Gary Lineker: the unlikely voice of reason in modern Britain
Former player turned broadcaster talks candidly about social media vitriol and Brexit
England’s Gary Lineker celebrates scoring England’s opening goal against the Republic of Ireland in their 1990 World Cup match, one the striker remembers for a particularly embarrassing moment. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Every big story is small in its own way. Gary Lineker is talking about a moment in time 29 years ago, a pixel in a billboard photo. It’s the England v the Republic of Ireland game in Italia ’90 and while we are sitting there agog, a nation rooted in the cultural zero hour of our first World Cup match, Lineker has more earthly matters to contend with. He has ... well, probably best to let him take it from here.
“I’m sitting on the pitch and Gary Stevens comes over and looks at me and I just had to go, ‘I’ve shit myself.’ And I didn’t know what to do. I had to get it out of my shorts – thankfully they were the blue shorts back then and not white ones. And I was shuffling along the ground like dogs do, with their backside in the grass. And eventually, I got myself together and got up and played on. I must admit, I got a bit more space after that.
“It was beyond a nightmare. It was a living hell. I had been ill all night – I don’t know whether I’d eaten something or whatever it was. And I went before the game but I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want to be left out of the team.
“I carried on and managed to get through to half-time and I went to the loo again. And then I came out for the second half and I thought I’d be alright. Then the ball went down the left hand side and I chased after it a little bit and it just happened. The one good thing that night, the only thing that half saved me, was that there was a big shower before the game and it meant the pitch was wet. So I was able to wipe my hands on the grass, having previously...”
Aaaand that seems as good a place as any to fade back in and steer the conversation back to the present day. Readers keen for more detail will find it and other cerebrations in Lineker’s new book, Behind Closed Doors, written alongside his podcast partner Danny Baker. The pair alternate chapters and passages, telling stories from their football lives, much in the way they do in their podcast of the same name.
They’ve been recording the podcast together in Lineker’s kitchen since last November, jawing away on such disparate subjects as becoming a Top Gear curse and kissing Tony Adams. Along the way, they drill down into the stuff no footballer ever talks about for the simple reason nobody thinks to ask. Pre-season friendlies, for instance. More specifically, the deals Lineker used to try to strike with opposition centre-halves during them.
“I hated them,” he says. “I remember one particular one, I think against Sligo. And I said to the centre-half, ‘Look, I don’t care in the slightest here about winning. I’m just trying to get fit. So let’s take it easy and I promise I’ll make you look good. You’ll win all the headers, I won’t get in your way.’
“A lot of times, when I said that, it worked out fine for everybody. I wasn’t kidding – I genuinely didn’t care whether we lost 3-0 or won 4-1. So we’d play the game and the guy marking me would come off looking like a hero and I’d get a bit fitter. But this guy still kicked me up in the air every chance he got. I think he just wanted to hurt me.”
The podcast almost got derailed earlier this year when Baker got himself into huge trouble with a Twitter post after the birth of the latest royal baby. Apparently unaware the newborn Prince Archie was of mixed race, he posted an old black and white picture he’d used numerous times before when joking about class – one of a couple holding hands with a chimp dressed in a coat and bowler hat, carrying a cane. His caption ran, “Royal Baby Leaves Hospital”.
It sounds awful. It was awful. Baker was fired from his BBC Radio Five Live show and the podcast was put on ice for the rest of the season. In his apology, he explained that once it was pointed out to him the baby was mixed race, he was hit by “waves of panic and revulsion” and he deleted the tweet. Though he claimed it to have been a genuine and catastrophic mistake, he fully accepted he deserved to be fired for it.
For Lineker, the fallout put him in an awkward spot. After years of staving off the podcast revolution, he had finally decided to dip his toe and had approached Baker himself through a Twitter direct message to see would he be interested. The first season had gone extremely well but now Baker looked – for a while at least – radioactive. Surely, it’s future was in danger, no?
“I wouldn’t say it was in trouble,” he says. “Danny made a mistake, he knows that. I know people say, ‘Well he must have known,’ but I completely believe that he didn’t. I just don’t think that someone as bright as Danny would have managed to hide being a racist for all his life and then suddenly expose himself. I think it was obviously a mistake.
“It was a big mistake. But he did a proper apology, he explained how it happened and if I thought for one minute that Danny was a racist I wouldn’t have continued with the podcast. I wouldn’t have done it with him in the first place.
