On Gary Lineker’s Twitter feed there are two notification columns. The first tells him if he has been mentioned in a tweet by people who have the verifying blue tick, or that he follows. Then there’s the second. The randoms.
It can get a little lively. ‘On the occasions I’ve been tempted to look there I’ve always regretted it,’ he says.
‘But the ones that are really abusive, you know — if you met them you’d probably go, “Why am I bothered?” It’s the sort of person who draws a d**k on the wall in the service station loos.’
Straight-talking on social media, Gary Lineker is now very familiar with the trolls of Twitter
Lineker used to get asked about his goals. These days, the most common questions are about Paul Gascoigne’s tears at the 1990 World Cup [he says his concerned reaction was as much selfish as empathetic] and his favourite flavour of crisps [salt and vinegar, although home cooking is more his thing these days]. But the essence of the modern Lineker is in those tweets.
It is what propelled him into the public consciousness during Brexit, when he became a far more powerful voice for Remain than any of the political leaders.
It is no doubt this, and his perceived metropolitan liberal elite existence, that pushes the buttons of those service station d**k artists.
Lineker 2.0 was truly launched on October 18, 2016. At a time when national newspapers were running columns that compared desperate, fleeing humanity to cockroaches, Lineker tweeted: ‘The treatment by some towards these young refugees is hideously racist and utterly heartless. What’s happening to our country?’
Cue pile-on. Conservative MPs called for his dismissal by the BBC; Tommy Robinson and his supporters took issue on social media. And luvvie, left-wing Lineker was born, 7.5million followers and counting.
He really didn’t set out to be a voice of that, or any other, generation and the feeling remains that they’ve got the wrong man.
‘I’m not party political,’ he says. ‘I’m your typical floating voter. I’ve voted for all of them at some point and I don’t mind admitting it. I’m not a socialist but I’m probably left of the centre. Not left wing. I’m like I was as a player. Much happier in the middle. I get bashed from both sides lately because I wasn’t a fan of Jeremy Corbyn and then I’d reference that and — whoosh.
‘My dad was a proper Tory. Loved Thatcher. Small businessman. It’s where life takes you, I suppose. I’ve always been fairly empathetic.
‘What I said about refugees, there were some awful pieces comparing them to cockroaches and stuff, and I thought, ‘Hang on, this is xenophobia. This is just racist s**t’. Maybe I worded it aggressively, but that’s how I felt.
‘And then everyone went for me, I was front page, and I was really surprised by it. These poor people, their country’s been bombed to bits and they’ve had to flee and their kids are on boats and people are falling overboard and drowning and you’re having a go at me for having sympathy towards them?
During Brexit, Lineker was a more powerful voice for Remain than any of the political leaders
‘It’s just messed up. You might have an issue about not letting everyone in because of jobs and I get that, but to have no empathy with people who are drowning?
‘The whole world needs to come together and look after each other, and take their fair share because they’re human like us.
‘And I would have done exactly the same if I’d had 350 followers or 7.5million. People can whine about my views but you’ve got the choice of not following someone. People say it comes up on their feed when they don’t want it. Well, mute me mate, block me, do whatever you want to do. And I’m stubborn sometimes. The more people tell me not to tweet, to stick to football, the more it’s going to make me not stick to football.
‘I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone what to tweet or not.
‘And the same people who tell me to stick to football whether it is a plumber, an electrician, a cricketer, (archly) a former England goalkeeper (Peter Shilton, Lineker’s ex-team-mate, is a strong advocate of Brexit), they all have their views on everything. And the ones who want you to shut up are always the ones with a different view to yours.
‘It’s like the Match of the Day running order row.
‘I find it unbelievable because we show them all and in the end you only have to stay up, say, 10 minutes longer to see your game but there are always complaints and they are always about the team that person supports not being on earlier. And they say, “You’re biased!” No, mate — you’re biased.
‘I think one downside of social media is that it has made everyone more aggressive. Things escalate very quickly and then something terrible happens like Caroline Flack’s death and then everyone decides to #bekind for four days. And then it’s back to ‘Grr…’.’
