Ten minutes into my interview with Gary Lineker, his old pals Garth Crooks and Chris Hughton pass by and come over for a quick chin-wag.
So there I am, hanging out at the BBC’s Match Of The Day studios, in the company of three ex-Tottenham Hotspur players (Lineker is one of the club’s most prolific ever strikers)… As a lifelong Spurs supporter and a regular MOTD viewer, this is Boy’s Own stuff, and it’s a struggle to retain my journalistic cool.
Match Of The Day is an iconic show, first airing in 1964 and now as much a staple of the national diet as fish’n’chips. Hosting the programme since 1999, Gary Lineker has presided over a run that has seen the show really hit its stride in recent years, increasing its audience size, regularly picking up impressive viewing figures (5.5 million for a show that starts at 10.30pm is quite a feat), and now including a second show on Sunday nights. But crucially, the formula is not messed around with too much.
You can make even the most abysmal game look reasonable in four or five minutes
“You have to be very careful,” says Lineker, “you don’t want to make it too gimmicky. It remains a football show, that’s what people tune in for, and we’re dealing with an educated audience.
“But it’s a good watch. Showing highlights works. You can make even the most abysmal game look reasonable in four or five minutes,” he laughs. “And we have a bit of banter, [Alan] Shearer and [Alan] Hansen will have a pop at each other. We take it seriously, but not too seriously.”
As if on cue, cheers and jeers are heard from an adjacent room, where the aforementioned Shearer and Hansen are watching the day’s early kick-off between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Liverpool. “That doesn’t sound good!” exclaims Lineker.
A key ingredient to MOTD’s success is the fact that its host and pundits are footballers who have played at the top of their game. Having begun his playing career at his hometown club of Leicester City, Lineker went on to win silverware with Barcelona and Spurs, become the First Division’s top scorer with three different clubs, and prove himself as one of England’s greatest ever strikers; he is the only Englishman to have won the Golden Boot at a world cup (in Mexico 1986), and he is England’s all-time second-highest scorer (with 48 goals, one behind Bobby Charlton).
Given these achievements, it’s perhaps a little surprising to hear that he holds his broadcasting career in equal, if not slightly higher, esteem. But it seems the skills-to-effort ratio is a factor…
“I was born to be in the box, rather than on the box,” he explains. “That’s where my natural talent was – to score goals. I certainly got the best out of that, but to have won the awards that I have done in this business, really means…” His voice trails off, as he perhaps tots up the tally of accolades from his playing days to the several Sports Presenter Of The Year awards he has won in recent times.
I have the advantage of having played at the very top level, which gives me an edge over most footballing broadcasters
“I have the advantage of having played at the very top level, which gives me an edge over most footballing broadcasters,” he continues, “but then it’s easy for people to say, ‘Well, he’s in the business just because he was a player.’ So I’ve had to knock down those barriers. To get to the top of BBC Sport is something I’m pretty proud of.”
It was in his mid-twenties, a good few years before he hung up his boots, that Lineker started to consider a post-football career. Coaching never particularly appealed, but he had always been interested in sports reporting, whetting his appetite by observing the journalists and TV crews whilst on England duty.
Starting off as pundit, he soon found himself working for Radio 5 Live, and then regularly anchoring some of the BBC’s football coverage, as well as turning in a memorable stint as a team captain on the game show, They Think It’s All Over.
He eventually took over the helm at MOTD from Des Lynam (“the doyen of British sports broadcasting”), and his regular gigs now include the British Open Golf Championship, the Olympics and Sports Personality Of The Year (“It’s carnage!”)
Such a clear-headed and focused approach contrasts sharply with the image of today’s modern footballer, who will appear on the front pages of the newspapers almost as often as the back. Extra-marital affairs, nightclub punch-ups, reckless driving, gambling… t’was ever thus, some might say, but there’s no doubt that football stars now have a higher profile than ever – and hence further to drop when they fall from grace. Typically, given his magnanimous nature – and a journalist’s eye for the big picture – Lineker takes a considered view.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
“Everybody wants to be a footballer nowadays,” he says. “They’re not just sportsmen any more, they’re major celebrities. But footballers are generally from working-class society, and all of a sudden they’re thrust into the limelight at a ridiculously young age, earning extraordinary amounts of money.
“The temptations are there. Players are role models whether they like it or not, and some will cope with it, some won’t.”
Are players are under too much pressure?
“Well, it’s ridiculous really to mention the word ‘pressure’ when you talk about people who earns tens of thousands a week, because in the real world people are going to say, ‘What kind of pressure is that?!’
“But it does bring different sorts of pressures. It’s easy for us to sit back and be holier-than-thou. Earning that sort of money at that age could lead anyone astray. A lot of footballers are good professionals, who do their stuff and try not to get involved in any shenanigans. But we don’t tend to read about them – the bad headlines make more interesting reading.”
Earning that sort of money at that age could lead anyone astray
Millionaire players who made lots of headlines last summer were those in the England camp, who under-performed in the South Africa World Cup. The team limped through the first round, and then crashed out of the competition at the hands of old foes Germany – their worst ever showing in the tournament’s history.
The predictably loud and unrestrained post-mortem pointed fingers at everything from the spirit in the camp to Fabio Capello’s choice of tie, but Lineker is of the opinion that something very specific went wrong.
“I think the preparation was clearly flawed,” he states. “I don’t think they were properly prepared for the altitude [much of the tournament was performed on high ground]. I can’t see how it’s possible for that many footballers to be below their best at the same time. That is too big a coincidence.
“You can talk about tactics and selection and stuff, but it had to run deeper than that because we were appalling at times,” he says. “There was no energy, the players looked washed out. From what I’ve heard from some of the players, it’s clear that the preparation was strange.”
As for future World Cups, England haven’t had much success there either, with the much-publicised 2018 bid recently losing out to Russia. Lineker played a part in the bid, and is clearly disgruntled with the way the ‘competition’ is run.
“The whole thing has to become more open,” he reasons. “The secret ballot process is so absurd. Plus, if you’re going to take football to new frontiers, then fair enough, but let everyone know at the start rather than waste everyone’s time, and huge amounts of money.”
The whole thing has to become more open. The secret ballot process is so absurd
Those ‘new frontiers’ include Qatar, which was awarded the World Cup in 2022. Lineker is familiar with the appetite for football in the Middle East, since, in addition to his work at the Beeb, he also works for the Al Jazeera TV network, presenting a Champions League programme (“They do it just like us: three pundits talking football. It’s good stuff.”)
So with his TV commitments, his charity work (he is a patron of a children’s cancer charity among others) and his commercial interests (we can’t forget the Walkers crisps!), it seems he is a man with a busy schedule.
“Not necessarily,” he says. “I’ve got a Saturday job, obviously, but I’m not on TV all the time. I’ve got a nice mix to my life: I have plenty of free time in the week, and I see a lot of the kids and the missus.”
With that, the 50-year-old jumps up from the sofa and goes over to the Big Issue photographer, where he obligingly mugs for the camera. But not before this old Spurs fan gets him to sign a club shirt. Final score: Football Fan 1 Detached Journalist 0.