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Gary Lineker: ‘Diego was a mixed-up mess, but what a lovely guy’

·10-min read

Gary Lineker never really thought he was much of a footballer until a fortnight in Spain changed everything. The way he tells his story, it happened both suddenly and in slow motion: 34 years on he sees himself watching the ball drop into the net, wondering what was going on. It was the last day of January 1987 and he had just scored his third against Real Madrid at the Camp Nou, the first clásico hat-trick in 24 years. Eighteen days later, he got four against Spain at the Bernabéu. “And that,” he says, “is when it dawned on me that I was good at this.”

Hang on a minute. You had just been the first division’s top scorer for the second year running. You had scored in the FA Cup final. You had joined Barcelona for £2.8m. Only one player had cost more and that was Diego Maradona. Oh, and you had won the World Cup Golden Boot. “Yeah,” Lineker says, “but I thought I’d fluked it: I’d got lots of tap-ins.” There is no grin or giggle, no irony nor false modesty. Which is why when it’s suggested that 1986 was the perfect year in football, he replies: “Maybe if you include the first two months of 1987, if we go February to February.”

All that and it wasn’t until then that everything fell into place. There is so much to take from a long conversation over five sometimes improvised locations in Madrid one Friday night – from hotel rooftop to bus to bar to stairs to restaurant – as Lineker looks back on his career but the most striking might be that he didn’t anticipate it happening at all. This city changed things.

“I used to think every level I got to they’d find me out, although I kept scoring goals. When I got two in the first five minutes of the 1987 clásico, the mental process was: ‘How the hell is this happening?’ Just after half-time, I dinked it over Paco Buyo. I can see it going in and I’m going: ‘Oh my God, I’ve scored a hat-trick.’ Then came England. Running back to the centre, asking Bryan Robson: ‘Robbo, why am I so lucky?’ He went: ‘Oh, fuck off.’ You hear players say how super-confident they were. I wasn’t. I was getting away with it, I thought I was blagging it.

Related: The Joy of Six: Real Madrid v Barcelona El Clásico classics | Scott Murray

“At Leicester I played in the reserves with heroes of mine and thought: ‘This isn’t me.’ I got in the first team, started scoring and thought: ‘Oh.’ When I got called up for England, Gordon Milne phoned and I thought: ‘What have I done?’ I said: ‘Er, hi boss, everything OK?’ ‘Yeah, get a bag, pack a toothbrush. Bobby Robson’s been on.’ I’m in my little Fiat driving to England thinking: ‘Bloody hell. Tony Woodcock, Peter Shilton, Trevor Francis … What am I doing here?’ They were all lovely.”

If Lineker couldn’t work out why this was happening, he had worked out how to score goals – a craft he dissects in forensic detail. “Instinct? It’s not instinct with me. What I did have was a cool head. I was quite cold, didn’t have much empathy – I don’t think I would have warmed to me then – I was driven, could deal with pressure and thought about the game a lot.”

He never thought about going to Barcelona until it was done and even then he wasn’t sure, despite Terry Venables being manager – and no coach would be closer in his career. “Everton was the best team I played for by miles. But for the ban we would have probably won the European Cup because we were such a good side,” Lineker says. “I had no choice. Howard Kendall called: ‘We’ve accepted an offer.’ ‘Oh, OK.’ It was all a bit strange. He said we were too direct which was nonsense. I would have stayed and won loads.”

New Barcelona signings Mark Hughes (l) and Gary Lineker pictured at the Nou Camp stadium in 1986
Mark Hughes and Gary Lineker were Barça’s big signings in the summer of 1986. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images

Everton were league runners-up and lost the FA Cup final to Liverpool, which still stings. “The most ridiculous thing was both teams went on an open-top bus around the city. Liverpool’s was in front with two trophies. We followed with none and no fans. Peter Reid said: ‘Fuck this’ and got off. I should have done the same but was too nice. It was an act of supreme cruelty. Desperate. Everton won the league the years before I joined and after I left, so maybe it was me.

“Terry was smart, he got it, we spent hours talking about the game. Others were credited with inventing it later, but he brought the full press and Barcelona won the league [in 1985], beat Madrid at the Bernabéu, reached the European Cup final [in 1986]. But the penalties against Steaua had a devastating effect. Terry was such an upbeat guy and that hurt him. I knew they’d lost the final but didn’t register that I had joined a club in mourning. Terry said: ‘We need to get this going again.’”

Liverpool’s bus was in in front with two trophies. We followed with none and no fans. Peter Reid got off

No pressure, then. “I was never that kind of character [to drag a team up]. I’m not sure what they ‘sold’ me as. I was a goalscorer, a big signing: me and Mark Hughes. But this is the club where Cruyff has been, Maradona two years before, and you can’t talk about me in the same breath. I’m not in that league, never was.”

Lineker, though, scored twice on his debut against Racing Santander and three times against Madrid, arriving early at the newsstand for the papers the next day. There were 21 goals that season, 20 the next. But Hughes was struggling and results meant Venables was replaced by Luis Aragonés then Johan Cruyff – who saw Lineker as a winger.