What few see about Lineker is the journey. There are plenty of people who live in nice houses, in nice parts of London, earning nice salaries, who could not care less about refugees or social justice. And certainly, Lineker’s upbringing does not lend itself to liberal politics.
The Match Of The Day host gave a wide-ranging interview to Chief Sportswriter Martin Samuel
He is the son of Barry, a fruiterer in Leicester market. There are not many socialists on market stalls. It’s a hard life. Lots of early mornings, lots of standing out in all weathers, if you don’t work you don’t earn, so illness has to be shrugged off. It is a life that tends to promote conservatism; the value of graft; the importance of earned wealth.
And Barry produced a son who became one of the world’s finest footballers. Again, a climate that fosters right-wing thinking. A football team is the ultimate meritocracy. Social background, social skills even, do not matter. If you’re good enough, you’re in — and if you’re not, well, you just need to work harder, son.
It requires huge personal sacrifice and relentless effort. So football’s politics are not just about the money, or low taxes. Footballers tack right because their careers condition them that way. Little in Lineker’s upbringing, professional or personal, should have brought him to this point.
A few days ago, he went to the National Theatre — the stage being another passion — and saw Death of England with Rafe Spall.
‘It’s very relevant to where we are now,’ Lineker says. ‘And the lead is the son of a stallholder, he sells flowers, my dad was fruit. And there were so many similarities. And there was one point that really got me, and I was crying because he’s listening to a tape of his dad after he’s died and he says, “I love you” in it. And he’d never heard that.
‘And nor had I, until just before my dad died. It was about the last real conversation we had, a week before he went, and I’d been going up and down to Leicester, up and down to Leicester, and we’d talk like we never had before.
‘I’d probably spent more time with him then than in the previous 40 years. And I said, “I’ll be back tomorrow, dad” and he said, “Oh, great — I love you.”
Lineker has been vocal with his opinions on social media and made clear he won’t back down
Abuse often ranges from his personal views to the Match Of The Day running order each week
‘And I’d truly never heard it. And I was like, “What?” And that seems mad because I tell my kids it all the time, but his generation were stoic and I just hurriedly said, “I love you too, dad” and I had to get out because I’d gone. And this play, it struck home, with some of Brexit in there, too. I never asked Dad which way he voted in the Referendum because I didn’t want to hear the answer. It was best I didn’t ask because I kind of knew.’
Barry gave his son the middle name Winston; and not because he was a big fan of dancehall reggae. ‘Same birthday,’ Lineker adds. ‘But Winston? What a great name. I wish they’d called me that and not Gary. Gary’s such a crap name —and Winston, what about the headlines? It’s got win in it.’
Of course, being required to have an opinion on everything does have its pitfalls. The last interview Lineker gave he was asked about the BBC licence fee and said, as he has always believed, that it should be voluntary. Cue headlines, and no doubt some rather intense conversations with his fellow workers.
Lineker says he came under no pressure from his employers, but he’s done a bit of thinking since. ‘And I was wrong, wasn’t I?’ he grimaces. ‘And we all get things wrong in life, and I hate admitting it, but the BBC is under threat and it’s an incredible institution and I don’t think I could live with myself if I played the slightest part in helping that happen. After I said it, there was a lot of debate, so I looked into it and… I’ve seen sense.
‘There isn’t another way to fund it really. It’s like the NHS. It’s revered around the world, and I’ve benefited from that, saying I work for the BBC and feeling the respect.
‘It’s quintessentially British and something we should be proud of — and there’s not that many things left like that. I think what I said was born of frustration, really, of being the BBC whipping boy.
‘I’m the high-earner, so it’s always my face whenever there is a negative BBC story. I get a lot of “we pay your wages” and I probably felt if it wasn’t down to the taxpayer then I wouldn’t have to deal with that any more.’
The son of a fruiterer in Leicester market, Lineker grew up to be one of the world’s best strikers
Someone who has not always been a fan of the BBC is Sir Alex Ferguson. Not always a fan of Lineker’s, either, it must be said.
