In a 16-year career as a professional footballer, during which he scored 286 goals in 542 appearances, Gary Lineker never once got booked. He wasn’t cautioned for arguing with the referee, he didn’t commit a foul worthy of a yellow card, he never deliberately handled the ball, or, even inadvertently, went into a tackle with his studs showing.
Of all the remarkable statistics which Lineker amassed during his playing time – including an outstanding 48 goals in 80 appearances for England and winning the Golden Boot in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico – this is surely the most impressive. It speaks of a sportsman who plays by the rules, who shows respect for officialdom and recognises the responsibility of someone in a position of influence to behave well.
He is not a trouble-maker, a rabble-rouser, or – curiously, for someone who has spent most of his life in the public gaze – an attention-seeker. He is a man of serious intent, someone who, you’d imagine, those of a right-wing bent might consider a poster boy for conservative values: an English hero, courteous, intelligent, and of unimpeachable manners.
I am, I’ll admit, not exactly impartial on the subject of Gary Lineker, someone I’ve known for almost 30 years. I first met him in 1995, shortly after he had retired from playing, and I was on the sports desk of The Observer. Lineker, who had nurtured the ambition of a career in media after his active service was over, offered the paper a weekly column on football. This was an unusual stratagem at the time: most footballers chose the tabloids, and the big money they’d pay, as a canvas for their opinions, and their columns would be ghostwritten by a professional sportswriter.
But Lineker was a broadsheet man, and he eschewed any help from those around him. He wanted to learn his new trade, and wrote every word himself. It was the same as when he was transferred to Barcelona in 1986 and he took it upon himself to learn Spanish.
I offer these seemingly irrelevant morsels of historical context merely to point to the fact that Lineker is not, and never has been, the average footballer de nos jours, the sort disparaged for their excessive wages, their hideous consumption, and, not least, their vacuous observations on life. He is someone with a social conscience, with principles, and who is prepared and able to articulate matters beyond the merits of the diamond formation.
But look what happens when he strays beyond his domain to offer an opinion on the big political issue of the day, a topic on which he has a well-formed view, as a cursory trawl through his Twitter feed will attest? It’s hard to work out what his critics are most angry about. Was it the fact that he, as a mere football man, should dare to have an opinion on, say, immigration? Was it the words he used, comparing the language being employed by the Home Secretary with that used in 1930s Germany? Or was it that, as a BBC employee (even though, as a sports presenter, he is not bound by a strict code of impartiality) he should keep his trap shut on such matters? Or all three?
It doesn’t really matter, because one’s reaction – approbation or indignation – is based entirely on whether we agree with him or not. The real, grade one hypocrisy is that those on the right of the political spectrum, the very people who stand for freedom of speech, and who rage against cancel culture, are those who now want him cancelled by the BBC.
And so it’s over to Tim Davie, the Director-General of the BBC, to decide whether, and how, to censure Lineker. He would do well to take notice of the tsunami of support his Match of the Day presenter received on social media today, and, to safeguard the very essence of the BBC, he has to resist the political pressure to fire him.
A quiet word in the ear should be enough to quell the crowd, but no yellow card to spoil Lineker’s unblemished record. If the BBC sack Gary Lineker, the game is well and truly over.