“He clearly didn’t know. One of the gags on his radio show for years was Monkeys Dressed As Famous People Accompanied By Fairground Music. He’s used the idea of monkeys dressed as people as a comedic thing for years. He’d never do it as an attack on someone. He just obviously didn’t know.
“It was a mistake and one he paid a price for. He lost his job and he had a summer where everyone piled onto him. I felt for him because we all cock up occasionally. Hopefully it’s in the past and people will over time hopefully understand it for the mistake it was.”
Twitter’s central role in it all was unavoidable. Baker’s ill-advised joke was posted there, leading to the deluge of outrage under which he became submerged in the days and weeks that followed. Even now, five months later, Lineker gets daily flak on Twitter for continuing to work with Baker.
And yet, Linker is a long-standing devotee. His follower numbers are ticking up towards 7.5 million, even though it’s fair to say not all of them would class themselves as even liking him. In these feral times, he takes far more abuse on it than he does praise. So why? Why bother with it?
“I don’t know, it’s a good question,” he says. “I’ve thought about it myself from time to time. I used to treat it like my job – I’d use it for mostly football or if you might think of a joke maybe, wind people up for a bit of a laugh. Or sometimes, you might put up a serious comment about politics or something but that would be that.
“It was my son who got me into it and at the time, I found it good for getting news and that kind of thing. But then you tweet a little bit and you get a bit of interaction and most of it is kind of bantery and quite good fun. And then after a while, you suddenly get a little bit of hate and you go, ‘Oooh, hang on a minute.’ So then you have to start questioning it.
“I think it gets a bit addictive, definitely. And when you have a lot of followers, you can be sitting there and something happens and you think, ‘Blimey, I have to tweet.’ Then you get into the thing where you tweet something positive about a Liverpool performance in a game that you might have watched. A few hours later, Man U are winning a game and you’re out to dinner or something and you’re not watching it and next thing, you go and look at your phone and you have thousands of people going, ‘Oh, you haven’t tweeted about Man U, then. How come you tweet about Liverpool and not Man U?’
“It’s really worth thinking about. Why do we do it? I don’t have the answer to it. Sometimes I think, ‘Why the hell do I bother?’ It brings more problems than it does joy.”
This has been particularly true of the past three years. As the Brexit walls have tumbled down, Lineker has become one of the UK’s most visible remain voices outside of politics. His despair at what his society has turned since the 2016 referendum into is obvious and genuine.
“I think it’s so sad the way Brexit has gone. Not the fact that the decision was made, more the fact that it has divided the whole country. It’s become so tribal. I mean I’ve got mates who are Brexiteers, we get on absolutely fine. But on social media, in the newspapers, if you’ve got a remain opinion then suddenly you have all this aggression towards you. I don’t really get that. You can have a different opinion without having to hate somebody. But that’s where we are.
“I find it really sad. We’re in this state now where it’s such a pickle. We don’t know what we want to do. We don’t know how we’re going to do it. We don’t know what form it’s going to take. It’s going to take forever. And you just have these moments where you go, ‘Why are we doing this?’ What for? what is the point? What is the massive advantage to actually leaving anyway? Hopefully something will sort itself out but I don’t have any great hope.”
In the heightened atmosphere of modern Britain, the bizarre becomes commonplace. It is de rigueur now for 60-year-old Lineker, former England captain, icon of the country’s national sport, to be called a traitor on a daily basis. It’s no surprise that at times, he wonders how they got to this point.
At least there’s football. When you chat to him, you sense Lineker is well aware he’s had a gilded life. He didn’t make the money footballers make today but he did more than fine. Then he parlayed his playing career into a lucrative broadcasting one, securing a comfortable future for him and his four sons. He doesn’t need to give a toss about Brexit, certainly not in public. Which makes it all the more admirable that he does.
“It’s silly because people like myself won’t be overly affected, other than passport queues and things like that. I care because I’m patriotic and I hate seeing what we’re doing to our own country. The opposite is actually true. I worry about what the instant effect will be on the people. And inevitably, it will be the poor who are hit the hardest. That’s the way the world works. The people who will benefit from this are the super-rich.
“I don’t know. I’m still waiting on someone to give me one real positive benefit of leaving the EU and they can’t really do it. Let alone what we’re doing to Ireland. So it’s depressing, I just find it all so depressing.”
On that, he is far from alone.