Event - 2020-04-05


We have been so divided but this invisible enemy is bringing out the very best in our country


Interview by cole moreton

Gary Lineker has been living alone lately and is willing to keep it that way. ‘I’ve been in self-isolation because a couple of my boys were showing symptoms of the coronavirus,’ says the former England striker turned broadcaster and Match Of The Day host, giving his first interview from his personal quarantine. Football has been cancelled and there are no highlights to show, but the BBC has rushed to fill his Saturday-night slot with a surprisingly compelling Match Of The Day debate around Lineker’s kitchen table, in which Ian Wright, Alan Shearer and he argue over the greatest Premier League players of all time. ‘We did a couple about a month ago, so there was no social distancing,’ says Lineker. ‘Now we are going to have to find a way to do them remotely.’ The initial sessions were filmed in the big white kitchen at Lineker’s home on the edge of London in Barnes – which is also where he first realised his family was going to have to go into lockdown. ‘My boy George was here and he said: “This is really weird. I’ve got no taste, I’ve got no smell.”’ Lineker has four sons with his first wife, Michelle: Angus, 22, Tobias, 24, Harry, 26, and the eldest George, who is 28. ‘I knew what he was saying was true because I had cooked him a vindaloo that was quite hot and he struggles with spices, but he said: “I’ve not really been able to taste anything for the past two or three days and I thought it was all in my mind, but I’m eating your curry and it’s not having any effect on me.” I said: “Well, that’s weird.”’ They Googled it and were alarmed to find that these might be symptoms of the virus. ‘His youngest brother Angus has since developed the same. My third son had the classic symptoms of a dry cough and a temperature, so I said to George: “Right, why don’t you go back with your mother?”’ Michelle lives in Sunningdale and the boys have gone into isolation there. Lineker decided to follow suit in his own home, despite not having any symptoms himself. ‘I had been careful and social distanced with George, and I had cleaned the surfaces, but I thought it was my responsibility to follow the government guidelines.’ How is he finding it? ‘I am fine on my own. I am single anyway,’ says Lineker, who divorced from his second wife, Danielle Bux, four years ago and has no regular partner now. Even before this happened, he says he was in no hurry to get one. ‘I have the odd date here and there, go out for dinner, have a drink, meet for coffee. But I haven’t dated very much. If I do have a date I have to be careful about where to go.’ Lineker has lived his life under pretty constant public scrutiny since he was part of the England side that made the World Cup semifinals in 1990. He played for his home-town club Leicester as well as Everton, Spurs and Barcelona before retiring in 1994 to become a TV presenter. Now he is the highest paid of all BBC presenters, with a salary in 2019 of £1.75 million (although he says he has volunteered to take a pay cut). The point is that he must be well used to fame by now, so why would it put him off dating? ‘You don’t want to be pictured coming out of a restaurant with someone you’ve perhaps only seen once or twice in your life. You wouldn’t wish that on anyone, because obviously there would be a massive investigation by the media: “Who is this person?” So I am a bit cautious. I can’t really be bothered with it most of the time.’ He will be 60 later this year. ‘You start to think, Christ, I’m coming towards old age. I’m in decent enough shape. I’m still working out hard. But things do change. My fingers are a bit arthritic. My eyesight’s fading fast, I wear glasses a lot more. I’m going a bit grey. Well, very grey. But generally I’ve been lucky, I’ve managed to maintain decent health. Hopefully that will remain the case over the next couple of months.’ He sounds conflicted. ‘I want to say it doesn’t bother me… but 60 does sound a big number! I figure I’ve not got that long being able to massively enjoy life. But we’ll see.’ The subject of age and dating comes up on the new Match Of The Day podcast when he and fellow ex-england stars Ian Wright, 56, and Alan Shearer, 49, break off from debating who is the greatest goal-scorer to talk about sex. ‘We’re not talking about the technicalities!’ protests Lineker, whose clean-cut image means he would be bashful if they were. ‘It’s just that clichéd old question: is scoring a goal a better feeling than having sex? I think we’re all totally in agreement that scoring a goal is much better.’ He laughs, but he does mean it. ‘Basically, because everyone can have sex, but not everyone can score an important goal in a big game.’ Wright says on the podcast that if he had to choose between sex and scoring another big goal, he would choose the goal. Lineker replies ruefully: ‘You know what the truth is now, though? None of us will ever score again. And we’ll probably never have sex again!’ And the much younger Shearer tells him: ‘You won’t at your age, anyway.’ But didn’t Lineker say in an interview last year that he would rather have a nice dinner date than go to bed with someone? ‘The headline stitched me up a little bit there. I was just saying, is that part of a relationship that important anyway? I woke up the next morning and the front page had something like: Gary Lineker Doesn’t Like Sex. I had about 20 Whatsapp messages from everyone I know going, “Oh yeah, is that right?” I felt, oh my God, this is so embarrassing. Not that I care. It was a bit of fun.’ There are more important things to worry about now. ‘Three weeks ago I had the busiest part of the year, with the Champions League, the FA Cup and the regular Match Of The Day. My whole diary was completely blocked until the middle of April, but now suddenly I’ve got absolutely nothing. I am sure loads of people are in the same boat. It is just an extraordinary time.’ What is he doing with his days? ‘Working out, doing loads of cooking, watching telly, reading and stuff, so I am fine.’ Isn’t it easier for him, living in a big house? ‘It’s at times like this when you feel for married couples, in small places together. There are gonna be a lot of divorces after this. Imagine living 24/7 with the other half!’ He chuckles. Lineker and Danielle Bux split up because she wanted a brother or sister for her teenage daughter from another relationship but he didn’t want any more children. She now lives in Los Angeles with a new partner and young daughter. He says they are still best friends and talk every day on the phone. Lineker has been passionate about calling for the NHS to get all the support it needs in the crisis, and has extra, personal reasons for doing so. ‘If it wasn’t for the NHS and the brilliance of the doctors and nurses, George wouldn’t be with us today.’ Michelle noticed a lump on their baby’s head that turned out to be a sign of acute myeloid leukaemia. This rare form of blood cancer nearly took George’s life, but he eventually recovered. ‘We will be eternally grateful to the NHS,’ says Lineker. ‘It’s extraordinary that they got him through.’ More than 750,000 people have volunteered to help the NHS and he reveals that they include two of Lineker’s boys. ‘I was proud of them for that,’ he says. ‘George was first and now Angus as well. He’s just started symptoms so it’s going to be a couple of weeks before he starts anyway.’ His other son, Harry, works for Lineker’s company, Goalhanger Films, and is the editor of the new podcast, which they started making before the crisis hit. ‘We’ve spent so many times in the Match Of The Day production office talking about great strikers or great goalkeepers so we just came up with the idea of doing lists, our top tens. The timing couldn’t be better – with so many people looking for something to get their heads around to relieve all the boredom.’ They were only meant as podcasts but the initial shows were filmed in order to make online ads. ‘It wasn’t meant to be a television show, that’s why it’s a little bit quirky. I was a bit concerned when they said they wanted to put it in the Match Of The Day slot, but it was all right. It’s not quite an hour-and-a-half of games as usual, but it is people who love football talking about football.’ Their next challenge is to make some more under the new rules, probably with each man in his own home. ‘We know it is not going to look like a proper TV show, but that’s the way a lot of television is going to be over the next few months.’ Football has also got some huge decisions to make, with the season currently suspended. How can they untangle this mess? ‘Oh, I wish I knew. First and foremost they should try and finish this season in terms of all the competitions that are left.’ The usual summer break, when footballers go on their holidays, should be abolished, he says. ‘If they can finish it, that is the right thing to do. If they can start football again in the summer, they could finish this season, then immediately start the next season. You certainly wouldn’t need a break for the players – although they probably wouldn’t agree with me. They are having their rest now and it’s going to be a long rest.’ Most will want to crack on, though: ‘The footballers will be desperate to get back to playing, but obviously the whole thing depends on how this virus pans out. No one really knows the answer to that question, so it is difficult.’ There’s far more riding on this than just sport, he says. ‘The hugely wealthy football clubs will survive but a lot of football won’t. A lot of small football clubs are struggling anyway. This is going to kill them. I doubt most people’s sympathies are around sporting clubs at the moment, but the truth is that there are a lot of livelihoods at stake.’ He’s not talking about the highly paid superstars but the tens of thousands of other employees at all levels. ‘It’s not just about rich footballers. This is about the catering staff, the people who work at the bars, the people who clean the grounds. The lower clubs that might go to the wall and all the people who work for them.’ The big clubs have not been great at helping the little ones survive over the years, but does he think they have an obligation to help now? ‘Yes. I hope they will. But at the moment it’s all over the place and no one really knows what to do.’ As the son of a fruit-seller in Leicester market, Lineker has always kept his feet on the ground. And after decades building up a squeaky-clean image, he has started to take more chances in recent years, starting with controversial social media posts on the refugee crisis and Brexit. Lineker’s opinions were a surprise, coming from the world of football, which is full of people trained to give interviews saying nothing: ‘Brexit was so divisive. Hopefully we’ll put that behind us and fight for something that is much more important: the lives, the health and the work of so many people in this country and around the world.’ Everything has changed, he says. ‘We have been so divided over the past few years, but now we have this common goal, this invisible enemy and it’s bringing out the very best in our country. I think that is the one positive that we will get out of this thing.’ Even in isolation, Lineker is looking for the positives. Does he consider it his job to help keep our spirits up? ‘I am not sure it is part of my job, but I feel it is something I would love to be able to do,’ he says, sincerely. ‘It feels like a privilege to be able to try to help people at this time… and if that is through having a bit of fun talking about football, or whatever, then so be it.’ Listen to the ‘Match Of The Day: Top 10’ podcast on BBC Sounds and watch on BBC iplayer



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