Recently, on his excellent podcast with Danny Baker, Behind Closed Doors, Lineker told the story of an awkward meeting with Ferguson at his favourite local restaurant, Riva.
He was with his son, Harry, and thought it polite to say hello, despite their previous differences. Ferguson, who was with friends, turned his head away from the outstretched hand, snubbing Lineker in front of the company.
‘I’m a forgiving soul and I sense that Sir Alex, er, isn’t,’ Lineker explains. ‘We’ve got history. We’ve fallen out a few times over the years, silly little things really.
‘It started with a magazine interview. I was at the BBC and I was talking about managers getting the hump after games, talking in general terms about the pressures and the fact they get paranoid and think we’re all against them.
‘And then they asked me about Sir Alex and I talked about him.
‘But in the piece all those quotes were stuck together, so it made it look as if it was all about Sir Alex. So I saw it and thought, “Oh no, f****** hell” — so I wrote to him. Old school. Tried to explain it and that I was sorry it had come out wrong. He wrote back with two lines that basically said: I don’t believe you.
‘And then he did a long interview with Sir David Frost and I was watching it at home and Frost brought it up, the magazine interview. And Sir Alex was saying, “Oh yeah, he’s not whiter than white like they all think, he’s got super-injunctions all over the place”. And I’m sitting there thinking, “What? My God, you can’t say that. It’s not true, it’s not even close”. And I got a sort of begrudging, Sir Alex-type apology. And I could have gone down the legal route because it was bad. I’ve bumped into him occasionally.
Lineker began his career with boyhood club Leicester and went on to score 194 times for them
Following the Foxes incredible title win, Lineker kept his promise to present in his underwear
‘The next time I saw him was at Sir Bobby Robson’s memorial and we were the two speakers, stuck in a room together, and he was all right. I don’t bear grudges.
‘I just brought the subject around to horse racing, which I know nothing about. I know loads of people he’s been brilliant with. I just think it’s a shame. I don’t have a temper really. I can get grumpy.
‘I can whinge with the best of them, but I never had that red mist, I was never abusive. I don’t get angry and that’s always been a good thing, keeping cool as a striker and for television because you’ve got to be in control when it’s live.
‘You’re always one sentence from disaster. It’s the world we live in.’
In that respect — and considering he is a friend and colleague of Baker who had his own social media trial not so long ago — does Lineker ever worry that he may one day fall foul of the medium? A tweet gone wrong, a hideous nuance unnoticed? ‘Of course, I worry that one day it could be me,’ he says.
‘I do have a strategy. I read everything through before I post and if I’m one per cent doubtful of how it might be perceived I don’t press send. A couple of times I’ve done things that were misconstrued and I’ve deleted them later, but nothing career threatening. The worst thing that ever happened, a real ‘f***, what have you done’ moment was presenting for Al Jazeera.
‘I’d been doing the Champions League for them in London. We’d show a group game and then a round up of the rest of the matches.
Lineker’s path crossed with Sir Alex Ferguson (left) at Sir Bobby Robson’s memorial in 2009
‘Some would have commentary, others would just arrive and all I would know is the name of the goal-scorer. Haven’t seen the footage, but I’ve got to voice it live. It’s tricky.
‘We cut to this game, two teams you wouldn’t recognise, this fella scores and the picture you see, his face is pressed into the ground.
‘So I’ve said, “And to celebrate — he’s eating grass!” Bit of laughter in the gallery, I thought it was just a little silliness.
‘He’s praying, isn’t he? It’s a Muslim prayer. I get in the car going home and I can see this building up. “He does this regularly… it’s his religion … how can you be so ignorant…” And it was big over there and I had to apologise — but it was a genuine mistake.’
Sighs. That’s how febrile it is these days. And we live in the time of the pundit-fan, too, with television companies placing increasing pressure on their experts to show allegiance to a team. Lineker is a Leicester man, everyone knows that, and he has presented Match of the Day in club underpants for his sins, but it doesn’t mean he’s comfortable with it.
