On a Tuesday afternoon in late May, Gary Lineker is in the same position he’s occupied for the better part of a quarter of a century: staring out from a screen in the corner of my front room – chest leaning forward conspiratorially; pearly- grey hair catching the light; mahogany, gym-hewn arms gesticulating with precise abandon – yammering on about the beautiful game. Only today he’s broadcasting to an audience of one, and probably wishes he could be somewhere else.
Had the coronavirus not paralysed the sporting calendar in mid-March, Lineker would have been our trusted chaperone for the end of another football season. Presenting Match of the Day, he would have shown us Liverpool sashaying to their first league title in 30 years in May and, on BT Sport, the closing stages of the Champions League. From next week, he’d have been our host for England’s latest quest for glory at Euro 2020.
As it is, the Euros have been postponed for 12 months, the Champions League will return in due course, and the Premier League is scheduled to restart on 17 June, albeit without spectators.
‘I’m excited to see a bit of live sport again, especially football,’ Lineker says. ‘We’ve seen from Germany [where football restarted in mid-May] that it seems to be going OK. It’s not quite the same behind closed doors, but it’s better than nothing.’
Lineker now has a couple of weeks to think about how he might address the crisis in that first Match of the Day or live game (for the first time since the Premier League’s inception in 1992, four games will be shown live on BBC Sport when the season resumes).
‘Mmm, you’ve reminded me about that now. I need to get my thinking cap on,’ he says. ‘Obviously the tone will be important, we’re glad it’s back on, but there won’t be any over-exuberance…’
Talking about global issues on the BBC is a potential minefield at the best of times, and the pandemic is beginning to stray into that territory. Just recently, Lineker skipped into the row surrounding Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis and her introduction about the Government’s non-response to the Dominic Cummings saga.
After accusations of bias, the BBC apologised, accepting that it had breached its impartiality guidelines, and had a word with Maitlis. She then decided to take a night off from the show.
‘You don’t say,’ Lineker tweeted when that news broke, ‘looking forward to @Maitlis repeating her monologue tonight.’
Is Lineker worried about being seen to ‘politicise’ the crisis, even on MOTD? ‘Obviously I won’t “politicise” it on TV, [but] I don’t think it’s a political issue, anyway. I never have from the start. I don’t see this as a Tory, Liberal, Labour, Brexit, Remain issue, it’s got nothing to do with it. It’s just about minimising the casualties as we go through it.’
Like many of us, Lineker has had some time on his hands over the past few months. Now 59, twice-divorced and living by himself in Barnes, south-west London, he is used to his own company, and has whiled away the lockdown hours by ‘working out in the morning, cooking, reading, watching box sets… and just… missing live sport’.
As the BBC is poised to rerun classic matches from international tournaments, he has also been in a nostalgic mood. Next month is 30 years since a certain World Cup semi-final against West Germany.
‘God,’ he says, ‘30 years. Where did that go?’ Images of that game at Italia ’90, from Chris Waddle’s miss to Paul Gascoigne’s tears, have followed him for years. The result still infuriates him. ‘We were the better side. Waddle hit the inside of the post. Another inch and we’d have been in the final and with a chance at footballing immortality. It’s the only thing in my entire career where I look back and think, “If only.”’
A devout ‘foodie’, the highlight of Lineker’s day in lockdown has been trundling to the shops ‘to buy whatever produce I need for dinner’. He has taught himself to make cakes and strawberry crumble. ‘It’s a recipe for disaster, literally, where the weight is concerned,’ he says, though his state-of-the-art basement gym, where he lifts weights and runs on a treadmill, has seen to any lockdown lumps. He’s the same weight now, around 12st 5lb, as he was when he played professionally.
It’s that lack of live sport he’s been most distressed about. ‘I’ve always wondered what people’s lives were like that had no interest in watching sport,’ he says. ‘Where is the big, thrilling moment of watching your team playing a big game?’
To sate goal-starved football fans, each week he and regular Match of the Day pundits Ian Wright and Alan Shearer have been broadcasting a ‘Top 10’ programme. The series, which is a spin-off from their popular weekly podcast, began with the trio meeting in Lineker’s kitchen, before lockdown forced them to record in their own homes.
‘It’s like eavesdropping on three blokes at a pub, talking nonsense and reminiscing about a lifetime in the sport,’ Lineker says. ‘The technicalities are quite difficult, but it’s worked. People love it.’
To get around the fact Lineker is ‘a bit technophobic’, a ‘home studio’ was installed in his tastefully decorated living room. The interior design is largely the work of Lineker’s ex-wife Danielle Bux, but he has long been a keen buyer of contemporary art. Today, wearing a tight grey T-shirt and round black spectacles, his background appears to be a painter’s spattered floor. It turns out that’s precisely what it is.
