football boots, but they're an old pair, hanging somewhere in his Berkshire mansion; he wears trainers if he kicks a ball around with his boys.

Some ex-footballers find a second career in management. Lineker moved to commentating, and this summer will host Match of the Day, back on the BBC in its 40th anniversary year, while his former mentor, Des Lynam, languishes on ITV (soon to be joined by Parky, whose departure from the corporation was prompted by the news that the flagship footie show was to be honoured with the coveted 10.30pm slot on Saturday nights). It is another ambition fulfilled for Lineker, whose England team mates presciently nicknamed him "Junior Des".

"It was in the 1990 World Cup that Gazza and Waddle started calling me that," he remembers. "I think it was because I was going prematurely grey. But I was pretty open that that was what I wanted to do when I finished playing. I wanted to do exactly what I'm doing now. I just didn't know whether I'd be able to do it." Lineker sought to present rather than being a pundit, because he thought it would be more challenging. "Things fell into place for me, I was very fortunate. I worked alongside Des, who was incredibly helpful, and then Bob Wilson left for ITV. There was a slot there and they took a chance with me - then two or three years later Des also went to ITV. It's like playing for England: you make your run and you hope you get to the right place at the right time."

Success combined with an equable temperament may have masked the determination Lineker has applied to achieving his aims, which have not been without their challenges. "I think I quite like being in a position where things can go wrong," he muses, "which is the reason why I used to want to take the penalties. It's almost a prerequisite of being a goal-scorer; you have to take that responsibility and enjoy doing it. That's why I like being a presenter, because that's the most under-pressure role you can have. I'm not scared of that."

In his early days Lineker did make the odd slip-up on air, once remarking of a team about to step on to a pitch that "most of the players will be wearing rubbers tonight". "It was difficult," he concedes. "There's no easy learning curves on the BBC as it's all high profile. I didn't have the advantage of doing two or three years on satellite and learning the trade with nobody watching. But in a way that's nice, because people have seen - hopefully, hopefully - a degree of improvement over the years."

But learning his craft in such a high-profile environment meant he was a natural target for satire. The impressionist Alistair McGowan, whose show used to precede Match of the Day (in its previous BBC incarnation) regularly lampooned Lineker and his fellow commentator Mark Lawrenson. "We used to watch it," says Lineker, who found the impression so disconcertingly accurate that when he later went on air he'd find himself copying the tics that McGowan had picked up on and magnified. "I'd think - I've just done that thing that Alistair McGowan does. I had to stop watching the programme, it was too distracting."

Lineker's ambition to do whatever he does "properly" leads him to be quietly disapproving of the behaviour of some young football stars. "Whether they like it or not, they are role models," he says. "A lot of kids look up to them. They get vast rewards. They have a responsibility to behave in a certain manner, and it's hard to excuse them when they don't. If they can't just knuckle down for a few years, then..." But he doesn't envy the media attention they receive. "There seems to be a greater interest in the whole lifestyle thing with football, almost like it used to be with rock stars. I wouldn't have enjoyed having it, not to the magnitude of Beckham - that would be awful."

Despite Lineker's strong sense of what is "appropriate" behaviour for members of his former profession, he's sympathetic to the inevitable lapses that the red-tops seize on with such glee. "I've always said that footballers are a cross-section of working-class society, and with that cross-section you're going to get sensible hard-working guys, and then you're going to get people with drink problems, drug problems, gambling problems, like any workplace. It's hard to change somebody's personality and character." Maybe this attitude has allowed him to continue to speak fondly of lost souls like Gazza; condemnation does not seem to come easily to him. Even when his then friend Will Carling dumped his sister-in-law, Ali Cockayne, leaving her with a baby son, Lineker was slow to speak ill of the former England rugby captain.

Such a focus on the positive makes him the perfect visitor to the Warren, the venue for some of the matches for the Camden Unity Cup, a project involving 800 eight- to 18-year-olds which seeks to ease race and gang tensions in the borough and which is funded by Sport Relief. "If you've got rivalries and territorial issues, and you can bring young people together, it has to do good," he says. "Also, of course, when they're playing football it's keeping young people out of trouble. I think that was very important when I was growing up, getting involved in sport. I never had time to hang around street corners, be in gangs and have the temptation to cause trouble, because I was totally concentrated on playing sport. We sometimes underestimate what sport can do, especially in inner-city areas where facilities are limited. That's why things like this can really work. Sport can do that probably better than anything else."

Sport can also persuade someone as game as Lineker to take part in events that don't play to his strengths. Of the Sport Relief programme on July 10, he says: "There's a degree of enthusiasm involved, almost children's television-esque, which doesn't come easily to me, to be perfectly honest. But I'll endeavour to be as enthusiastic as I can." Then he adds a joke so obvious that only a comic genius could produce it without the audience cringing: "I've usually got a co-presenter that's incredibly up for it - well, the presenting side of it anyway. Whoops!"

Gary Lineker is not a comic genius. But there's something about the oh-so-very-nice Mr Lineker, something, perhaps, of an old-fashioned and decent Englishness entirely without side or snobbery, that we cannot help but laugh with him.

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