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05th Jan 2017

Why Gary Lineker won’t ‘just stick to football’ when there are bigger things to worry about

Tony Barrett talks to Gary Lineker about Pep Guardiola, the FA Cup and his position as 'unofficial spokesman for the opposition'

Tony Barrett

“The unofficial spokesman for the opposition” is not a nickname that Gary Lineker sought but it’s one that, increasingly, seems to fit.

The meek and mild striker of the 1980s has given way to an outspoken social commentator, whose views on everything from Brexit to humanitarian crises have seen him emerge as one of Twitter’s essential follows.

It isn’t just that Lineker has opinions, it’s that he’s neither reluctant to voice them nor afraid of the potential repercussions from those whose might he challenges.

As well as earning the respect of those who share his views, and even some who oppose them, Lineker also attracts attention from many who claim a former footballer has no right to espouse political beliefs on social media.

Typical responses arrived recently after the former England international reaffirmed his support for greater press regulation.

“Stick to football Gary, you know a lot about that, freedom of speech and the press, not so much” came one reply. Lineker gave the respondent short shrift. “I know that freedom of speech allows me to tweet about what the hell I like,” he said.

It was in his official role as the face of BBC Football that Lineker spoke to this week, but before seeking his views on the beautiful game it would have been remiss had his opinions on the sometimes ugly world of social media not been sought.

It will disappoint those who constantly tell him to “shut up” that he has no plans to take heed of their advice, mainly because he wonders at the logic of an individual choosing to follow someone else and then complain that they have to read what they say.

“That’s a really weird business,” Lineker admits. “It’s like overhearing someone having a phone conversation with someone else and then criticising them for having opinions. All I’m doing is expressing my views. Everyone has a right to do that and everyone has the right to disagree with me and to debate whatever I’m saying.

“But you can’t follow me on Twitter and then tell me not to tweet about certain things. That’s just bonkers. I have lots of interests, whether that’s politics or humanitarian issues or whatever. There is more to life than football and I’m not going to stop tweeting about things that are important to me just because someone tells me to.”

Football, the dominant influence on his life, remains his biggest interest, though, and like everyone else Lineker has been intrigued by Pep Guardiola’s ongoing struggle to come to terms with English football.

Eighteen months separated the end of his Barcelona career and the start of Guardiola’s, but the former remains better placed than most to identify with the issues that continue to confront the latter.

Culturally, Lineker believes, Guardiola is embroiled in an acclimatisation period, one which nothing in his career thus far could have prepared him for, and one that he is facing it without the resources needed to impose his own philosophy on Manchester City as seamlessly as he would like.

Lineker, tutored in the same Barcelona tradition for three years in the mid to late 1980s, is not surprised that Guardiola is yet to live up to his own reputation and he believes it is only a matter of time – and wise recruitment – before he does.

“Pep’s made a reasonable start and I don’t think we should get away from that regardless of a few difficult results of late,” Lineker said ahead of City’s third round FA Cup tie away to West Ham United which will be broadcast live on BBC One.

“City are still in the Champions League and they’re still involved in the title race, even if chasing down Chelsea won’t be easy, and this is at a time when he’s also trying to transform the way that they play, something that was never going to be easy.

“So you have to look at everything in context, not just on the back of a defeat or a bad performance, and when you do that it’s fair to say that he’s doing reasonably well if not as well as he would want. He does have a number of issues to deal with, the obvious one being a lack of the type and quality of players that he needs to play in his preferred style.

“Then you have the additional problem of getting used to a new league and new styles of play against opponents that you have not come up against before in a country where we play too many games. So taking everything into account it’s probably not that surprising that he’s shown one or two frustrations of late. That’s pretty normal for the top managers, we’ve seen that with Jose [Mourinho] and one or two others and we’ll no doubt see it again.”

The frustrations that Lineker refers to were particularly evident during a terse post-match interview with the BBC’s Damian Johnson after City’s 2-1 win over Burnley earlier this week.

Again, Lineker feels cultural differences were a significant factor and, as with the style of football he is currently encountering, he expects Guardiola to come to terms with the different demands of the British media.

“I don’t know whether he was just tetchy or if there’s a bit of disdain for those interviewing him. I think it’s pretty clear that he isn’t particularly keen on doing interviews but that’s part of the job, and I think it’s also fair to say that the perception of our journalism abroad is that we focus less on tactics and more on incidents, whether they’re on or off the pitch.

“That’s probably fair in general but it wasn’t the case with the interview in question. It was quite amusing though and it made for good television so we certainly aren’t complaining and having met Pep recently when I was in Manchester to interview Raheem Sterling, I think it’s important to stress that he is a good guy besides being a brilliant coach.

“He doesn’t just have a record for winning, he has earned a reputation for being a coach who changes the way we think about football and how it is played. That leads me to believe that it is only a matter of time before he gets it right in this country and I’m expecting his second season to be much more straightforward than his first.

“Every country has a different football culture and that means that anyone coming into a new one will need time to adapt. In this country it’s a bit more up and at ’em than Pep has been used to in Spain and Germany, even though English football is undoubtedly becoming more tactical and more technical than it has been in the past. 

“In Spain they play a certain way and you will see most teams follow a similar style, whereas in England there are variety of styles – from the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham at one end of the spectrum to teams like West Brom at the other – and that will take a bit of getting used to.

“But that range of styles is why the Premier League is the most interesting in world football, and arguably the most entertaining, and it’s also one of the reasons why coaches like Pep want to come here and test themselves. It might take him a while to come to terms with that because it is undoubtedly a challenge, but the idea that he can’t succeed by playing out from the back is nonsense. If Barcelona were in the Premier League they would win it playing exactly that way.

“The difference is at the moment Pep doesn’t have the players to succeed with that style; he doesn’t have a Gerard Pique or a Jerome Boateng for example, ones who are totally comfortable on the ball. He does have John Stones who is clearly very talented but he is also on a steep learning curve at the moment and although he will be given a really good education by Pep it’s probably expecting a bit much to think that he can be the one that this particular style of play can be built around at this stage.

“While this process is going on, City’s opponents will take advantage of any weaknesses that they have and that’s what’s happening at the moment. But should Pep get it right, recent history tells us that his team will be a formidable one and whatever happens it’s absolutely fascinating to watch. City will play out from the back but like a lot of teams before them they will probably have to learn that in English football there is a balance to be struck and that means that no matter how you might want to play there are times when you just have to clear your lines.”

If the FA Cup third round represents another new challenge for Guardiola, it has been an established part of Lineker’s life having watched games in it as a boy growing up in Leicester, played in it with Leicester City, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur and covered it as a pundit and as a presenter.

Not surprisingly, it is a competition that remains dear to the former striker but it is also one that he believes could be improved, or at least made more appealing to the clubs involved in it.

“It has been a wonderful competition for many years,” he says. “For a lot of people from my generation it was the biggest thing to win and it remains the second biggest domestic trophy and a competition that carries a real sense of magic. I’m not sure how it could be changed because everyone has different ideas, but from my own point of view I think we could do without replays as there are more than enough games as it is.

“I still think replays are a good idea in the third and fourth rounds because they are a good source of income for clubs from the lower divisions, but the further on in the competition you go the less necessary they become. I also think extra-time is unnecessary after replays, but it’s not even worth discussing the possibility of the winners being given a place in the Champions League because that isn’t going to happen.

“But the essence of the competition remains special and none more so than in the third round. There are a lot of exciting ties and ones that will grab people’s attention for different reasons. Obviously one that interests me is the game between two of my old clubs, Everton and Leicester, at Goodison Park. Leicester are my team, I supported them as a boy and still support them now, but I have a great affinity with all of my old clubs so it’s good to know that at least one of them will be in the fourth round draw.”

The inevitable mention of Leicester begs the equally inevitable question of how disappointed Lineker is by his former club’s title defence, if it could be described as such, and whether he feels Claudio Ranieri should be coming under any pressure.

On both matters, he is unequivocal.

“Claudio could have a job for life as far as I’m concerned after what he achieved last season,” Lineker says.

“Leicester are back to where they should be and where people expect them to be and the fact that they are serves to highlight even more how big the miracle of last season was. The madness of last season does mean that Claudio will come under some pressure because that is what happens when you win something as big as the Premier League but it should also buy him some time. That is the least that he deserves.”

Lineker is even more forthright in his views on the treatment of Paul Gascoigne, his former Tottenham and England team-mate, by sections of the media.

Recently he took the tabloid press to task once again when photographs of a bloodied and gaunt Gascoigne were published by the Daily Mirror. “Stop aiming zoom lenses at him and leave him alone ffs,” Lineker said on Twitter. A week on from that tweet, his views have not changed and, if anything, they have grown stronger.

“In some ways it is a difficult one because there is so much interest in Paul because of the career that he had and the wonderful player that he was,” Lineker says of his former team mate. “But there has to be a line and it is being crossed too often. He has got his issues, his illnesses and his addictions, we all know about those. But it doesn’t help him in any way if his suffering is constantly being captured by someone with a zoom lens. Just leave him alone.”

Gary Lineker presents live FA Cup 3rd round coverage of West Ham v Manchester City on Friday January 6 (7.55pm, BBC One) and Tottenham Hotspur v Aston Villa on Sunday January 8 (4pm, BBC One)