‘It’s an artist’s floorboards, I found it in Paris and thought it was cool, so put it on the kitchen wall,’ he says, panning around. ‘It’d probably be a bit distracting for TV.’
Since retiring after 16 years in the professional game in 1994, Lineker has always stuck up for footballers. He has been no different during the pandemic, defending them in rows over everything from clubs using furlough schemes to players getting access to tests before key workers.
‘There are thousands of footballers, but whenever one errs, it’s a front-page story. No one ever has a go at musicians or actors or golfers earning a fortune, but when it’s lads who come from council estates, we don’t seem to like it,’ Lineker says. ‘Yes, they’re role models, but that’s not why they play the game, they play it because they love it and are good at it. Footballers, generally, have come out of this exceptionally well.’
An initiative, #PlayersTogether, has seen footballers raise millions for NHS Charities. Lineker, the BBC’s highest-paid star, has also donated two months of his £1.75 million salary to the British Red Cross.
Yet not everybody in the sport enhanced their reputation. The chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), Gordon Taylor, for instance, said he will not take a cut to his £2 million salary – though he did go on to make a personal donation of £500,000 to #PlayersTogether.
‘I don’t quite know what his handling of it is,’ Lineker says, mildly cattily, when I ask him to rate Taylor’s performance. ‘I’ve never been a huge fan of the PFA, it could do so much more. It’s surprising Gordon’s still around after things that have happened in recent times.’
When we speak, Lineker has just watched the first few fixtures in the newly restarted Bundesliga. The German premier league has been revived without fans, with squads quarantining together, regular testing and even socially distanced team buses. It’s roughly how football is likely to look here over the summer. ‘It was exactly as I expected it to be: a bit flat, a bit surreal. Having no crowd makes a massive difference.’
The players, he reckons, will be desperate to get going again. ‘One or two will be nervous if they’ve got a vulnerable member of the family, but the vast majority will be delighted. Footballers want to get back to work and give the nation a lift. They’ve seen the supermarket workers, the NHS staff – now they’ll want to do their bit.’
The son of Margaret and Barry, Gary Winston Lineker (he shares a birthday with Churchill) descends from a line of greengrocers, and as a child used to help on the stall his father ran in Leicester Market. He captained the Leicestershire Schools cricket team through his teens, but football ‘came easy’ to him – he spurned offers from multiple teams to join Leicester City as an apprentice at 16.
There followed a remarkable playing career. In 16 years and 567 games, Lineker scored 330 goals, was never once cautioned by a referee, and finished lead scorer at a record three top-flight clubs (Leicester, Everton and Spurs).
Internationally, he retired after 80 caps as England’s second-top scorer (behind Bobby Charlton) and was the only Englishman to win the Golden Boot at a World Cup, in 1986. Four years later, playing West Germany in the semi-final at Italia ’90, he confidently drilled his penalty in the shoot-out, only for… well, you know the rest.
I wonder if he ever feels frustrated not to be remembered more for his exploits on the pitch. ‘Not at all. When Harry Kane got the Golden Boot [at the 2018 World Cup], people asked if it annoyed me, but I said no, because it reminds people about me. There’s a whole generation who think I’m just that guy who does Match of the Day… so it’s a nice reminder that I did play the game reasonably well way back when.’
As a child, Lineker used to write match reports of Leicester City matches; later, as a professional footballer, he would lurk in the press box at matches, looking over the shoulders of sports writers. By 1990 Gascoigne and Waddle were calling him ‘Junior Des’. Lynam, his predecessor on Match of the Day, later became his mentor.
‘He taught me little things, like when introducing the pundits, saying “joining us this evening” not “joining me”, because it’s not about me, it’s the people at home. I can’t get his voice though, I’d love that…’
Ah, the voice. Lineker’s always hated his voice. ‘Still do,’ he says. When he moved into the media in 1994, the BBC sent him for training. ‘I have this East Midlands, monotone thing. I had to inject personality into my voice because it wasn’t there.’
In 1999, he replaced Lynam on Match of the Day, and has remained ever since. In those early years especially, there was a misconception that he was a bit bland. The non-existent disciplinary record probably had something to do with it, as did a wholesome family image: he married his childhood sweetheart and the mother of his children, Michelle Cockayne, at 26, and never got involved in tabloid gossip.
But as Lineker has grown into one of the country’s finest sports broadcasters, he has slowly unbuttoned. On-screen, his self-written scripts are filled with gently funny lines Lynam would be proud of, and in 2016 he quite literally unbuttoned when he honoured a pledge to present the show in his pants if Leicester City won the league.
And there was, of course, a late-career blossoming as a favourite with the Red Tops, prompted when he and Cockayne divorced in 2006, before he married Danielle Bux, an actor and former lingerie model 18 years his junior, and they too divorced after eight years together in 2016.
