Few players can have been defined so disproportionately by their international career than Gary Lineker. Between 1986 and 1992, Lineker was the England team, but that final summer proved to be the mother of all anti-climaxes.
“When somebody’s almost a national institution, it’s almost as if you can’t touch them,” England manager Graham Taylor reportedly said, after Lineker’s limp attempt at a Panenka in a Wembley friendly against Brazil denied him the chance to equal Bobby Charlton’s goalscoring record. “You could argue that we played with 10 men, but you’re not allowed to.”
With the European Championship soon to follow, Lineker didn’t imagine that would be his final presentable opportunity to hit the 49-goal mark. A wretched England side sank like a stone in Sweden, though, and Lineker’s inglorious exit was complete.
At club level, though, it’s rather easily forgotten that Lineker was still in exceptional form. His 1991/92 return for Tottenham (35 goals, 28 of them in the league) was the second best of his career, behind only the year in which he won both the PFA and FWA awards, top-scored at the 1986 World Cup, finished runner-up in the Ballon d’Or and secured a move to Barcelona.
While he was squeezing the last drops out of his shooting boots in an England shirt, Lineker was flying at White Hart Lane. 11 goals in his first seven games helped propel a goal tally that was about 90% pure Lineker.
Meanwhile, he was also road-testing that Panenka, to great effect, even if it would ultimately let him down at the crucial moment.
The season wasn’t even halfway through, though, when the announcement was made by Spurs’ chief executive Terry Venables that Lineker would be leaving the club the following summer. His destination? Japan’s brand new professional football league and Nagoya Grampus Eight, Toyota’s thoroughly rebranded company team. As the Independent wrote at the time, it wasn’t such an odd pairing after all: “Grampus Eight, it transpires, are named after a mythical beast that is a cross between a dolphin and a killer whale. The wholesome predator: Lineker to a T.”
Spurs were offered two million reasons to accept, while Lineker – with his characteristic judgement of space and time – decided the move was right on similar grounds. A late bid from Jack Walker’s ambitious Blackburn, raising the eventual prospect of a domestic strike duo with Alan Shearer, hit the rocks. “I was ready to do something different at that stage,” Lineker later told Four FourTwo. “My best days were behind me, so I don’t think any partnership would have really prospered.”
Lineker signed off with a fond farewell at Old Trafford against Manchester United, naturally snaffling a goal from the occasion to go with the tasteful pottery on a plinth presented by his old England mate Bryan Robson.
With the inaugural J.League season not starting until the following May, Lineker had almost a year out of the game to practise his golf, fine-tune his TV persona and rest a troublesome toe injury that he had suffered soon after the Japan move was agreed. Nevertheless, the Gary Lineker charm offensive could still in earnest.
He visited Nagoya in the summer of 1992, and – in his new state of semi-retired relaxation – the Linekerian quips began to flow. Shown a computer system in a Toyota showroom, he replied simply with “will this help me score goals?” The Nagoya fans were certainly expecting those.
— George Lineker (@GeorgeLineker) July 17, 2013
Asked how to pronounce his name by local reporters, Lineker delved into his ready supply of grinning self-deprecation: “You can call me whatever you like,” he said, “as long as it is polite.”
His toe injury eventually required an operation, and an out-of-shape Lineker finally joined up with Grampus Eight having not played a game for seven months. His teammates seemed not to mind, applauding him into his first training session, and the New York Times picked up on the awe-struck atmosphere.
“The Japanese players…still feel a bit unnatural working out with the English star. It’s as if the 32-year-old, who captained his national team last year, has yet to lose his halo. The Japanese, mostly in their early 20s and with no professional experience, still can’t quite believe Lineker plays on the same team.”
If his over-respectful colleagues proved an awkward prospect, the media at least looked like they were keen to give him an easy ride, especially compared to the scrutiny that had followed him during his time with Barcelona. “Here there’s huge attention but not the cynicism, “ Lineker said. “There’s a feeling they want you to do well, and they look for the good things…the time for criticism will come later.”
For now, though, Grampus Eight – or, rather, Toyota – were keen to make some immediate returns on their considerable investment. “His image as ‘the gentle sportsman’ is a good mix of software and hardware,” beamed a Toyota marketing executive. “We want to use him generally for Toyota’s corporate image.” Lineker had his own logo created, along with a range of merchandise, and a full-page advert appeared in the newspapers with a tracksuited Gary appearing under the ominous headline of “EXPECTATION.”
Those expectations were raised even higher by Lineker performing distinctly un-Linekery things in television adverts for energy drinks…
…and personal finance where, if anything, he’s hit the ball almost too well here.
