Football: Lineker, the predator with mass appeal: By retiring now, the striker with the wholesome image has again shown perfect timing. Phil Shaw reports

AS THE consummate England striker of the modern era, Gary Lineker's stock in trade was being in the right place at the right time. Now, by announcing his retirement rather than playing through pain towards one final pay-day, he has made the right decision at the right time.

Better, by far, that the Blessed Gary - 48 goals in 80 games for his country yet never booked or sent off - remains in the collective memory for his scoring feats and sportsmanship. The alternative may have been to descend gradually, like an old gunslinger pitting himself against eager young bucks in a sideshow, to a level unsuited to his talent or temperament.

It was not impossible to picture Lineker playing for Southampton or Middlesbrough, two of the clubs who hoped to lure him home from Japan. Equally, though, either might have represented the start of a slippery slope, similar to the one which led to Jimmy Greaves and John Charles parading their paunches in the Southern League.

In assessing the phenomenon of Gary Winston Lineker OBE, it is hard to separate the player from the man. In the words of Sir Bobby Charlton - whose record of goals for England he failed to equal by one - Lineker ranked 'among the greatest finishers football has ever seen' but would be remembered 'more for his marvellous image'. Shades of Charlton himself, currently a football missionary in the South African townships.

However, whereas Sir Bobby's skills, or those of more comparable forwards such as Greaves and Denis Law, were there for all to see, identifying Lineker's singular craft was less easy. He was not a great dribbler, header, passer or even striker of the ball, and few of his hundreds of goals are memorable for their execution rather than their effect.

One who marked him for Aston Villa and Denmark, Kent Nielsen, summed up Lineker's knack of appearing to lie dormant only to strike with the deadliness of a snake feigning slumber. 'It's more like chess than football against Gary because he's always hiding behind a defender,' he said. 'He never does much until you suddenly realise he's done exactly enough - and by then it's too late.'

This trait reached its zenith in the mid-Eighties. Lineker, who had stolen a march on his main rival for an England place, Peter Davenport, by scoring on his first full appearance, went on to join Everton, the champions, from his home-town team, Leicester, for what now seems a knock-down pounds 800,000.

He finished with 30 League goals in 1985-86, going on to become top scorer at the World Cup finals in Mexico. The close-range hat-trick against Poland - the first goal of which, he said yesterday, 'changed my career' - epitomised his extraordinary combination of speed and instinct.

Like the legendary German goal-poacher, Gerd Muller, Lineker would actually point to where he wanted colleagues to deliver the ball. Alone among those seeking to succeed him, Andy Cole makes the same demand, and it is no coincidence that Lineker and Cole have thrived with the same partner, Peter Beardsley.

A pounds 2.5m move to Barcelona, like his year with Everton, did not bring the rewards, in terms of medals, that Lineker may have anticipated. Terry Venables soon left, and Johan Cruyff often misused him as an orthodox winger. Lineker was clearly ill at ease, but set about learning Spanish with characteristic enthusiasm.

For his return to English football, in 1989, he chose Tottenham and Venables. In theory, he was going to a club preparing for a tilt at the title; Paul Gascoigne and Chris Waddle were to provide the ammunition for him. In practice, Waddle was sold to balance the books before they had so much as trained together.

Nevertheless, he and Gazza enjoyed a fruitful partnership for Spurs and England, if an unlikely one given their personalities. Lineker's goals again sustained the national side in the 1990 World Cup, the semi-final equaliser against West Germany underlining his ability to produce under pressure. He did it again in Poland to put England in the European Championship finals, but all was not well in his relationship with Graham Taylor.

After a friendly with Brazil, in which a below-par Lineker fluffed a penalty, Taylor criticised him publicly. 'When somebody's almost a national institution, it's almost as if you can't touch them,' he was quoted as saying. 'You could argue that we played with 10 men, but you're not allowed to.'

The rift reached a bitter conclusion when Taylor took off Lineker during the do-or-die game in the European finals. Venables and Bobby Robson both went on record to disagree with the England manager. So, bizarrely, did John Junor and Bernard Ingham in newspaper diatribes which highlighted Lineker's place in the heart of English football.

Lest there were any doubts about that, the wave of sympathy which followed the diagnosis of leukaemia in the Linekers' baby son, George, dispelled them. While George responded to treatment, Lineker Snr was clearly beginning to transcend the role of mere sportsman, appearing on Desert Island Discs ('I'm rather a boring sort of person', he told Sue Lawley) and in a play, An Evening With Gary Lineker, which immortalised him as 'the Queen Mother of Football'.

Now he has just a handful of matches left. While Japan has been the least chronicled and, because of injury, least successful part of his career, even his choice of club seemed typically sensible and appropriate. Grampus Eight, it transpires, are named after a mythical beast that is a cross between a dolphin and a killer whale. The wholesome predator: Lineker to a T.

----------------------------------------------------------------- GARY LINEKER FACT FILE ----------------------------------------------------------------- Born: Leicester (November 30, 1960). Clubs: Leicester City, Everton, Barcelona, Tottenham Hotspur, Nagoya Grampus Eight. Club honours: Spanish Cup (1988, Barcelona). European Cup-Winners' Cup (1989, Barcelona). FA Cup (1991, Tottenham). Second Division championship (1980, Leicester). Footballer of the Year: 1986, 1992. International career: England debut v Scotland (Hampden Park, May 1984). 80 caps, 48 goals. Four goals v Spain (1987), v Malaysia (1991). Hat-tricks v Turkey (1985), v Poland (1986), v Turkey (1987). Career goal record: 322 goals (League 236, FA Cup 15, League Cup 13, European 8, other 2, England 48). Lineker's England goals: 1984-85 v Rep of Ireland, USA (2); 85-86 v Turkey (3), Poland (3), Paraguay (2), Argentina; 86-87 v N Ireland (2), Spain (4), Brazil; 87-88 v West Germany, Turkey (3), Netherlands, Colombia, Switzerland; 88-89 v Albania, Poland, Denmark; 89-90 v Brazil, Denmark, Rep of Ireland, Cameroon (2), West Germany; 90-91 v Hungary, Poland, Cameroon (2), Argentina, New Zealand, Malaysia (4); 91- 92 Poland, France, CIS. -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photographs omitted)

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