No flooring Mr Nice Guy

close-up Gary Lineker The footballer turned TV presenter has never been afraid to speak his mind. Stan Hey charts the rise of a media star
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WHO would have believed it? Four years after England manager Graham Taylor was depicted as a turnip in the Sun following England's defeat by Sweden in the European Championship, a game in which he ended Gary Lineker's international career, Lineker himself was pictured last week as a jellyfish on the front page of the same paper.

The justification for this grisly graphic was Wimbledon footballer Vinnie Jones's response to criticisms Lineker had made in an interview for the Radio Times: "We don't need people like Vinnie Jones who is just a self- hyped personality - fine for him, but he isn't a good player and is no benefit to the game."

Lineker was elevated in the tabloids to equal news value alongside the wayward Bishop of Argyll and Fergie's book-writing mystic. The nice guy of football had shocked the nation with his outspoken remarks, which had also embraced Paul Gascoigne and the Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson.

The papers overlookedLineker's other comments on Gascoigne ("He's a terrific, intelligent player") and the fact that the interviewer had goaded Lineker by quoting Ferguson's assessment of him as "too good to be true". By now they had the scent of a big story. The gist of it was that Lineker had forsaken his easy-going personality and overstepped the mark as a BBC football pundit. It was as if the Queen Mother had given an interview to the Sporting Life slagging off a jockey for a bad ride on a horse she had backed.

Yet for those who have observed Lineker's swift media rise, it seemed neither surprising nor out of character for a man determined to excel in whatever he does in life. On the contrary, Lineker's growing proficiency in radio and television demands that he express his opinions when the occasion warrants it.

"I couldn't see what all the fuss was about," Lineker's agent Jon Holmes reflected. "Gary's always been prepared to speak out to defend himself. Look what he said in the past about Graham Taylor, or the football authorities. Some papers are just obsessed with manufacturing controversy."

Holmes has been the principal architect of Lineker's media career once the boy's boots were hung up. Holmes's contacts with newspapers and television enabled him to "pitch" Gary to them when the time was right, although they needed little persuasion having witnessed his exemplary footballing career and his articulate captaincy during the two years after the 1990 World Cup.

Lineker, too, though naturally self-effacing, had already decided that becoming a manager was not for him and that the media was his best option for another working life. Even so, it was only six years ago that Holmes arm-twisted a reluctant client into accepting an invitation to the Oxford Union to debate the motion "This House would rather participate than commentate". It seems ironic now that Lineker supported the motion, but his successful speech lifted not only his own media profile, but also that of a troubled game. "That was one of your better ideas," Lineker told Holmes.

His progress continued, but not without hiccups. A column in the News of the World, though lucrative, was not the most apposite place for one of Britain's more thoughtful footballers, and an early foray into touchline broadcasting for ITV produced a memorable howler. Invited to discuss the pitch for a Montpellier-Manchester United European tie, Lineker informed viewers that "most of the players will be wearing rubbers tonight".

But the controversial end to his England career and the nine-month hiatus before he took up his post with Grampus Eight in Japan, offered Lineker several opportunities to expand his range. Although an intended autobiography had been abandoned due to the grave illness of his first son George, the Sunday Telegraph's Colin Malam had pressed ahead with a book, Strikingly Different, to which Lineker was not expected to contribute.

But the feud with Taylor dictated otherwise, especially as Taylor had already loaded his side of the argument with briefings to the press. Lineker saw an opportunity to register his objections. "I know managers use the press to get players to do certain things, but as far as I'm concerned the way to do it is face to face," Lineker told Malam. "What wasn't acceptable was being attacked through the press, particularly with off the record quotes that always come back to players."

This was no shrinking violet speaking. Meanwhile Lineker's media profile grew - he reported on the Barcelona Olympics for the BBC, he co-devised a drama series for ITV, and even appeared in the film of the play bearing his name "An Evening With Gary Lineker", happy to answer the question, "Do your farts smell of perfume, Gary?"

On his return from the injury-blighted venture in Japan, Lineker was in even greater demand. He contributed a well written column to the Observer, he resumed his highly successful punditry partnership with Alan Hansen on Match of the Day, and he was invited to work for the relaunched Radio 5 Live.

Last summer, during Euro 96, he made his debut as an anchorman for a television highlights programme, nervously thanking "Everyone for getting me through" as the show closed. Now he has Football Focus, until Des Lynam comes back in October, Match of the Day, and he will continue to work for Radio 5.

There have been criticisms, about his voice, which Lineker admits to trying to make more exciting, and also about the occasional off-colour gags made by some of his fellow competitors on the spoof sports quiz They Think It's All Over. One of Lineker's adverts for Walker's Crisps also had to be withdrawn after complaints that it might alarm children. But the false steps are few and seem unlikely to undermine his continuing likeability.

Niall Sloane, editor of Match of the Day, says that Lineker "is a delight to work with. He puts a lot into his preparation, he studies what other presenters do and learns from them. Coming to the BBC was a big opportunity for him, and he didn't approach it like a star who thought he could coast. We'll be sorry to lose him as a pundit, but he's of greater value as a presenter now".

As for the spat with Vinnie Jones, Sloane found it "all very amusing, though someone should tell Vinnie that Gary's Ceefax quote referred to a specific Wimbledon game, not to Wimbledon in general." With Jones now declaring a truce in the feud and abandoning his Swiftian taunt of Big Ears, Lineker will resume the quiet life in his new home in Surrey, with wife Michelle and their three sons.

"I don't like being a pundit," Lineker said in that interview, "because you have to be critical of people you know quite well." But nobody should now be surprised when "Mr Nice Guy" decides to speak his mind - nor indeed when the potato crisp whiz-kids inevitably bring Lineker and Jones together for a crunch meeting.

Football's Feuds Corner

Alex Ferguson v Kenny Dalglish

Ferguson: "The provocation and intimidation at Anfield is incredible. I can understand why clubs come away from here choking on their own vomit, and biting their tongues, knowing that they have been done by the referee. When you lose it sounds like sour grapes, but we got a result and I am saying it."

Dalglish (interrupting): "You might as well talk to my six-week-old daughter, you'll get more sense out of her."

Jack Charlton v Eamon Dunphy

Charlton: "Dunphy had gone over the top on television when commenting on Ireland's display against Egypt. He'd said that we were a disgrace and that our performance was a load of rubbish. Well Dunphy is a man whose views on football hold no relevance whatsoever for me."

Alan Sugar v Jurgen Klinsmann

Sugar: "He gave me this signed Tottenham shirt as a leaving present, but I wouldn't even wash my car with it."

Tommy Docherty v chairmen

Docherty: "The ideal board of directors should be made up of three men, two dead and one dying."

Docherty: "The Villa chairman Doug Ellis said he was right behind me. I told him I'd sooner have him in front of me where I could see him."

Brian Clough v Trevor Brooking

Clough: "Trevor Brooking floats like a butterfly and stings like one too."