How 12 months at Everton turned Gary Lineker into a world-class goalscorer

How 12 months at Everton turned Gary Lineker into a world-class goalscorer

Illustration by Federico Manasse

“It’s going to need a bandage, love.” Brilliant, just what I was hoping for. It’s September 1986 and I was just about to start my second season with Hornsea Town under-14s. Diego Maradona had just captivated the world at Mexico 86, while a lightweight, plaster cast wearing Gary Lineker had captivated the hearts of the English public at the same time. Being a striker I thought I would have a go at modelling my game on the England man. The first thing I needed? A bandage on my left wrist.

To many, Lineker is the affable host of Match of the Day, a Walkers advertising mogul and a Twitter-savvy commentator on society and football. But before all of that he was a world-class goalscorer who, in today’s inflated market, would have been worth tens of millions of pounds. With pace to burn and an almost psychic ability to know where the ball would drop in the penalty area, he was the ultimate goal poacher of his generation.

His outright pride and unashamed joy at Leicester’s recent success comes from the fact he is a son of Leicester and started his footballing career with them as a 16-year-old. Lineker stayed with the club for seven years, scoring 103 goals in 216 games, including 26 league goals in 1982/83 to help the Midlands club secure promotion from the second tier. 

His partnership with the soon-to-be Arsenal forward Alan Smith saw Lineker finish the 1984/85 season as the First Division’s joint top scorer with Kerry Dixon. This was in a struggling Leicester side, which avoided relegation by two points that season.

The man from Leicester was not an overnight success in the mould of Michael Owen or Wayne Rooney. His career was gradual and Leicester had stayed patient with him while he matured and developed as a footballer. “I think I learnt a lot at Leicester. It is the type of club that is perfect for somebody to start at,” the striker would later say.

What followed over the next 12 months saw Lineker’s life change beyond all recognition and proved to be the catalyst that would ensure that the England striker would be remembered as one of the greatest goalscorers this country has ever produced.

Lineker’s last game with Leicester was a 4-0 defeat away to Luton Town at the end of the 1984/85 season. Everton were already coveting his eye for goal and ability to score even in a struggling team. The Toffees were a club enjoying a footballing renaissance under Howard Kendall as FA Cup winners in 1984, First Division champions and European Cup Winners’ Cup winners in 1985. The Merseyside club decided that Lineker was exactly who the club needed to take them to the next level.

After spending eight years with the Foxes, Lineker decided that the time was right to take the next step in his career. It was a move that had the potential to be mutually beneficial and improve each others’ prospects. “I’d been at Leicester for eight years. I thought I’d done as much as I could. I really wanted a challenge. I wanted to play for a big club that stood a chance of winning things. Everton had just won the title and I thought I could do things there.”

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Having won the First Division in 1985, Everton were preparing for an assault on the European Cup. Controversially they decided to sell fans favourite Andy Gray in order to accommodate Lineker. The striker had been instrumental in their recent success, scoring in the FA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup finals. Some Blues fans were incensed and started a petition against the sale of Gray to Aston Villa, but the move still went ahead, and with a striker shaped hole in their squad, Everton brought in the Leicester man for £800,000 to bolster their star-studded team.

The European Cup campaign never even got off the ground due to the tragic events at Heysel in the 1985 European Cup final. English clubs were subsequently banned from European competition and so Everton sought to continue their recent success in the domestic game.

The main problem for Lineker was not the step up in class, the increased expectation or the constant pressure to win games and score goals; it was the winning over of the Everton fans still disgruntled at the sale of Andy Gray.

Even Lineker’s new strike partner Graeme Sharp could see where potential problems might come from for the new signing: “I think the most pressure he was under was replacing Andy Gray.” Lineker himself admits: “I didn’t realise before I went how idolised he was there on Merseyside and it was really tough for me. The fans were against me, just because I was playing where Andy Gray was playing.”

Ironically, as the fixture calendar often likes to do, Everton’s first league game of the 1985/86 season was away to Leicester at Filbert Street. A quick return home for Everton’s new signing saw the welcome mat pulled from under the feet of Lineker as Leicester comfortably won the game 3-1.

The mistrust and agitation of some of the Everton fans did not phase Lineker at all. His early performances for the Merseysiders demonstrated exactly why Kendall had decided to spend close to a million pounds on the player.

His first competitive goal came at the end of August in a 1-0 win away to Tottenham. Even better was to follow. In the very next game, at home to Birmingham, Lineker scored the first of three hat-tricks for Everton that season in a 4-1 victory at Goodison Park. The goal at Tottenham was the start of a scoring run that would see him net 10 goals in as many games. By the end of October, Lineker was the league’s leading goalscorer – but still some of the Everton fans were yet to be convinced by the new man.