Back on the training ground, the Lineker Effect was still going strong. His captain Sigeo Sawairi, a stalwart for the old, pre-J.League Toyota team, seemed unlikely to be pulling rank any time soon. “We looked at him like fans would. I thought Gary was like a fashion model. I had an image of British players being very tough and strong. But he didn’t look like this.”
The fish-out-of-water public engagements continued as Lineker waited to pull on the gaudy Grampus Eight shirt for the first time. A pre-season team visit to a Shinto shrine to be blessed with the luck of the gods elicited another polite but bemused reaction from the new guy – “It was great – I didn’t understand what was going on, but it was very attractive” – before his final publicity stunt proved to be the strangest of all. Dressed as a Nagoya policeman, Lineker was paraded through the area around the stadium to promote a public safety campaign. “I’m really surprised,” said Lineker, perhaps trying to keep that £1.8m salary at the front of his mind. “I’ve only been in Japan two months and I’m already police chief!”
Finally, Lineker was able to take the field to do what he was paid for. A high-profile friendly was arranged against Lazio, but it took place without the injured Paul Gascoigne, who had departed Spurs the same summer as Lineker for his own change of scenery. The sponsors were disappointed by that, but the fixture went ahead and – from his sovereign territory of a yard out – Lineker scored the decisive goal in a 2-1 win.
The stage was sufficiently set for Lineker’s J.League curtain call. The fixture list came up with a cracker to start with: a trip to face Kashima Antlers and their own glamour signing. A 40-year-old Zico had been tempted out of retirement and away from his new job as Brazil’s Minister for Sport to help build the J.League brand but – in this humble company, at least – he was far from a spent force.
A sluggish Lineker saw precious little of the ball, as Grampus Eight attempted to play their short passing game behind him, while the Brazilian veteran ran the show.
A stunning hat-trick helped the Antlers to a 5-0 win – and earned Zico the nickname Sakkā no kamisama (“God of Football”) – and Lineker was now fully briefed on the challenge ahead of him.
Unlike Zico, Lineker was patently unable to change game by himself – even at his peak – and the service he had enjoyed previously in his career wasn’t forthcoming. “They were quite gung-ho. It was 4-4-2, but the two full-backs played as wingers. I gave advice, but I was always wondering how it was translated.”
Grampus Eight bounced back from that opening-day disappointment, winning their next game and then the third after a penalty shootout (draws weren’t accommodated in the J.League’s early days, nor indeed were points), in which Lineker – either bravely or cleverly, given the conditions – chipped home yet another Panenka-like effort.
The next game – at home to the Yokohama Flügels in the inauspicious surroundings of the Mizuho Rugby Stadium – produced Lineker’s first J.League goal, which had his name written all over it.
His marker was evaded with embarrassing ease, creating the space for a simple finish at the back post, but it proved to be a mere late consolation in a 2-1 defeat.
But, that toe. Injury struck again, and Lineker was sidelined for three months, eventually having to concede temporary defeat and head to Chicago for another operation. That meant another eight months out of action, and the seemingly endless goodwill of the media given a through stress-test.
Although he returned in time for the 1994 J.League season, Lineker knew his time was up. Newspaper Sankei Sports greeted the announcement of his retirement in September by calculating his price per goal: a cool ¥175,000,000 each. The fans, meanwhile, were unsure how to react to this undoubted gentleman’s sporting demise. The head of their supporter’s club reflected: “I didn’t like Lineker. He didn’t do his job. But we didn’t know then how to get angry at football matches. We didn’t know about hurling abuse at players.”
With the J.League gathering momentum, Grampus Eight didn’t hang around while Lineker toiled. The signing of Dragan Stojkovic – just 29, and fresh from a Champions League win with Marseille – went on to fill the void that Lineker’s costly but amicable failure had created.
It was, however, a measure of Lineker’s residual stature that his final match became the fondest of farewells. Grampus Eight fans agreed to make their support “Lineker-only”, sporting Tottenham hats and waving Union Jacks, but Lineker – for once – couldn’t oblige with a finishing touch.
His substitution, early in the second half, had strong echoes of his unceremonious England exit, but Lineker bowed out this time with grace and a smile.
Southampton and Middlesbrough hoped to lure him back to the Premier League for one last hurrah on home soil, but that toe – which became a cruel running joke after serving him so well for a large chunk of those 329 goals – declared that enough was enough.
“I’ve always said I wanted to quit international football at the top,” Lineker had said in 1992.
“As they say in show business, always leave them wanting more.”