Negotiating a way through the robust challenges of British celebrity is seldom an easeful task. Few in the public eye escape censure and even fewer manage to avoid succumbing to bitterness or the kind of acute sensitivity known only to those who have had their inner lives splashed across the outer pages of the press.
A rare exception is Gary Lineker, who returned last night for his 18th season as the Match of the Day presenter. If he has come of age in the job, the former England striker seems to have retained a boyish enthusiasm for life in the spotlight, albeit weighted with a just-so amount of irony and self-deprecation. He also holds the affection of a sizable chunk of the nation. The two are probably not unrelated.
Last month, Lineker found himself at the centre of heated debate when the BBC released figures showing that he was the corporation’s second-highest earner, with an annual salary some loose change under £1.8m.
In these days of wage freezes and belt-tightening, that’s a number that could easily trigger the kind of envy that is often indistinguishable from raging animosity. But Lineker performed a characteristically disarming manoeuvre via the social medium of Twitter. “This whole BBC salary exposure business is an absolute outrage…” he tweeted. “I mean how can @chrisevans be on more than me?”
In one half-cumbersome, half-deft move, Lineker had cleared the air, sent himself up and roped the presenter Chris Evans into the bargain. It’s the same trick he employs in his Twitter bio, which reads: “Once kicked a ball about. Now talk about kicking a ball about. Still flogging spuds”, the latter referring to his long-term and lucrative contract as the face of Walkers Crisps.
All of this ingratiating humility is in a sense not unlike his defining skill as a footballer, which was to score in or around the six-yard box while in the act of falling over.
The effect was to lend Lineker the look of a player who was not fully in control, less than poetic in his movements, but invariably decisive in his actions. Moreover, in the course of a 16-year career, he garnered not so much as a single yellow card. The ungainly finishing and lack of aggression encouraged opponents to underestimate him – at their peril.
It’s a confounding gift that has since taken him to the pinnacle of the BBC big-earner league. While detractors may focus on his mugging expressions and tortuous puns, Lineker has got on with mastering the deceptive art of TV presentation.
He learned from the master himself, Des Lynam, who used to anchor Match of the Day when Lineker started out as a slightly plodding pundit, in 1995. At that time, having just hung up his football boots, he came across as gauche and rather too keen to be liked.
But Lineker studied Lynam’s casual charm and unflustered authority, the manner in which he put others at ease, not least the audience at home. “I used to ask a lot of questions about the little things that he did,” Lineker later recalled, “and picked up some of his nuances.”
Even as a player, Lineker had his eyes on Lynam. At the 1990 World Cup, where he took special notice of how journalists went about their business, some of his teammates dubbed him “Junior Des”.
And after four years of tutelage, in 1999 he replaced his mentor. There’s now a generation of viewers for whom Lineker’s considerable exploits as a player – for England, for whom he scored more goals in World Cups than any other player, Barcelona and Spurs, among others – are little more than history book entries.
So confidently has Lineker scaled the heights of Saturday night television that his second career could be in danger of overshadowing his first. Not least because Lineker, with the help of Twitter, that armchair megaphone, is beginning to lose the sportsman’s natural avoidance of political controversy.
To his Twitter followers (now numbering almost 6.4m) he was a strong advocate for the Remain vote in the referendum, condemned the Brexit result, has been outspoken in defending refugees from scapegoating and, on something of a roll, also called Nigel Farage a “dick”.
For voicing these opinions he was characterised by some tabloids as a member of the lefty luvvie elite, with the Sun, in a moment of pantomime fulmination, going so far as to urge the BBC to sack Lineker.
But just as the provocative attentions of the likes of Vinnie Jones during his playing days failed to intimidate the mild-natured Lineker, he is not the sort of character to wail about the beastliness of the tabloid press or close down his Twitter account in a huff.
Although his views on everything from the snootiness of British golf’s governing body to the “deplorable” corruption of Fifa seem sincere, Lineker is not a man given to taking the world or himself too seriously.
There is a grounded quality, no doubt inherited from his family, hardworking stalwarts of Leicester’s vegetable market. Although it doesn’t carry too much of a satirical punch, his jaunty humour tends to recognise the fundamental injustices and absurdities of life. Of course, somewhere among those head-shaking realities is the fact that an ex-footballer is paid £1.8m for introducing football highlights and discussing matches with other ex-footballers. Without volunteering to take a wage cut, Lineker likes to make the noises of a man who is aware of the delicacy of the situation. He has stated his “total and utter support” for the BBC’s female presenters who are paid much less than him.
But he knows that sending out right-on tweets is not going to change social inequalities or the sense that he leads a privileged existence. “I understand I’m in a little bit of a bubble,” he said last year. “You get called that thing now, the elite, don’t you? I don’t know what that means… Is it because you’re doing all right in life?” Lineker, in fact, is doing more than all right. Having just missed out on the kind of football money that meant top players didn’t have to work again, he is said to be worth £30m.
If that weren’t enough, he looks in youthfully athletic shape, as if he could still take to the field, should England require him. A year ago, he shared his honed physique with the nation, having promised to present MotD in his boxer shorts if his old team Leicester won the Premier League. Again, what could have been embarrassing or silly, Lineker carried off with the aplomb with which he used to slot away penalties in shoot-outs.
Perhaps the only aspect of Lineker’s life that has seemed at odds with the Nice Guy Next Door persona was his marriage (his second) to Danielle Bux, an underwear model 18 years his junior, if only because she appeared surprisingly Wag-like for Lineker’s more waggish style.
They were divorced last year, apparently because Lineker, the father of four boys from his first marriage, felt that he was too old to become a father again. But he remains friendly and supportive, reportedly offering Bux a place to live after she became pregnant by her new partner earlier this year.
The word that comes to mind with this working-class lad from Leicester, whose final school report read: “Must devote less of his time to sport if he wants to be a success”, is “enlightened”. Unlike many footballers, who are cocooned by clubs and agents and fail to develop much curiosity about the outside world, Lineker has not settled into a self-limiting mindset.
He was one of the very few English players to move abroad in the insular 1980s, when Europe was viewed like those territories of legend on old maps that declared: “Here be dragons.” Lineker played for Barcelona, immersed himself in the local culture and quickly learned to speak good Spanish.
It was the same willingness to try new things that took him away from football. He had no wish to become a manager, like so many other former players, believing them to be “either on the brink of madness or deep depression”.
Perhaps the key to Lineker, as he once noted himself, is that he doesn’t suffer from “angst”. He really does appear to be well balanced, open to life and chirpily content to do a good job. That’s a winning combination in most circumstances, but after more than 20 years of working in television, it’s very close to a miracle.
THE LINEKER FILE
Born 30 November 1960, the eldest son of market traders, Barry and Margaret Lineker. He attended City of Leicester Boys’ grammar school.
Best of times Winning the Golden Boot at the 1986 World Cup and coming within a whisker of the final four years later. Scoring a winning hat-trick for Barcelona against hated rivals Real Madrid. Leicester winning the Premier League in 2016, “the most joyous, magical experience of my sporting life”.
Worst of times His baby son George almost died from a rare form of leukaemia in the early 1990s.
What he says “The funny thing is I don’t regard myself as particularly liberal. I just think I’m kind of humanitarian. I’ve always been interested in politics, I’ve always followed it very closely, but I’ve never really offered my views.”
What others say “I question if the BBC should be employing him when he seems to be using his fame to push out his rather emotive and controversial views.” David TC Davies, Tory MP.