Rarely has football enjoyed an ambassador like Gary Lineker. Clean cut, good looking and suave, Lineker possessed – and continues to do so – the assuredness and populist touch of a film star or politician. In being considered both footballer and modern icon, he was a forerunner, perhaps, of David Beckham. Second only to Bobby Charlton as England’s all time goalscorer and well remembered for spells at Tottenham and Barcelona, it seemingly eludes popular memory that it was at Goodison where Lineker made his reputation during a prolific year-long spell in the mid-1980s.
Seldom have Everton possessed a goalscorer like Lineker. Although possessing a blistering turn of pace and a good first touch, Lineker had few of the attributes commonly associated with world class forwards. He was weak in the air and outside the penalty area his contribution was negligible. The rocket shot for which other forwards have found fame was lacking. By his own admission he hated training and felt a series naps was the best way to prepare for a game. And yet, he had an almost subliminal instinct for being in the right place at the right time. His predatory instincts and timing were impeccable. He anticipated chances like a wildcat waiting upon its prey. If a loose ball fell within yards of him in the penalty area, Lineker was invariably there to meet it, sometimes with only the merest of touches – but usually it was enough.
Lineker started out at Leicester City, his boyhood club, in the late 1970s, forgoing the opportunity to represent his county at cricket in favour of football. Even in a mediocre Leicester team, he built a reputation as one of the country’s foremost goalscorers, earning a first England cap in 1984. In July 1985, Howard Kendall made him Everton’s record signing after paying £800,000 for Lineker and courting opprobrium by selling Andy Gray.
Indeed Lineker initially did little to relieve the pressure from Kendall, drawing blanks in the Charity Shield game against Man Utd as well his first three league outings. His single goal which won the away game against Tottenham signalled the start of a goal deluge, and a hat-trick – the first of three that season – in the 4-1 romp over Birmingham City the following Saturday soon won over Evertonians.
Lineker, it seemed, could not stop scoring, but by Spring the Midas touch had started to elude him. Having been reliant on his goals – 24 in the league alone by 1 March – Lineker scored just one First Division goal in the next seven weeks. Top of the league until late-April, Everton needed to win a game in hand at Oxford United on April 30 to remain in touch with their title challenge. Lineker needed to come up with the goods, but his ‘lucky’ boots which he had worn all season to great effect, it emerged before the game, were in Liverpool for repairs.
In a tight, scrappy game, on 66 minutes, Lineker was played through one-on-one with Alan Judge, the Oxford goalkeeper. Normally clinical in such positions, his shot was blocked. Oxford scored a late winner and the title went to Liverpool. (The boots issue should not be overlooked, for when they were returned to Lineker he scored six goals in Everton’s final three games).
Lineker’s phenomenal goalscoring saw him crowned PFA and Football Writers’ Player of the Year awards. He also won the European Golden Boot and second place in the European Footballer of the Year poll. At that summer’s Mexico World Cup he finished top scorer with six goals, including a hat trick against Poland. By then, speculation was rife about Lineker’s future, with Barcelona, who were also closely linked to Howard Kendall, leading the running. In July 1986, Kendall shocked Evertonians by accepting a bid of £2.2million from the Catalan giants.
Lineker spent three years in Spain, returning to England, with Tottenham, in 1989. He starred in the 1990 World Cup, but Bobby Charlton’s England goals record remained elusive. After calling time on his international career in 1992, Lineker made a personally lucrative move to Japan, where he played out an injury riddled two years with Nagoya Grampus 8, in the nascent J-League. On his return to England in the mid-1990s, he set out on a hugely successful broadcast career, in 1999 becoming host of Match of the Day.
There remains a lingering sense amongst Evertonians that Lineker plays down his time at Goodison. But periodically he attempts to set the record straight. In 2002 he wrote in his Daily Telegraph column that he had never wanted to leave Everton, that they were the best team he had ever played for and possessed a superior side to Barcelona. ‘The Cup final apart, Everton were the only team I ever played for when, if you went a goal up in a match, you knew you had it won,’ he wrote. ‘They were also the only team I played for whose names I can still reel off - Southall, Stevens, Van Den Hauwe, Ratcliffe, Mountfield, Steven, Bracewell, Reid, Sheedy, Sharp and me. And they say I never talk about Everton.’