It was Gary Lineker’s concern that, together with Gazza’s tears, won the hearts of a nation when Bobby Robson’s England fell tantalisingly short of reaching the World Cup final at Italia 90. Now, 26 years later, it’s the agony and ecstasy of the boy from Braunstone that symbolises the nail-biting progress of Leicester City towards the impossibility of Premier League glory.
At a time when the financial gulf separating football from its fans has never been wider, it’s hard not to be charmed by the intensity with which the Match of the Day host is living his boyhood team’s every kick.
Lineker’s Leicester roots run deep. As a child in the 1970s he helped his dad on the family’s fruit-and-veg stall in Leicester Market during the holidays. After leaving school with O-levels that included an A in maths, he joined Leicester City’s academy and, by the time he was transferred to Everton for £800,000 nearly ten years later, he had topped the old First Division’s scoring chart for 1984/5. Then, when the club faced financial difficulties in 2002, he was part of the consortium that helped to rescue it. No matter that Leicester’s closest rivals for the title are Tottenham Hotspur, with whom he won the FA Cup in 1991, every sinew of his muscular torso craves the fulfilment of an unlikely dream.
Talking of torsos, Lineker was still so sure in December that Leicester couldn’t win the league that he vowed to present the first Match of the Day of next season in his underpants should they achieve the unthinkable. Will he be true to his word? “You’ll have to wait and see,” he demurs, smiling. “I’ve kind of said I’ll have to do it.”
Of course, with Spurs hunting them down, Leicester may yet stumble, but at the start of the season they were 5,000–1 on to win the league. Punters may be cursing not taking those odds now. “I’d have said you were wasting your money as well,” says Lineker. “When I sent the tweet in December I categorically knew there was zero chance that they would win.”
Which takes us back to those pants. His BBC bosses have given the thumbs up. “The conversation’s been had. I’ve told them many times, ‘Please tell me I can’t do it.’” But if Claudio Ranieri’s men win, the clamour for him to remove his trousers will be irresistible. The ratings, he predicts, would “either be the best ever or the worst ever!”
Viewers could be in for a treat: he is in the gym three or four times a week. “I’m in good shape. For an old b*****d,” the 55-year-old says with a laugh. And he’s planning to step it up, should Leicester prevail. “I’ll probably work out for the two weeks beforehand very, very hard.”
Lineker is much stronger now than he was during his playing days, when he was warned off lifting weights in what he sees as the misguided belief that it would hamper his speed. “It kills me basically,” he says of his training, “[but] as much as I hate it, I hate it more to miss it because I think as you get older the more important it is to keep fit and strong. If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have been in much better shape and, I think, a much better player.”
He has four sons from his first marriage, to Michelle Cockayne: George (24), Harry (22), Tobias (20) and Angus (18). If Leicester do fall at the final hurdle, Lineker will be distraught, not least because the title run has been a family affair. “He can’t believe it,” he says of his father. “My dad’s quite a character. I think he [tweeted]: ‘I’ve waited 70 years for this. F***ing brill!’
“The thing is, it’s a mixture of excitement and agony. I just need them to do it. Three of my lads support Leicester as well. Even George [a Manchester United fan] is desperate for them to do it. It would destroy me if they didn’t do it now, just for the misery that would happen to my kids. They’d never recover.”
The only Englishman ever to win the World Cup Golden Boot, having scored six goals at Mexico 86, Lineker would trade his feat for a Leicester league title. “If push came to shove, yes probably. Yes! I’ve had it for a while,” he says, laughing. “It’s genuinely the most exciting thing I’ve lived through in sport, for me personally, even when I played. Because this is impossible.”
Hosting football shows fully clothed has become second nature to Lineker, but when he began, more than 20 years ago, it was a struggle. He was “thrown in at the deep end” as a TV presenter and found it “quite terrifying”.
“I had to do a lot of work on my voice, just injecting some life into it, because I’ve got that East Midlands kind of monotone, which I still have when I talk normally. On television I have to introduce a bit of light and shade. I went to have lessons for that – especially for radio where you’ve only got your voice, and mine was pretty flat. When I’m presenting I feel like I’m shouting a lot of the time, because it’s up and down. The first two or three years were hard. There were lots of times I remember driving home after a show thinking, ‘I’m never going to crack this.’”
But crack it he did – going on to become not only the BBC’s lead presenter for the 2012 Olympics but also, briefly, the golf. Not everyone felt he was at home away from the football. He admits now that he didn’t really enjoy fronting the golf.
