It was an unimaginable scenario in this current climate of media scrutiny, player’s agents and media training, yet it remains available to watch on YouTube in all its toe-curling glory.
The setting was a BBC studio, which had been used for the duration of the 1986 World Cup. The cast of characters included Des Lynam, the suave and affable frontman desperately trying to provoke a sensational scoop; Gary Lineker, fresh from England’s defeat to Argentina, drafted in for a player’s perspective; Sunderland manager Lawrie McMenemy, as the voice of experience and just downright bloody-mindedness, and, finally, Terry Venables, the roguish Cockney wide-boy who was manager of Barcelona at the far end of the desk.
Argentina had just been crowned world champions and, with a little bit of air time to fill, the following conversation took place:
Lynam: “All the viewers are saying, ‘Look we’ve got Gary Lineker here and the Barcelona manager Terry Venables here, what is the story? What is actually happening? Is Gary going to be playing for you next season?'”
Venables: “Well I’m getting a little bit closer. All I need now is to move Lawrie [laughter]. Well he was until he missed that second Barnes cross …”
Lynam: “What is going to happen? Is he going to be playing for you? Are you going to sign him?”
Venables: “I’m always interested in the best players around and he is one of the best players around. Why wouldn’t I be interested?”
Lynam: “Gary, who do you want to be playing football for next season?”
Lineker: “No Comprende.”[Laughter, followed by awkward silence]
McMenemy: “I think you are all out of order personally. I think you are out of order for bringing it up.”
Venables: “I never brought it up he did.” [Pointing to Lynam]
McMenemy: “He’s signed a contract. You should be asking Howard Kendall.”
Lynam: “I should be asking Howard Kendall? But do you mind who you play for Gary, next season?”
Lineker: “Well I shall be playing for the team I want to be playing for next season.”
Lynam: “And you’re not going to tell us who that is?”
Lineker: “Erm, not at the moment, no.”
Lynam: “You want to complete the negotiations and do the deal do you?”
Lineker: [Embarrassed laughter] “Steady.” [Looks to Venables]
Following what some incorrectly labelled tapping-up in front of a primetime UK television audience, Lineker duly departed Everton for the sum of £2.8m. It would later transpire that Barcelona had in fact approached Everton prior to the 1986 World Cup Golden Boot winner’s heroics in Mexico and a fee was already agreed
Lineker was to be a key component of a British revolution at the Catalan club. Terry Venables had taken over in 1984 and, under the ridiculous moniker of ‘El Tel’, led Barcelona to the title in his first season. Tottenham’s Steve Archibald was already ensconced at the Camp Nou and Mark Hughes was similarly signed within close proximity to Lineker, so a front three of British attacking talent would take on the best of Spanish football. Ultimately, only Lineker would last.
The boy from Leicester made his league debut against Racing and, as with any striker making their debut, goals would be the yardstick with which his impact and success would be measured. As had been the case all throughout his career up until his Spanish sojourn, goalscoring was never a problem.
Two minutes into that league debut, Lineker scored the most Lineker-esque of goals: a toe-poke from inside the six-yard box. A second duly followed, surprisingly from the rarefied distance of 18 yards. The relationship was cemented there and then: Lineker loved the passion and fervour of the Barça fans, while the supporters loved the humble endeavour of their number 8. Obviously the goals helped.
The first season could not have gone much better from a personal perspective. Two goals in the first five minutes in El Clásico at the Nou Camp would be followed by a third in the second half. A hat-trick against Barça’s fiercest rivals would seal a 3-2 victory and help Lineker on the way to 21 goals in that season.
Not only did Lineker endear himself to the fans on the pitch, he also embraced the cultural, historical and political context of Barcelona and the vital part that the club played in the lives of the Catalonian people. Learning the language and giving post-match interviews in Spanish – conversely, Hughes struggled to adapt – Lineker immersed himself in the Barcelona lifestyle, and the fans loved him for it.
As erudite as ever, he wanted the move to Barcelona so that he could learn to play against different systems: “Playing in the Spanish league will help me adapt to playing against a sweeper. Which can only help my game when I’m playing for England.” This foresight was emphatically demonstrated when England played against Spain at the Bernabéu in a friendly just 18 days after his Clásico hat-trick.
Spain went 1-0 up inside 15 minutes. After an hour England were leading 4-1 – and Lineker had scored all four goals. The game finished 4-2 with Lineker commenting about Zubizarreta, the Spain and Barcelona goalkeeper: “I’m looking forward to training with him on Friday.”
In his second season, Lineker continued to play through the middle as Barça’s main striker and once again thrived on the responsibility of being his team’s main source of goals. Second-season syndrome can affect even the most talented of players, but not for the England man. Lineker got his hands on a piece of silverware in the shape of the Copa del Rey and notched another 20 goals, inclusive of 16 league strikes.
As the 1987/88 season came to an end, change awaited upon the horizon. Johan Cruyff would start the following campaign as manager in a bid to resurrect Barcelona’s standing on the European stage and to capture the greatest prize of all: the European Cup.
In his third season, Lineker suffered a number of niggling injuries, which he believed “prevented me from convincing Cruyff that I was the man to lead his attack” and led to the Dutch maestro shunting Lineker out to the right wing. Yet Lineker remains philosophical about his time under Cruyff.
Quick to acknowledge his coaching philosophy and tactical genius, Lineker was given no option but to try to prove his detractor wrong about his ability. Eventually, though, he would realise that Cruyff was determined to bring in his own players. The 1988/89 season would see Lineker’s appearances and goal tally greatly reduced, but it did end with a starting place in the 1989 Cup Winners’ Cup final against Sampdoria, a game that Barcelona would win 2-0, providing Lineker with his only European medal.
With the realisation that he would not be an automatic first-choice starter under Cruyff, Lineker took the decision to move back to England and reunite with Venables, this time in north London with Tottenham. However, this should not be seen as the definitive memory of Lineker’s time in Spain. With 42 LaLiga goals in 103 appearances, Lineker repaid the faith of the fans and the finances of Barcelona, not only with his goals and trophies, but in the way he carried himself and related to the supporters.
To put Lineker’s achievements into context, only recently has Gareth Bale overtaken his tally of 42 league goals, relegating the Match of the Day presenter to the second-most successful British goalscorer in LaLiga history. What’s more, Bale’s goals have come as part of a Galácticos-filled, multiple European Cup-winning side, whereas Lineker’s was in a side best defined as above average and marked by limited success.
What isn’t up for debate is the fact that Lineker went to Barcelona, scored goals, won trophies and routinely put Real Madrid to the sword. And, just in case the wider Spanish public didn’t already appreciate his ability, he put four goals past their national team at the Bernabéu. He learnt the language, integrated himself into Catalan society, understood the politics, and quietly went about proving himself a world-class goalscorer.
By Stuart Horsfield @loxleymisty44