The Champions League trophy looms large over Gary Lineker. It’s pictured on an array of giant screens at BT Sport’s expansive studios in Stratford, slowly rotating like a doner kebab. “It’s big ears and big ears,” quips the other king of Saturday nights, as we sit down for an expansive chat.
Lineker, so adept at introductions, barely needs one himself. Now 55, he’s parlayed his years as a poacher with Leicester, Everton, Barcelona, Tottenham, Grampus Eight and England into an equally prolific career as a presenter.
We don’t see much of the real Lineker on television, where his job is to wring opinions from less eloquent ex-pros. But, as his Twitter account reveals, he has strong, considered opinions of his own. As well as being the face of English football, Lineker might just be its voice of reason. He breaks into a broad smile when we ask our first question.
How are Leicester going to get on in the Champions League next season?
“Let’s wait and see if they get there first! I think if Leicester are in it, I’ll struggle to contain myself. They’re in pretty good shape – it’s a big gap now, 12 points to fifth [at the time of going to press], so they have a chance, that’s for sure.”
We can imagine the UEFA suits tearing their hair out if it’s Leicester who qualify instead of Manchester United.
“Nah, they’d love it! There’s been no better story in world football than this, if it continues.”
Would Leicester winning the league be the greatest achievement in the history of English football?
“It would be one of the greatest and most surprising stories in the history of sport. To go from where they were at this time last season [Leicester lost to Manchester City on March 4 last year, leaving them seven points from safety at the foot of the table] to where they are now is actually quite extraordinary.”
What do you think changed?
“Well, there was obviously some kind of watershed moment last season. It just shows how important confidence is. But, ultimately, it’s down to players, and Leicester have very good players. It took them a while to get used to the Premier League, but they’ve turned that around and they play this kind of counterattacking, rapid style. And it really works.”
Did you ever feel that kind of momentum when you were playing?
“Occasionally with teams, yes. Everton in particular in the mid-1980s – even though we didn’t quite manage it in the end that season [Everton finished second]. Once you get a winning mentality and real belief, you can take some stopping. But it can change just as quickly as it comes.”
How much are you enjoying watching Barcelona this season?
“I have a real affinity towards Barcelona; I had a great time there. I love watching them, the kind of football they play. There is no finer sight in football than when they are on fire. Unless you’re playing them.”
Would it be better if the talent was a bit more evenly spread?
“You say that, but no team has ever managed to retain the Champions League. I think to have that kind of triumvirate [Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar] is quite special to see – it’s very enjoyable.”
Why don’t more Brits go abroad?
“Well, I think we’re a little bit insular, by nature, and I think we’ve got an island mentality. It’s all a little bit scary, going away, for some. There were quite a few in my day, but there were mixed reasons for that. There was the European ban, which was significant – English teams had been dominant in that era; the ban was a bit of a killer – and in those days there was not much money in English league football.
“All the money was in Italy and Spain – so it wasn’t just about the opportunity to experience a different kind of football, which appealed to me, but there was the financial side. You could earn three, four times the money in Italy or Spain, whereas now the players are paid as much here as they’re paid anywhere in the world. There’s that comfort thing that British players don’t necessarily want to go and live somewhere else. It’s been great for Gareth Bale to do it. I’d like to see one or two more do the same.”
Does it broaden your horizons?
“Unquestionably. It gives you a different outlook, not just in terms of life but also actually with your football as well. Playing different tactics, a different style of play.”
Tottenham’s Eric Dier has done it, too.
“Well, he had that kind of experience abroad as well. I think he’ll probably play in the Euros – he’s the holding player England have been looking for.”
You were famous for never getting booked during your career, but what was the closest you came?
“Probably the closest was in Spain, which is not surprising. Going three years in Spain was quite extraordinary without getting a yellow card. But I very nearly got booked for laughing at the referee once. He went like that [gestures to his pocket]. I said: ‘Are you going to book me for laughing?’ But he didn’t. I haven’t really got a temper and I never tackled anyone, so…”
Would it be different if you played now?
“It would be impossible now. You fall over and they think you’ve dived, or you mistime a tackle slightly… you had to commit a really horrific foul, or four or five different fouls to get a yellow card in my day.”
The kind of player that you were…
A poacher! Would you say that kind of striker is dying out?
“Oh, there’s plenty of them.”
You think so?
He’s not a poacher though, is he?
[Incredulous] “He’s not a poacher?!”
