SEN Editor Peter Sutcliffe talks to Gary Lineker about football, disability sport and those dreaded penalty shoot-outs
It was at his beloved Leicester City that Gary Lineker first announced himself as that most precious of footballing commodities, a striker who consistently scored goals and always seemed to come up trumps on the big occasions. From there, the local boy made good embarked on a glittering career taking in Everton, Barcelona, Tottenham and eventually, to everyone’s surprise, Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan.
For his country, he led the line to deadly effect, spearheading the national team to some of its finest moments. His tally of 48 international goals has only ever been bettered by one Englishman, the great Bobby Charlton. Through it all, Lineker enjoyed a well deserved reputation for sportsmanship and fair play; he was the gentleman footballer who played the game as it should be played. An accomplished golfer, cricketer and snooker player, he might easily have pursued a career in any of those sports but, on retiring from football, it was to the media that he turned.
Today, having completed a seamless transition from sports star to TV pundit, he fronts many of the BBC’s biggest sporting occasions, from Sport Relief to Sports Personality of the Year, and anchors its seminal football show, Match of the Day. Whatever the programme, Lineker brings an everyman quality to his TV work. As he talks football with some of the game’s sharpest analysts and most decorated grandees, in front of an audience of millions, he still remains “one of the lads”.
Less well known, though, is Lineker’s long-standing work with children’s charities. As I talked to him on a cold January morning, he was visiting Carew Manor, a community special school in Surrey for pupils with moderate learning difficulties, some of whom have additional physical, social, emotional or behavioural difficulties.
Lineker had been helping pupils launch the charity CLIC Sargent’s annual Kick for Children with Cancer campaign. And what better way for England’s fabled penalty ace to kick things off than with a penalty shoot-out competition. I started off by asking him how the event had been going. “It’s gone really well”, he says. “I think we got a good reaction from the kids and they all managed to score at least one penalty, which is great. We’ve had a bit of fun and raised a few bob in the process”.
CLIC Sargent encourages schools across the country to organise similar football themed fund-raisers to help children with cancer and their families. It’s an issue that’s all too real for Lineker, whose son, George, developed a rare form of cancer shortly after birth. While George recovered, the experience clearly had a profound effect on the whole family. “George was only a couple of months old when he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia”, says Lineker. “Obviously, it’s a traumatic thing for any parent to hear that their child has cancer and it’s something that I’ll never forget.
“From there, you go through the gamut of emotions, worries and fears. It’s a very difficult time, and you really need a bit of support. But people handle it in their own ways; there are no golden rules as to how you deal with these situations.
“What you really hope for is a happy ending. With George, that was the case. But, obviously, we met other parents in similar circumstances who didn’t have a happy outcome. As long as you get through it and your child is OK, you can deal with it. The hard bit is when it doesn’t work out, and that’s when you have to respect people’s feelings and realise how fortunate you are.
“George is now fit and well. He’s eighteen years old and driving and enjoying life. But, obviously, not everyone’s in the same boat, which is why we continue to try and raise money until we find a guaranteed cure.”
A long-time patron of CLIC Sargent, Lineker is clearly full of enthusiasm for his role. “Having had a child with leukaemia, it made me aware of the support that CLIC Sargent has to offer”, he says. “Treatment for cancer can take months and months, and change people’s lives, but the support network they provide is really excellent, in terms of housing people that have to travel long distances, follow-up, and reintegration into school and society afterwards. It’s a charity I’ve been proud to support”.
I ask if he thinks sport is an effective way of engaging children with disabilities and special needs. “Definitely”, he replies. “I’ve been involved in sport for children with learning disabilities for donkey’s years, usually on the football side of things. So I’ve seen at first hand how important it is and how keen and enthusiastic youngsters are towards football, whether they have learning disabilities or not.”
And what is it about football, in particular, that is so good at drawing young people in? “I think football is fairly simple”, he explains. “Most people can play it to some sort of level. However severe their disability, most can get something out of football. And just the pleasure that you see on the face of someone who kicks the ball and gets it generally in the right direction can be enough in itself. It’s the simplicity of it that makes it work and also its popularity. It’s our national sport, it’s hugely popular and it is available to pretty much everyone”.
Lineker clearly believes that sport can have an impact on children’s lives way beyond the moment. “I think it gives them something to focus on”, he says. “It’s great for kids to be involved in sport, and it can keep them out of trouble. It’s a very social game and it teaches you a lot about life. It teaches you about winning, about losing, about doing things together as a team and about doing things on an individual basis. It helps in terms of fitness and health and improving skills and co-ordination. I don’t think there’s any down side”.
And involvement in football, it seems, can provide especially potent life lessons for children with special needs. “It helps in terms of dealing with situations,” says Lineker, “like when things go wrong or when things go right. There are all sorts of aspects of football that help in general life for anybody, and perhaps especially for children with disabilities. It’s about making the most of however things are for you in life. You can learn from football and get a great deal out of it for yourself”.