As well as the step up in his club surroundings, Lineker was starting to find his feet at international level. Given his first call-up and debut by Bobby Robson in 1984, Lineker was starring alongside seasoned internationals who had played in the unbeaten England team at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Most of those, however, such as Paul Mariner, Trevor Brooking, Tony Woodcock and Trevor Francis were coming to the end of their international careers.

Indeed, in his debut game, against Scotland, the England strikers were Tony Woodcock and Luther Blisset. With the 1986 World Cup still two years away, Lineker was in a perfect position to make himself the first choice striker for Robson.

Read  |  From England’s finest to dethroned royalty: the rise and fall of Everton since 1985

His first international goal came against Ireland in a friendly in March 1985, with a maiden international hat-trick following against Turkey in a World Cup qualifier in October of that year, complementing that initial prolific period with Everton.

From that point onwards Lineker was competing with Mark Hateley, who at the time was playing in Serie A for AC Milan and gaining valuable experience on the continent, Chelsea’s Kerry Dixon, who was joint top scorer with Lineker in his final season at Leicester, and Newcastle’s Peter Beardsley, who was seen as more of a second striker or attacking midfielder than an out and out goalscorer.

By the time Everton and Lineker had got to Christmas the striker sensed a shift in the attitude of the supporters towards him. It was as if the goals he had scored had not only defeated the opposition but also the suspicion towards him. “I think the actual turning point was somewhere around Christmas. We played Manchester United and Sheffield Wednesday within the space of three days, both games at home. I think I scored a couple against United and again against Wednesday, who were going well at the time. It was as though that day the fans just changed and I was accepted. After that it was just great all the way.”

By the turn of the year, Lineker had scored 21 goals for Everton in all competitions, including 15 in the league. However, Manchester United were still top of the table having won their opening 10 league games, while Everton were third and Liverpool were fourth, both teams on the same points and same goal difference. The second half of the season would see the Merseyside clubs surge to the top of the table and fight for the title.

The Everton team that Lineker had joined were littered with players who were playing at the top of their game. A strong spine consisted of Neville Southall in goal, Kevin Ratcliffe and Derek Mountfield as a formidable centre-half pairing, Peter Reid and Paul Bracewell providing a strong and dynamic midfield, and Lineker and Graeme Sharp up top. As well as the spine, there was creativity out wide with Kevin Sheedy and Trevor Steven. They were arguably the best side in England that season, who should have won the league and cup double.

As the season progressed, Lineker continued to score and Everton continued to climb the table. By the middle of April, the Toffees had secured an FA Cup final place against Liverpool in what was to be the first all-Merseyside cup final. In the league, a 1-0 win over Ipswich saw Everton sit in second place behind Liverpool on goal difference, but the Goodison Park outfit had a game in hand. With four games to play it was Everton’s to lose.

The next two games saw the Blues uncharacteristically draw 0-0 with Nottingham Forest and crucially lose 1-0 to lowly Oxford. Lineker and Everton had drawn a blank when it mattered most. Liverpool took the league title by two points on the final day with a Kenny Dalglish winner at Stamford Bridge.

There was still the FA Cup final to play for. A crowd of 98,000 people were to witness the historic clash between the two best teams in England. After 27 minutes Lineker outpaced a pedestrian Alan Hansen to score – at the second time of asking – against Bruce Grobbelaar. It was Lineker’s 40th goal of the season in 57 games for Everton and had put them 1-0 up.

Read  |  Gary Lineker in the Land of the Rising Sun

The second half, however, turned into a nightmare for Everton. Three goals in 28 minutes saw the red half of Liverpool claim a double that for so long had looked like it was heading to Lineker’s Everton.

On a personal level, Lineker’s Everton season was an unmitigated success. His scoring exploits saw him voted PFA Player of the Year, the Football Writers’ Player of the Year and win the Golden Boot as the league’s highest goalscorer with 30. They were individual honours of the highest order and richly deserved for a prolific season. Now, though, it was time to put his Goodison misery aside and focus on Mexico 86.

Four of the Everton squad were selected for the 1986 World Cup squad, the highest number from a single club. Ironically not a single Liverpool player was selected to represent England at the tournament.

During a warm-up game in Canada, an innocuous challenge on the edge of the area saw Lineker go over and land heavily on his left wrist. Initial fears were that the wrist was broken and the Everton man’s Copa Mundial was over before it had even started. X-rays showed that the injury was a severe sprain, which allowed for a light cast to be put on, and the English league’s supreme goalscorer was declared fit to take part in the tournament.