He is a complete footballer. He can go past people, shoot from distance…
“He goes past one or two occasionally, but he’s predominately a box player – and it’s all about his movement in the box and his finishing. Javier Hernandez is very similar.”
We’ll give you that one.
“Jamie Vardy is another one, if you like. He’s scored only one goal outside the box this season – and what a goal it was. The goalscorers are still there. I don’t think there’s any real change. Strikers have to hold the ball up, give it, sometimes you try and beat someone. It’s no different, it’s just that no one ever saw us play very often.”
What was your best attribute?
“Mental strength. There’s a mixture of things that apply to mental strength. Just being extremely calm, never letting anything affect you, being able to handle high-pressure situations. You’ve got to have that if you’re going to get to the top.”
Is there a link between intelligence on and off the pitch?
“There’s a link. There’s no question: you can’t be a top-class player without having intelligence. It’s a spatial awareness kind of intelligence. Really good footballers know where they are, know where their teammates are, know where the defenders are. It’s a kind of intelligence. That doesn’t mean to say you’re educated, that you’ve been to school and can tell everyone about Chaucer and Shakespeare. It’s a different kind of intelligence. Even players you think might sound a bit thick – when you watch them play you can see they actually have a certain kind of intelligence about them.”
English teams have struggled in Europe in recent years. Can Pep Guardiola change that with Man City next season?
“We know his style of play, his highpressing game, and his tiki-taka football. It will work, but it will be interesting to see how long it takes him to bring that style of play to Manchester City. I don’t think it’s a given that he’s just going to come in and everything is going to be wonderful in the world. It’s not that easy, certainly not in the Premier League. One or two managers, like Jurgen Klopp, have found that they’ve come here, there’s so much football, everyone is exhausted all the time.”
Is our league schedule the main reason we’ve struggled in Europe recently?
“I think it’s one of them. Obviously you’re competing with two or three massive clubs with brilliant players as well. The great players in world football still seem to go to Barcelona and Real Madrid, but I think it is one of the reasons. We’ve always made life difficult for ourselves, and we’ll see it again in the European Championships. Our players play so much football that they do get a bit tired. It is exhausting.”
So how can the likes of Man City, Man Utd, Chelsea and Arsenal catch up?
“These things go in cycles. But we need to find a way of getting rid of one or two fixtures just to make life a little bit easier for ourselves – replays in the FA Cup maybe, just one leg in the Capital One Cup would help. The madness over Christmas – yes, keep your Boxing Day, your New Year’s Day, but lose that one in the middle, push it somewhere else. It’s difficult because we are Premier League-obsessed – and we have three governing bodies as well, which doesn’t help. No one is helping each other, and it’s an ongoing problem. That period from Christmas through to when the Champions League starts again is exhausting on our players. There are so many matches, and by this stage of the season squads are starting to get depleted with injury. They can’t rotate as much as they do earlier in the season.”
That could be Leicester’s problem soon.
“Well let’s hope it’s a concern!”
The chaos of this season must be great – as a Leicester fan and a broadcaster.
“The unpredictable nature of this season has been one of the most attractive things for it. Everyone is loving this Leicester story. Not just fans like me, but the whole country seems to be getting behind them – hoping they pull off this miracle. I’m sure a lot of the supporters in this country are enjoying that Chelsea have struggled. It’s one of the great assets of the Premier League that it’s not as predictable as other leagues in Europe. You know in Spain that 90 per cent of the time it’s going to be Barcelona or Real Madrid. In Germany you know it’s going to be Bayern Munich; in France you know it’s going to be PSG.”
PSG have almost won the title already.
“That’s what I mean. La Liga is a bit more interesting because Atletico sometimes sneak in – they’ve been brilliantly coached. It’s not like that here. Yes, we have teams that dominate, but there are more teams.”
Maybe that’s another reason it’s harder for English teams in Europe?
“Well, it shows that our major teams are not performing at the levels required. It’s a knockout competition, so you can’t rule them out – as we saw with Chelsea in 2012. They were poor, but somehow got over the line. [But] things go in cycles. The Spanish are pretty dominant, but that’ll turn again.”
Do you think things will change soon?
“With the financial power of the Premier League, it’s only a matter of time before the great players come here – then we’ll get more competitive again. The one big shift that has not quite happened is that the great players of the world still go to Real Madrid and Barcelona – but over time, over the next five years, we’ll start to see that change. We’ve signed players who have gone on to be great, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Thierry Henry. But we have never gone: ‘Let’s go and get Messi now.’ It has just never happened, and I think it has to. If they don’t all go to China, anyway!”
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