This feature is part of Virtuoso
“Fackin’ hell,” came the unexpected salutation, uttered with the unique cadence only a cockney-imitating-Spaniard can. La Roja’s oft indomitable goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta had wasted no time in swapping his team’s dressing room for England’s amidst the post-match maelstrom, intent on congratulating his Barcelona teammate, Gary Lineker.
His choice greeting, an impersonation of their shared club boss, the unmistakably Dagenham-born Terry Venables, came in honour of the drubbing Lineker had led over Zubizarreta and his fellow Iberians. Though the Spaniards had scored twice, Lineker had scored four of his own.
Prior to February 1987, the month in which Spain and England met for their one-off friendly at an uncharacteristically snow-stippled Santiago Bernabéu, no single player had ever scored four goals against the Spaniards in the space of 90 minutes. Then Lineker did, in the space of 33, and all the while making it look as though it were the simplest thing in the world. In the almost three decades that have passed since that day, not a single player has matched his feat.
In truth, the Spain of the late 1980s were far from the formidable footballing force we know them to be today. Nonetheless, Lineker’s inimitable dismantling of a still noteworthy nation deserves noble recollection. He scored goals in far grander occasions, defeated teams, orchestrated cup runs and immortalised World Cups with more memorable goals. But, put plainly, no one solo performance better symbolised the predacious intuition and sterling service of England’s most inherent goalscorer.
Ever the solicitous hosts, La Roja welcomed their English counterparts to Madrid, on 18 February, greeting them with the all too familiar sight of grey skies and the abrasive breeze of late winter winds. England, at least, were made to feel right at home. Regardless of the weather, Lineker already did, for, less than three weeks before, the Leicester-born striker had bagged a typically predacious hat-trick to down Real Madrid at the Camp Nou on the occasion of his El Clásico debut.
On the night of their frosty friendly, the home side began the brighter and it was Real Madrid forward Emilio Butragueño who gave the red shirts the lead after just 14 minutes, tucking his shot under Peter Shilton after a smart cut-back from Miguel ‘Chendo’ Noguera. Fortunately for England, Lineker would begin his evening’s work just nine minutes later, expunging from memory what little short-lived glee the Spaniards had savoured upon scoring first.
Peter Beardsley rode a fierce lunge, escaping with shins unharmed, and continued his advance down the right wing. His near-post cross evaded the hopeful head of Stephen Hodge but did find Lineker, who laid the ball off neatly to the approaching Bryan Robson. The Manchester United midfielder’s swift shot cannoned off the post before falling to Glenn Hoddle, who only found Zubizaretta’s gloves with his rebound, though the cross that followed the Spanish goalkeeper’s save was duly nodded home at the far post by the head of England’s frontman, squeezing in between two leaping defenders to apply the necessary finish. Both Lineker and his travelling compatriots had their first of the night.
Barely four minutes later, an inswinging Hoddle free-kick, looped towards the near post from the Spaniards’ left flank, was aimed at the head of Viv Anderson. The Arsenal defender’s goalbound flick was quickly met by a Spanish block but, before the ball could even reacquaint itself with the turf, was stabbed home by Lineker’s right foot. England went into the break a goal to the good.
With the second half scarcely a minute old, José Antonio Camacho attempted to sweep the ball down his team’s left flank but could only watch on in horror as Hoddle’s outstretched foot blocked the attempt and ricocheted into Lineker’s path, setting up a two-on-two against Spain’s retreating backline. Lineker fed Beardsley, who continued the counter down Spain’s right before firing a left-footed swipe across Zubizaretta’s goal. The ‘keeper was equal to the effort but couldn’t send it to safely, succeeded only in tossing the ball into the air, where Lineker was, to nobody’s surprise, the first to it. Another simple header, yet another goal.
Before the game could reach the hour mark, Lineker reached his historic milestone. Camacho’s throw-in was guided towards the intended up-field flick of Francisco Hidalgo but Anderson ensured the man under his marking duty played no part in the move. Anderson’s headed interception was met by the cushioned touch of Beardsley who took a single touch to move in-field before chipping the ball into the path of Lineker.
Comparatively miles from goal, given the total combined distance of his first three close-range finishes, Lineker worried not for his place on the edge of the area or the two red shirts bearing down on him. The forward simply allowed the ball to run across him and, first time, stroked the ball with the laces of his left boot, caressing it beyond another despairing dive.
Time enough remained for Sevilla striker Ramón Vázquez García to scrawl his own name on the scoresheet with 70-odd minutes elapsed, but the game had long since been decided and so too had the one player whose contribution ensured the otherwise forgettable friendly would live long in the memory and in the record books.
The morning after the night before, having downed the sorry Spaniards in their own backyard, Lineker awoke to newspaper headlines heralding him as a Catalonian hero. Atop the Catalan sports newspaper Sport read the exclamation, ‘Catalan player scores four!’ Unbeknownst to their owner, while he slumbered, the Barcelona striker’s goals had tiptoed down the stairs, slinked out the front door, and spent the night cavorting among esteemed company, assuming a socio-political identity of their own.
For some, Lineker had done so much more than simply win a football match. For one man, though, he’d not quite done enough. Ever the perfectionist, with a familiar grin on his face, Bobby Robson remarked: “Gary scored four but hit the post twice. He should have had six!”
By Will Sharp @shillwarp