Throughout his professional career, Lineker never received a yellow or red card – an amazing achievement for someone who played in so many competitive matches at the very highest level. So, it’s no surprise to learn that he places great value on fair play and the ability of football to encourage children to behave in the right way. “An important aspect of football is trying to behave and trying to play fair”, he says. “Not everyone does this in any walk of life, but I think it’s about handling things, learning not to get provoked and not reacting in the wrong way”.
At a competitive level, sport for the less able has started to receive more coverage at both local and national levels in recent years, and this is something that Lineker welcomes. “I’ve seen quite a lot of disability sport. At the BBC we cover the Paralympics, and I think we cover them really well”, he says. “I’ve seen a lot of disability football and I was at the special Olympics just a few months ago in Leicester, which was covered on local TV. I think it’s important because it highlights it positively and promotes the fact that sport is available to everyone”.
Such positive messages are, perhaps, particularly timely when the image of professional sport has taken something of battering. Football’s importance in terms of global culture has never been greater. Yet, stories of wayward stars and cash-crazed clubs all too often cause the migration of “sports” news from the back to the front pages of our newspapers, while every interview with coaches, owners and players alike seems to belie the old adage that “it’s the taking part that counts”. Winning, we are now led to believe, is everything.
So how does Lineker feel about the messages that football sends out to our young people? Is a win-at-all-costs mindset in danger of ruining the game that he loves? “We have to be wary of that”, he replies. “But I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to achieve some sort of winning mentality. At the same time, not everyone can win and it’s a question of how you deal with it when you don’t.”
And what about the commercial pressures on football? While the game generates ever-greater revenues, bankruptcies abound, and even Premiership clubs are not immune. “There is concern about money in the game,” he says. “There always has been. There’s been so much spending that a lot of clubs are now getting into deep financial difficulties, as we’ve seen before. But they haven’t learnt from their previous experiences. Football is influential and it has to be really careful about its own image and the image it sends out, particularly to youngsters.”
With that, we return to the theme of the day, those dreaded penalty shootouts. Even the most casual observer of the game could hardly fail to notice that three of England’s last four World Cup exits came courtesy of spot kicks. Indeed, as an Englishman, it seems faintly odd to hear the phrase “penalty shoot-out” without the word “heartache” attached to it. Yet, while many of his red, white and blue-blooded countrymen can be found cowering behind sofas at the merest mention of a spot kick, Lineker professes a curious fondness for penalties. “I love them”, he says. “I love taking them.” And, it seems, the bigger the occasion, the more exhilarating he finds them. “It gives you the opportunity of putting yourself in a position that pretty much everyone on the planet never gets into”, he says. “It’s the ultimate test of your nerve, your courage and your bottle. Call it whatever you like.”
Back in 1990, as “Gazza” famously wept, and the Three Tenors belted out “Nessum Dorma” and “O Sole Mio” to glorious effect, Lineker’s penalty heroics propelled his country to the very brink of the World Cup final. Scoring twice from the spot to rescue a stumbling quarter-final performance, he went on to convert his penalty in the semi-final shoot-out, only to see his team eventually fall to more collectively assured German boots. But what is it like, I wonder, to take a penalty in a World Cup semi-final and score? “It’s like an explosion of different emotions”, he says. “Joy, relief – a whole combination. I think when you’re watching it, it’s quite emotive. So if you can imagine just watching someone scoring in a penalty shootout for your team, and then magnify that by about a hundred times, you can probably get close.”
So is taking a penalty a character defining experience? “Oh, it can be,” he replies, “especially if you miss. I missed one or two but, thankfully, never in a shoot-out and never in a World Cup.”
While such pressure may be the stuff of life for a certain breed of professional footballer, what about our poor school children? Is the nice guy of football complicit in the torture of the nation’s schoolchildren, or were today’s spot kick antics simply a sneaky way of ensuring World Cup success in twelve years time? “Well, it is the year of a World Cup”, he says, “and if England are going to go all the way, they are almost certainly going to have to win a penalty shoot-out at some stage. If we can get the whole country practising it might just help”, he says with a laugh.
By the time the World Cup comes round in June, we can expect all the usual hype about England’s chances of lifting the coveted trophy to be reaching fever pitch, but Lineker feels that another nation has a clear advantage over their rivals. “I fancy Spain,” he says. “I think they are strong favourites and deservedly so. They’ve got so many great players and they are probably the one nation that can afford to lose a star player and not be too affected.”
What, though, does the former England captain make of his team’s prospects? “Obviously, my heart lies with England. If we keep everybody fit for the World Cup, then we’ll have a chance. We always seem to lose one of our key players, but maybe our luck will change this time”.
Whatever England’s fortunes this summer, one thing is for sure: Gary Lineker will be there to guide an expectant TV audience of millions through all the twists and turns. For many, he is quite simply the face of football and, for all his modesty, he commands a respect around the world that only those who have scaled the dizziest heights of the “beautiful game” can enjoy. Yet, when I suggest that he is something of an ambassador for the game, he is typically self-deprecating. “I don’t see myself as an ambassador for football,” he says, “but obviously football is my sport. It’s a passion, it’s part of my life and I love it. So anything I can do to promote football and present it in the correct light is fine by me.”