“I found it stopped me watching it properly. You used to go out to do interviews at the end, when it’s really exciting, and missed the finale. You feel like you’re getting in the way. Whenever you come on you’re stopping live coverage. It’d be the same if I was watching it. I’d be, ‘Oh come on! Just show us the golf!’ You become an irritant. And you don’t get pundits next to you, so you can’t have a bit of banter.”
The Open also clashed with his limited time off. “In the end I said to the BBC, ‘I’d just sooner do the football, to be honest’. And that’s the truth.”
These days Lineker juggles his Match of the Day commitments with anchoring BT’s Champions League coverage. Remembering the names of Europe’s elite isn’t a problem because he watches so much football in his own time. Though his private life is strictly off-limits, it’s natural to wonder whether his marathon TV-watching is hard to live with. “Yes, possibly,” he says. “But I’m not working nine to five: I might be around all day, so it’s different. I have to watch a lot of football, but that’s my work. Well, that’s the excuse I’ve always used, anyway!”
After six years of marriage, Lineker and his second wife, the model and actress Danielle Bux – who at 36 is nearly 20 years his junior – announced in January that they were to divorce. They remain on the best of terms, but he has contempt for the divorce system. “Just generally speaking, it’s very easy to get married and very difficult to get divorced. And we know that lawyers try to manipulate it to make you spend more money and basically end up hating each other.” His solution? “I think there should be a mathematical equation that goes straight to the courts and they sort it out.”
He’s sanguine, though, about the challenges of living in the public eye. “I’ve become accustomed to it and, yes, sometimes it’s hard, especially when you go through difficult periods because that’s when the press get more interested. But I’d honestly say the advantages generally far outweigh the disadvantages. It opens a lot of doors.”
Never once yellow-carded, Lineker was the perfect role model as a player, but now he sometimes swears on Twitter and there are those who question his enduring endorsement of Walkers. Promoting crisps isn’t, perhaps, the most obvious fit for a man so concerned with his own physique.
Our opening exchange on the subject is almost surreal. “How do they harm people?” he asks. With fat… “Oh, it’s a myth.” And salt. “No, it’s all about a balanced diet. Anything can harm you if you do things in excess.” He eats four or five packets a week himself. “We all deserve treats in life and snacks,” he insists and lays the blame for the obesity epidemic elsewhere.
“The real issue is the lack of exercise. There are no playing fields at the schools, not as much sport played. There are too many other things that are understandably distractions, like phones, computers, PlayStation games, where they just sit on their backsides. That’s the real issue, not a little bit of a snack occasionally.”
Parents and schools have to do more, he demands. “This is quite simple. If you do more exercise and you burn off more calories than you put in, you won’t put weight on.”
We meet on the day Mars Food launched an initiative to mark some of its offerings as being for “occasional” consumption. Should Walkers follow suit? “I’ve never thought about it.” And now that we’re discussing it? “They’re potatoes. I don’t think they’re a desperately bad thing.”
Lineker has been starring in a new Walkers ad with Barcelona striker Lionel Messi, although their roles were filmed separately so he still hasn’t met the man he considers to be on a different planet – including from Messi’s greatest rival, at Real Madrid. “Ronaldo’s a wonderful footballer and a brilliant goal scorer, but Messi’s truly joyous.”
Ronaldo and Messi, of course, are also both multimillionaires. As a 24-year-old leaving Leicester, Lineker was on £400 a week and, even when he became one of the world’s best paid players, he earned in a year what some of today’s stars make in a week. Still, he’s made a big financial success of life after football and last year he set up a TV production company, Goalhanger Films, which he co-owns. “I like good food, but I’m not lavish,” he says of his lifestyle. “I don’t buy loads of cars or jewellery.”
As for the summer’s European Championships in France, Lineker is upbeat about England’s future. “We’re on the way up. We’ve got some really good young players, we’ve started coaching kids properly for the first time and we’re starting to reap the rewards. It might be a little bit early for them this summer, but whether it’s this time or two years’ time [at the World Cup] in Russia, I think we’re going to start to see us be seriously competitive. You never know in knockout football, but we’ve got the nucleus.”
For now, though, it’s not the Three Lions Gary Lineker is consumed by – it’s the Foxes of Leicester City.
Match of the Day is on Saturday at 10:30pm on BBC1