The first two games of the tournament were a disastrous a 1-0 defeat to Portugal and a dull 0-0 draw against Morroco, which saw Robson’s side on the verge of going out of the tournament at the group stage. Lineker hadn’t scored for England since the hat-trick in that World Cup qualifier in October 1986. Eight months later and England were teetering on the edge of a goalless, ignominious exit. Lineker was under pressure to deliver.

The final group game was against Poland and only a win would be good enough for England. After nine minutes, good build-up play down the left saw England break forward; Everton full-back Gary Stevens played the ball in for Lineker to strike from six-yards out. Lineker was a relieved man: “We were under a tremendous amount of pressure and the sheer relief that brought, not only myself, who’d gone six games for England without a goal, but the whole team and the whole country.”

Another close-range strike five minutes later and a third after 34-minutes saw England win the game 3-0. Lineker had a World Cup hat-trick and England were through to the knockout stages of the tournament, where they would face an unknown quantity in Paraguay.

After 31 minutes Lineker put England 1-0 up. The goals were flowing freely now. In the second half Beardsley scored and Lineker added a third. He was now the joint leading scorer in the tournament with five strikes.

That victory set up the now infamous clash quarter-final clash in the Azteca with Argentina and Diego Maradona. The Hand of God and the greatest World Cup goal of all time have now passed into football folklore. England, despite narrowly losing, staged a late comeback after the introduction of John Barnes, who set Lineker up to narrow the deficit to 2-1. The same combination almost carved out a carbon copy of the first goal, but Lineker was denied by the Argentine full-back. England lost 2-1 and were out of the World Cup.

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England scored seven goals in total, Lineker bagging six of them from the six-yard line or closer, highlighting his brilliant anticipation and movement The ultimate goalscorer in English football had become the ultimate goalscorer on the world stage. Lineker became the first, and to date only, Englishman to win the Golden Boot at a World Cup, as his total of six goals took him one clear of Maradona. This was a small crumb of comfort after the Argentine’s performance in the quarter-final.

Lineker’s performances for Everton and at the World Cup had caught the attention of clubs around Europe. At the time, Terry Venables was the manager at Barcelona and wanted the England star and Mark Hughes to join him at the Camp Nou to help facilitate his revival project in Catalonia. Venables recalls: “I felt that when he was at Everton he was the best goalscorer in English football alongside Ian Rush, and Ian Rush was one that we were interested in as well, but the money was too high.

“We’d actually done the negotiations before the World Cup and we got a price of £2.4 million and at that time we thought it was a good one. Then with him being the highest scorer in the World Cup, I’m sure if we had left it any longer the price would have been higher. To be fair to Everton they stuck on the price we negotiated and both clubs felt it was a good deal.”

Lineker had been aware of the interest from Barcelona during the World Cup but put off any personal negotiations so that he could concentrate on the tournament. Now with the World Cup over and Barcelona and Everton already pre-negotiating a fee, it was up to the England striker to make a decision. Barcelona it was.

Lineker’s career at Barcelona went well. He scored on his La Liga debut and finished his first season with 20 league goals, including a hat-trick against Real Madrid at the Camp Nou. Silverware came in the shape of a Copa del Rey title and a Cup Winners’ Cup triumph, but after three seasons and the arrival of Johan Cruyff, Lineker was eyeing up his next move.

The striker returned to England and teamed up once again with Venables, continuing to do what he always did best – score goals. He finished the 1991/92 season as the leading goalscorer and won his third Golden Boot with his third different club.

On the international scene, Lineker went to the 1990 World Cup in Italy and scored four goals, making him the all-time leading English goalscorer at the World Cup finals with a total of 10 goals. Lineker finished his international career with a world-class record of 48 in 80 games.

On a personal level, I never even came close to emulating Gary Lineker’s career. Even the remodelling of my game never really got going as my manager made me take my bandage off before kick-off. However, there is no doubting that, as a pure goalscorer, Lineker was the right person to attempt to emulate.

The 1985/86 season was the catalyst for a humble young man from Leicester to go out and become one of the all-time great goalscorers, not only in English football but world football. As you sit and watch Match of the Day on a Saturday night, it’s worth remembering the incredible exploits of Gary Lineker the player – and man who stands tall as one of England’s most exceptional footballers – and what it must have been like to have lived those 12 epic months.

By Stuart Horsfield @loxleymisty44

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