Lineker celebrates with Paul Gascoigne after scoring in the semi-final on the way to helping Spurs win the 1991 FA CupBOB THOMAS/GETTY IMAGES
Published 16/05/19, The Times
Gary Lineker pauses to ponder a question he has put to guests on Match of the Day on numerous occasions this season. Is this Pep Guardiola-inspired Manchester City team the greatest to have graced the Premier League? “I would definitely say they’re the best Premier League team we’ve seen,” Lineker says. “You can’t argue against back-to-back titles, the number of points they’ve won, the amount of goals they’ve scored. Someone tweeted about the ‘Invincibles’ [Arsenal’s unbeaten champions in 2003-04] the other day. This season they’d have finished third, eight points behind [City].
“Obviously City have a massive budget — they’re basically run by a country. Yes, they’ve spent a lot of money, but not necessarily that much more than someone like Manchester United, and they’ve spent it well. And the coaching has of course added to it. We’ll have to wait and see what happens in the coming years, to see if they become a dominant force. And who knows how long Guardiola will want to do it for?
“But honestly, to do it two seasons running, with the amount of possession they have in games, the style of football they play, which is so beautiful to watch, the patience they show, the brilliance, the tactical acumen, the whole set-up and the way they have been so successful, is quite something. And if they achieve a domestic treble, I’m not sure anyone can argue about it — although they will of course.”
On Saturday, in the FA Cup final, Watford stand between City and that unprecedented feat, and Lineker will be at Wembley in the BBC studio to bring us the first of three finals to draw the curtain on a remarkable season. Then comes the Europa League final, between Chelsea and Arsenal on May 29, before Lineker returns, this time on BT Sport, to present the Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur on June 1.
Last week, footage of the joyous reactions within the BT Sport studios during breathless Champions League comebacks from Liverpool and Spurs demonstrated that, even after more than two decades in the TV studios, Lineker’s love for the game remains undiminished. “I think that was clearly and embarrassingly obvious for the world to see,” Lineker, 58, says.
“When Tottenham scored [in injury time against Ajax] it was an emotional moment, being there with Glenn [Hoddle] as well. It was special — we were jumping up and down together and then there’s a moment when you think, ‘Christ, get your act together, got to think of some words’ — the right words for the necessary gravitas of the occasion.”
There was criticism from some quarters, however, when Lineker’s exuberant celebration of Lionel Messi’s sumptuous free kick in the Champions League semi-final first leg against Liverpool at the Nou Camp was shared on social media. “Ninety-five per cent of the reaction was massively positive,” Lineker says. “Sometimes the reactions you notice most are from those who shout the loudest and which are negative.
“It was just an unbelievable moment. It’s quite important to put it in context as well, which the video can’t. We were having a conversation when the free kick was given and I said to Rio [Ferdinand], ‘I think he’s going to bend this in the top left-hand corner for his 600th goal’. Rio said. ‘I think it’s too far out . . . ’ I said, ‘Well, it’s on the cusp . . . ’ Then Rio said, ‘Imagine if he does?’ So that added to the moment, but no one knows that at home.
“I find football joyous at times. I like to celebrate it. It wasn’t on air. I went up to Liverpool the following week and hardly anyone said anything. There were a couple of jokey comments when I celebrated Trent Alexander-Arnold’s brilliant piece of quick thinking for the corner [which led to Liverpool’s fourth goal]. It just gets silly sometimes because football is so unbelievably tribal. But that’s the nature of it. I don’t care. I’m passionate about the sport — I make no apologies about that — and I always will be.”
Lineker regards Liverpool as strong favourites in the final. “Overall, team against team, they’ve got the better players,” he says. “They finished 20-odd points ahead of Tottenham this season. So it’s hard to make a case where Tottenham are favourites. But, as we know in football, the best teams don’t always win, which is one of the things that makes it so special.
“[Jürgen] Klopp is a massively enthusiastic, passionate man. The Liverpool side very much reflects his personality: very dynamic, great energy. He’s infectious, he can be exceptionally witty, he’s clearly very intelligent, and he’s a brilliant football man who shows his passion. It adds to the game, adds to the drama, adds to the show.”
Lineker is equally effusive about Mauricio Pochettino, the Spurs manager, but believes that his former club are approaching a seminal moment. “They’ve gone two windows without buying anybody,” he says. “Yes, they’ve got a decent squad, but they are short in one or two positions. Pochettino has done a marvellous job. You can see how the players love playing for him, and love him — and it’s clearly mutual. The quarter-final [against Manchester City] and the semi-final were two extraordinary matches, both breathless in different ways.
“I interviewed [Pochettino] a couple of weeks ago for the Premier League Show; it was the first time I’d actually met him. He’s a very engaging character, clearly massively knowledgeable, insightful on the game, and he’s clearly one of the best managers or coaches in world football.
“But they do need investment, he said that to me himself. And he needs to be backed. I suspect, if he’s not backed, they’ll probably find it quite difficult to keep hold of him. So it really is a seminal moment for Tottenham. They’ve got to decide what they are. Yes, they’ve got a great new stadium, which perhaps halted expenditure to a degree, but whether they’re going to move forward and be a club that can compete in other Champions League finals, rather than just a one-off against all the odds, remains to be seen.”
With the dominance of Premier League clubs in Europe this season, and the wider context of England’s successes in reaching the World Cup semi-final in Russia last summer and the Nations League finals next month, is a sustained period of English power coming into view? “Football is pretty cyclical,” Lineker says. “We had a period of dominance in European club football quite a few years ago.
“We have got an extraordinary amount of talented young footballers coming through in English football. We’re seeing a lot of them starting to break into the big sides — Phil Foden, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Marcus Rashford . . . really talented players, and they’re going to make a real difference. And we’ve got players playing abroad like Jadon Sancho, so there’s no question England are going to be competitive. It is an exciting time.”
This week The Times revealed that the FA Cup is due to be broadcast exclusively on free-to-air television, with ITV close to joining the BBC as rights-holders, from 2021-22. Would the increased exposure perhaps aid a competition whose status has diminished in recent years?
“I think it gets bags of exposure from the BBC,” Lineker says. “This season, Chelsea v Man United and Arsenal v Man United delivered the two biggest TV audiences of any football on TV by some considerable distance. But the FA Cup is not the only circus in town anymore.
“People keep on saying it’s not what it was, but we know that. In the early stages teams might use it as a chance to try other players — particularly the bigger sides, or those fighting relegation, who have bigger concerns — but what we have seen is it’s there to be won. Teams like Watford can get to the final these days by having a go. I’m not going to pretend it’s the Champions League final — it’s not. But it’s the FA Cup final and it will always be special.”
Watford, for whom Saturday will be a first FA Cup final for 35 years, would undoubtedly agree. “They’ve had a fabulous season,” