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Legends: Gary Lineker

After 16 years of tedious crisp adverts and 12 of even more tedious Match of the Day links, it is easy to forget that Gary Lineker was a great striker.

Well he was. In fact, not only was he great, he is England’s greatest striker of all time. Renowned far more commonly for the fact he was never booked or sent off, Lineker’s scoring records remain one of the best in the modern game.

Lineker began his association with local club Leicester City immediately after leaving school when he signed as a trainee in 1977.

At first, he was asked to play wide on the right due to his abundant pace, but he excelled when given his chance up front. Lineker fired the Foxes to the semi-finals of the 1982 FA Cup and was crucial to their successful promotion bid in 1983.

By this time, he was drawing national attention and was given his debut by England. While establishing himself with England, Lineker made the transition to the First Division seamlessly, finishing joint top scorer with 24 goals in 1985.

Outgrowing his team-mates

Performances for Leicester and England made it clear Lineker was outgrowing his team-mates at Filbert Street. It seemed inevitable that he would move on and when defending league champions Everton came in with an £800,000 offer in 1985, Lineker’s fate was sealed.

Everton were the best team in England, and arguably Europe, at the time. Denied a historical treble by Norman Whiteside’s extra-time goal in the 1984 FA Cup final, Howard Kendall acquired England’s best striker in a bid to dominate. This came despite fans’ protests to stick with current hero Andy Gray.

Lineker’s time with Everton was somewhat paradoxical. Despite his fantastic scoring return (40 goals in 51 games), and narrowly missing out on the league and FA Cup to rivals Liverpool, Everton fans were unhappy at Kendall’s tactics.

A team of skilful ball-players were urged to play more direct to utilise Lineker’s pace, something the striker later denied.

Lineker’s sole year at Goodison was also marred by the fact that Everton, along with every other English side, were banned from European competition following the Heysel disaster in 1985. Evertonians claim to this day that they would have won the competition.

'Everton were stronger'

Lineker himself said: “The final that year was between Barcelona and Steaua Bucharest, and Everton were stronger than both of those teams.”

Despite not winning anything with Everton, Lineker regards his days there as the best time of his career. In interviews, he often describes an “affinity” with the club and its supporters. All problems aside, Lineker’s prolific season with the Toffees stood him in good stead to perform at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

From a personal point of view, Mexico ’86 was the pinnacle of Lineker’s career. Scoring six goals in five games, he was awarded the tournament’s Golden Boot, the only Englishman to earn this honour.

A sensational first-half hat-trick in a decisive game against Poland capped a fine tournament and brought his talents to a wider audience.

Lineker’s heroics at the World Cup were well-timed as Kendall was already planning his sale. When losing European Cup finalists Barcelona offered Everton £2.8m, Lineker’s hands were forced and so, begrudgingly, he left the club.

Started well

Life at the Nou Camp started well for Lineker with 21 goals in his first season, including a hat-trick in a 3-2 victory against Real Madrid. Barcelona performed well in the league during his time, though they only achieved success in cup competitions, clinching the Copa del Ray and Cup Winners’ Cup in 1989.

Originally bought by friend and fellow Englishman Terry Venables, Lineker found himself ostracised under new coach Johan Cruyff, who again deployed him as a winger.

Desperate to regain his best form in time for the World Cup, Lineker left to be reunited with Venables who had taken over at Tottenham.

Lineker hit the ground running at Spurs. As the goals kept coming, Spurs climbed the league and eventually finished in third position. Lineker was the key factor, ending up leading goalscorer in the league with 24 goals.

Again, a clinical domestic season had prepared Lineker perfectly for the World Cup as he scored four goals in Italy. His record of 10 goals in 12 World Cup games is still up there with the best. Two pressure penalties to see England through against Cameroon had England fans idolising Lineker.

Ended acrimoniously

Lineker’s international career ended acrimoniously in 1992 when then manager Graham Taylor substituted him with half an hour remaining in a decisive game against Sweden.

Lineker, at the time only one behind Bobby Charlton’s all-time record of 49 goals, was disgusted at his manager and refused to look at the bench.

With the exception of the following season, Lineker’s career fizzled out. Despite scoring 28 goals in 35 league games and finishing second only to Ian Wright in the scoring charts, Lineker retired just two years later, after spending a brief, injury-plagued two years in Japan with Nagoya Grampus Eight.

Though he was never the most creative or skilful player, and certainly not in the habit of playing for the team, Lineker did exactly what was expected of him and scored goal after goal after goal, whoever he turned out for. It is arguable that England’s comparative failure since his retirement is due to never replacing him adequately. 

In many ways, he is the last old-fashioned striker. Clinical, selfish, pacey – a modern day equivalent would be Manchester United’s sensational Mexican striker Javier Hernandez.

Lineker was above all else patriotic. His exploits for England raised the hopes of supporters in a way that no subsequent England player has been able to.

By Chris Smith

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