He and Bux split because she wanted another child and he felt he was getting old. ‘Ultimately she didn’t want to make me do something that wasn’t part of the plan. Obviously, I would have done, but she said, “It’s not fair on you,”’ he has said.
It left Lineker fancy-free in his mid-50s. Last year he aroused the press again when he said he’s ‘not massively into sex’ these days, but enjoys a nice dinner and a bit of a flirt.
No Zoom dates, then? ‘Zoom dates?!’ he splutters. ‘Christ no. I haven’t been on any dates...’ He and Bux remain incredibly close. Now remarried with a young daughter (she has another, Ella, now 18, from a previous relationship, to whom Lineker is ‘still very close’), she lives in Los Angeles, where Lineker visits ‘four or five times a year’.
‘My ex-wife is kind of my best mate, so one of the reasons is to see her and [Ella], but I’ve also got mates there, and as a single bloke you’ve got to go where you’ve got mates.’
His sons – George, 28, Harry, 26, Tobias, 24, and Angus, 22 – are his other best mates, ‘even if they do wind me up’. They split their time between Cockayne’s home and Lineker’s, and, bar two weeks when Lineker self-isolated as three of the boys had coronavirus symptoms, have continued to drop in during lockdown. ‘The rules are so ambiguous. At the start they said children of divorced parents can see both parents… I dunno. I’m not sure if I’m doing it right or wrong.’
Lineker Jnrs are, respectively, a start-up founder, a producer in Lineker’s TV-production company, Goalhanger Films, a DJ and a final-year university student. They all look like versions of their dad and, not being aspiring footballers, have a little more fun than Lineker did in their 20s. Have they all grown closer since he’s been single again?
‘It’s more that they’re older – fellow adults. Though they don’t always behave like it... It’s really nice, the closeness we’ve got.’ Lineker’s own father was ‘a great, lovely dad, hugely encouraging, but he didn’t tell me he loved me much, or at all actually, until a couple of weeks before he passed [in 2017]. We’re a bit more open with our love and friendship.’
The five Lineker lads are also on Twitter, where Gary very much rules the roost. He has 7.5 million followers, and has used that platform to attack Fifa, to defend the rights of refugees, vehemently fight for Remain, call for Dominic Cummings’ resignation, and persistently bicker with frenemy Piers Morgan.
He has three rules for Twitter. ‘I always read my tweets before sending them, and if I’m even one per cent unsure whether to post it, I delete it. Another is not to tweet when I’m angry – although I don’t get angry. And never to tweet when I’ve had a few drinks.'
The closest Lineker ever seems to get to angry online is when politics is involved. ‘I enjoy it. I know I get called a leftie, a socialist luvvie, but really I’m fairly central.’ Famous friends are varied. Aside from sportsmen there’s Morgan, Jemima Goldsmith, cook Gizzi Erskine, writer Giles Coren… Before the Brexit referendum, he was even at a dinner party with Michael Gove. Will he have him over for strawberry crumble?
Lineker snorts. ‘Once was enough.’ Well, what does he make of Keir Starmer? ‘It’s a viable opposition, and I think that’s important. It was proven that Corbyn, whether you liked his views or not, was never electable. I don’t know him, but Starmer sounds very smart.’
Of course, that’s all politics as usual. At the moment, the coronavirus continues to hold the power. Lineker can think of a few silver linings. ‘The environment is one. I’m not going to pretend I’m not one of those who flies a lot, I recognise my selfish travelling and I could do better on that,’ he says. ‘Maybe we should take two months out of every year now, for the lack of fumes. It could be a time for a rethink [of ] what’s important. I doubt it, though.’
There are scurrilous rumours that Lineker might be having his own rethink. That after more than 20 years, he’s considering retiring from Match of the Day, potentially handing the reins over to a younger model, like pundit Jermaine Jenas. Lynam was 56 when Lineker nudged him out of the seat. Can he even imagine not doing it?
‘Well, I can at the moment…’ he says, looking around his empty kitchen. ‘But no, not really. There’s a few more years left in the old dog.’ And now, with football’s return confirmed, he can just about see the other side of the pandemic. ‘It seems like we’re on the road to recovery. It’s the first steps towards some kind of normality, isn’t it?’
In November, the man referred to as ‘The Queen Mother of English Football’ will turn 60. ‘I can’t say I’m thrilled. Pension year, I suppose…’ he says. ‘My [eldest] son’s 28, and I thought to myself the other day, “When he’s double that age I’ll have had it: toast, gone.” Or I won’t be much use, anyway. I have the odd thought like that.’ He smiles. ‘I’m well into the second half, let’s just leave it at that.’
The final quarter. As anybody who remembers live sport will know, that’s when all the excitement happens.
Listen to Match of the Day: Top 10 on BBC Sounds. Watch classic Euros games on the BBC starting with England v Scotland ’96 on June 6