“Cruyff didn’t want me,” he says. “He played me on the wing so I got pissed off and asked to move. It was obvious. You could only have two foreigners and he wanted his own. I understood and accepted that – my ego’s not that big – but he didn’t have the courage to tell me. I wish I’d said: ‘Johan, I’d love to play for you, you’re a genius, but if you don’t want me let’s work out a move.’ His system was made for me. The centre-forward can’t leave the limits of the area, runs near post. That’s my game! Play me! That’s what I do! But he didn’t give me the chance. I just carried on. Anyone can play on the wing. Honestly, it’s easy. Then he would take me off early so I would whine. I ain’t daft.”

“There was a clásico towards the end where we had to win. I sat on the bench. ‘This is weird.’ In three clásicos, I had scored a hat-trick and two winners. Madrid’s bogeyman. Just before half-time, the crowd goes: ‘Lineker! Lineker!’ Second half: ‘Lineker, Lineker!’ He didn’t even let me warm up. Twenty minutes left, I looked across: ‘no tienes los cojones,’ you haven’t got the balls. Everyone heard me, he blanked me, we drew 0-0. But! Did I dislike him? No. Did I think he was a great coach? Absolutely yes. Did it upset me when he died? Yes! He was one of the greatest ever and I totally understood his position.”

Barcelona striker Gary Lineker (r) gets in a shot as Hugo Sanchez of Real Madrid looks on during the 'El Clasico' between Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Camp Nou on January 31, 1987
Gary Lineker in action during the clásico in January 1987, in which he scored a hat-trick. Photograph: Getty Images

Lineker went back to London, rejoining Venables at Spurs. Next came Japan, where retirement arrived early but still later than he would have chosen. Foot injuries were excruciating – “if they had said: ‘We can kill you,’ I would have said: ‘Yes please’” – and Lineker calls his last two years “purgatory”. Having missed a stress fracture, Grampus pushed him into eight months’ rehabilitation to save face and complete his contract. He was still limping when he did.

“Football’s funny, you identify entirely with your clubs when you play, but then I retired and Leicester came back: you return to your roots. Sport’s better when you care and you get magical moments like 2016 or the FA Cup that make you cry.” No man though brought him more joy than Lionel Messi, absent now as Lineker looks forward to Sunday’s clásico, the game that changed him. Still there’s enthusiasm, the ties with Barcelona and Spain remain.

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“It’s sad he’s gone but I’m happy that people may now appreciate what he did the last few years,” Lineker says. “Even in a quiet game you see three or four things from Messi I wouldn’t have managed in my entire career. ‘How?’ He plays like he’s got another Messi 40 feet above that sees everything and is playing him. His mental process is different, some unbelievable gift. Honestly, no one comes close, except Diego [Maradona]. And it’s 17 years. Diego was just a few because of his issues.

“Peter Shilton will never, ever forgive Maradona and I understand that,” Lineker says, but he feels differently. “There’s the handball and before the second there’s a foul on [Glenn] Hoddle. I hadn’t noticed until we watched it back for a documentary and all went: ‘Oh. My. God.’ So, both goals shouldn’t stand, I scored the winner, we won the World Cup! Only two players in my lifetime could score that: Messi and Maradona. It crossed my mind to applaud. I can’t obviously and I’m gutted and we’re screwed but that was too good, man. I would have got killed, got the Beckham effigies: I didn’t clap, but I did think: ‘That’s just unbelievable.’

Argentina’s Diego Maradona (left) is greeted by England’s Gary Lineker following their 1986 World Cup quarter final. Lineker  says Diego Maradona (left) was ‘great company: funny, smart – you can’t be a great footballer without being smart’
Argentina’s Diego Maradona (left) is greeted by England’s Gary Lineker following their 1986 World Cup quarter final. Lineker says Diego Maradona (left) was ‘great company: funny, smart – you can’t be a great footballer without being smart’ Photograph: Lars Nyberg-Expressen/Reuters

“Diego was a mixed-up mess, but what a lovely guy. I spent time with him and it’s madness. Everywhere is bedlam and you think: how can you stay sane? I thought: thank God I wasn’t that good, which sounds weird and maybe I would have handled it, but I don’t know. Diego got into drugs, that mafia world, but he was great company: funny, smart – you can’t be a great footballer without being smart.

“I did the World Cup draw for television with him once. It was a complicated draw, a lot of information, and we got through, no mistakes. At the end I said something like: ‘You’ve always been good with your hands’ and he’s joking about punching the ball. He gave me a big hug and said: ‘You were a good footballer but if you were as good at football as you are at this, you might, might, have been as good as me.’”

Lineker smiles. “Isn’t that beautiful? That made my day. You might have been as good as me: a little put down, but gentle, warm. And I get it: I wasn’t that good. I was just a goalscorer.”

Watch el clásico on LaLigaTV tomorrow. Coverage starts at 1pm with Gary Lineker hosting live from the Camp Nou alongside Aitor Karanka and Albert Ferrer

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