‘It was OK to be Leicester because they weren’t very good and no threat,’ he says. ‘Now that’s changing. They’re a well run, very wealthy club and could remain a top four team, so I will dial it down.
‘I don’t mind people knowing who I support but I don’t want them to think I’m a cheerleader. I’ve had conversations about using words like “we” — I don’t like it said about clubs, I don’t like it said about England. And I don’t like nicknames, either. I wouldn’t call Jamie Carragher “Carra”.
‘It has shifted, and there are people who have been at one club all their lives, so they play on it and that’s quite entertaining. But if I were a pundit — and I’m not, I’m the presenter — I would treat everything as neutral because you don’t want people thinking you’re biased. I’ve been seen jumping up and down in the studio when Lionel Messi’s bent one in because I love greatness, or when Lucas Moura scores in the sixth minute of extra-time, but there’s a difference when it’s passion, enthusiasm.
‘The way it has gone, this week we had Micah Richards in because he’s Manchester City and Nigel Pearson because he was Sheffield Wednesday. And that’s fine — but it’s not what I would do.
Lineker says his concerned reaction for Paul Gascoigne was as much selfish as empathetic
‘I’d rather have neutral pundits giving a balanced view. Neutrality’s better. I played for England for years, but I don’t like the ‘we’ word, even if I feel it.’
Leicester aside — and Chelsea because of the geographical convenience — if he could have a season ticket, where would it be?
‘Anywhere in the world?’ he clarifies. ‘Barcelona. I’d have stayed there forever if I could. Here?’ (Significant deliberation.) ‘Manchester City. I switch between them and Liverpool, but I love the way Pep Guardiola has evolved the game. I love Jurgen Klopp’s personality, he’s a star, his energy, it’s fantastic. But the football is simple, you know what you are going to get. What City do — it’s just so clever. You’ll see a different formation, a different way, every visit. They take the game on.
‘Sometimes Guardiola will do something you think is almost too smart, like at Real Madrid last week, but that reminds me of Johan Cruyff. I was fascinated by his training. He just saw it all differently — off the charts, even when he played me on the wing.
‘I had no sympathy for wingers after that. It was simple, just crossing it — but most of the ones I played with had not a Scooby how to even do that. Guardiola players are smart, and the best ones are really smart, particularly their spatial awareness. Messi plays like he’s standing above himself. It’s not university clever.
‘But people would say to me about Gazza, “Oh, he’s thick”. I’d say, “No, no…” He was sharp and he was witty before he lost his way, and he was so intelligent as a footballer the only pass he’d give you is one he knew you’d have to give him straight back; unless he was knackered. Late on in Naples, 1990 (against Cameroon), he suddenly put me straight through.
‘I said, “We’ve played together for two years, Gazza — you could do that all the time”. He’s grinning, ‘I know, I know’. It’s like you never meet a thick comedian. If you know how to be funny, you’re smart. Don’t get me wrong, there are thick footballers out there — but they don’t tend to be the very best ones.
‘I still speak to Gazza. He’ll suddenly text or call me out of the blue. The last one was two weeks ago. “What ya doowen? Ah jus’ fell doon the stairs”. You get a text and it’s always from a different number because he’s lost the last phone. And you don’t know who it is, but then you’ll get, “It’s Gazza”.
A fondness for Barcelona is still held, Lineker says he ‘would have stayed there forever’
‘I had to clear his numbers out a little while ago because there were too many. Gazza, Paul Gascoigne, Gazza 2, Gazza 4, I had about 15.
‘Then two weeks after he’s been in touch I’ll text him and get nothing back because he’s lost the phone again. Everyone says it: a million stories about him, and they’re all true.’
It’s time to go. Lineker has to be in Sheffield for that night’s cup game, but he’s made soup for lunch before the journey. Tomato, fennel and chilli. It’s really good.
He likes entertaining, always cooks from scratch. But fennel? The archetypal vegetable of the left-wing, luvvie, metropolitan elite?
‘I know, I know,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘And it was going so well. Why did I have to mention fennel?’