Gary Lineker on the allure of the FA Cup – even if it once made him cry

The former footballer and veteran pundit takes a look back

If the FA Cup final is an emotional rollercoaster, then Gary Lineker has ridden it like nobody else. “I’ve watched it, won it, lost it, scored a goal, missed a penalty, pretty much the whole gamut,” he says.

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In 1969, aged eight, he cried after his beloved Leicester City lost 1–0 to Manchester City. In the 1986 final, as one of English football’s great predatory goal-scorers, he put Everton 1–0 up against Liverpool, but was condemned to more FA Cup heartbreak as Liverpool won 3–1.

Then, in the final of 1991, this time at Tottenham Hotspur, he had a “perfectly good goal” disallowed and then the agony of seeing his penalty saved – but ended up on the winning side as Spurs beat Nottingham Forest 2–1 after extra time. “I didn’t win much as a player,” he says now of his illustrious playing years. “I did individual things, like winning the Golden Boot [as most prolific scorer in the 1986 World Cup], but not much as part of a team. So winning the FA Cup was the highlight of my entire career.”

The Cup has brought him downs as well as ups: at Leicester in 1980 he suffered the humiliation of being knocked out in a third-round replay by non-league Harlow Town. But with the Cup back on the BBC after a six-year gap, Lineker is now the public face of a nostalgia-stirring bid to restore the competition’s allure.

Large parts of the BBC1 and BBC2 schedules will be devoted to it next Saturday, with other Cup-related shows this week. It reminds Lineker of his boyhood when he would sit in front of the TV as soon as he got up on the morning of the Cup final, watching every moment of the build-up, then tearing outside for a kickabout as soon as the trophy had been hoisted.

“We’ve haven’t quite got Cup Final It’s a Knockout,” he says, “but we’re giving it bags of support. Of course we recognise it’s not the only circus in town any more. When I was growing up it was about the only live game on TV and I looked forward to it all year. My dad worked hard, but he would come home [from his fruit-and-veg stall in Leicester market] for the game. It’s not like that now. But it’s still a huge domestic trophy. It’s great to give it due respect.”

He explores that respect, which has dwindled in recent years, in tonight’s documentary, Gary Lineker on the Road to FA Cup Glory. The film reveals, he says, that the competition still has a firm place in the hearts of both fans and players. Yet it has manifestly suffered some knocks.

“I think it’s pretty deplorable when middle-of-the-road Premier League teams play weakened teams,” he adds. “Usually because managers are under pressure from owners [to focus on the League]. And I didn’t like to see the Cup final not being the last game of the season, but now it is again. It’s certainly had a dip, but it’s back to where it should be.”

Gary Lineker shoots past Mark Lawrenson during Everton’s 1986 defeat by Liverpool 

Next season, it has been reported, it will be rebranded as the Emirates FA Cup. Lineker doesn’t object. “Everything’s sponsored now, isn’t it? I have no issue with that. I think people can get a bit pompous about these things.” Neither does he feel, as some do, that the best way of restoring the old trophy’s magical sheen is by awarding a Champions League place to the winner.

“I wouldn’t do that. The Cup is not about that. It’s about all clubs entering, about tiny clubs playing big clubs, about Bradford City beating Chelsea, as they did this year. Jose Mourinho told me that couldn’t happen anywhere else. And sometimes even at the end of it all you get a surprise winner, but that doesn’t mean they should be one of our representatives in the next year’s Champions League, which is where we need our biggest and best sides.”

So much for the Cup’s future; what of his own? There have been rumours that after 16 years presenting Match of the Day, he might join BT Sport. But he insists that for now he’s just envisaging “more of the same… I really enjoy what I do and I hope to do it for some time yet.”

Still, the FA Cup documentary was made by his own company, Goalhanger Films. And he’ll venture into the comedy arena on Friday as host of satirical current affairs quiz Have I Got News for You. “I’m excited, but full of trepidation,” he says. “Sitting there being funny isn’t one of my strengths. But they have clever writers and I’m sure they’ll look after me.”

This is engaging modesty from a consummate broadcaster, one of those rare ex-footballers to have conquered television as something other than a pundit. Indeed, such is his stature as the BBC’s Face of Football that a generation of fans need reminding that he played the game at all, let alone as one of its most potent goalscorers.

Of all those goals, his World Cup adventures in 1986 and 1990 stand out, as does a hat-trick for Barcelona in a 1987 “el Clásico” against Real Madrid. “But scoring in the 86 Cup final was one of my five most phenomenal moments, the ones you never forget, even though we didn’t win.”

That goal helped to cement his bond with the FA Cup, after so many Saturdays sitting through Cup Final Mastermind. But of all the finals he’s seen, the one he still has the most vivid recollections of is that 1969 trip to Wembley.

“It was one of the first times I’d been on a train, so that alone makes it memorable,” he says. “As for the match, I remember Allan Clarke going close for us, and our goalkeeper Peter Shilton… strange to think I later roomed with him on England duty. And I remember Manchester City’s goal, and crying on the train all the way back to Leicester. It will stick in my mind for ever.”

As a player, his first experience of FA Cup final razzmatazz was before that all-Merseyside 1986 final when TV cameras turned up at Everton’s training ground. He also recalls a TV snooker challenge against Liverpool’s Mark Lawrenson (above). “We played the best of three frames. I beat him easily in the first, but it was a bit scrappy. In the second frame, I got to 40-odd and I thought I was going to make a century break. But the referee called me for a foul. He said my cuff had touched a ball as I knocked the black in!”

“I was choked. The ref told me afterwards that there hadn’t been a foul, he just wanted to even things up a bit. I couldn’t get my breath.”

Was it as upsetting as losing the Cup final? He laughs, mirthlessly. “It was right up there,” he says, with feeling. “It wasn’t far off.”

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Gary Lineker on the Road to FA Cup Glory is on BBC1 tonight (Tuesday 26th May) at 10.45pm