Football: Goalscorer with the deft touch

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The Independent Online
SHORTLY before England met Argentina in the 1986 World Cup finals, Ron Greenwood pointed out a fact about Gary Lineker that went a long way to explaining his advancement as a great goalscorer rather than a scorer of great goals.

We were sitting in the lounge of a hotel in Mexico City, reflecting on recent events, especially the hat-trick Lineker had scored against Poland to put a fresh face on England's chances, when Greenwood said: 'Firm ankles. That's one of his biggest assets.'

In the overall context of Lineker's prolific finishing you may think that to be of minor consequence, but, in fact, it was as important as his speed, perception and composure. Power was a secondary consideration - the side-foot shot was his preferred method.

The eye itself can be influenced by a universal idea. In Lineker's case it was the inspired selfishness a previous generation of players came to associate with Jimmy Greaves, who stands beyond all reasonable doubt as one of the greatest goalscorers the game has ever seen.

Once, in the long ago, I was with a group of players from Leeds United and their manager, the late Don Revie, when the subject of Greaves came up in conversation. Doubtless confident of affirmation, one of them suggested that Greaves did not work hard enough for Revie's tastes. Not for a moment did Revie appear to be uncertain. 'Thirty goals a season would do for me,' he replied curtly.

It sounded like flying in the face of a rule that Revie held sacrosanct, but he could see in Greaves what others came to see in Lineker.

In common with his great predecessor, Lineker's reluctant concessions to the responsibility of team play brought down criticism, but it concealed surprises. He did not harrass defenders or chase back when attacks broke down. Instead, he used the moment to seek out positions from where he would be most valuable in counter-attacks.

When toying around with the notion of truly world-class attackers, it is advisable to keep the list short by sticking to those whose accomplishment is beyond question. Personally, I can think of only seven: Pele, Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, George Best and John Charles. At their peak, apart from great natural gifts, industry was a common thread.

As this leaves any number of notable figures as marginal figures it is impossible to make a case for Lineker.

However, this cannot detract from qualities that established Lineker as an outstanding predator who almost overtook Bobby Charlton as England's leading goalscorer.

I've heard it said, and it's true I'm sure, that in concentrating his energies on what he was best at Lineker did not always meet with the full approval of team-mates. But in almost every way he was a model professional.

Not long after Lineker joined Tottenham from Barcelona I watched him play in a pre-season friendly against Atletico Madrid. Even for a player of his experience and sound temperament, it must have been difficult to cope with a general air of nastiness. He got on with the job smilingly.

Irritatingly, it has become fashionable to think about football as a tactical exercise that passeth the understanding of all but dedicated students. In truth, the game remains essentially a series of individual conflicts. It is not best served by the current obsession with formations.

Crowds came to cheer Lineker for his deadliness in front of goal, not because they had been advised of some subtle role in the wider scheme of things.

In that respect, there was something healthily old-fashioned about him. When concentrating fully on the purpose in mind, he was a throwback to a time when there was something clearly definable about centre-forwards.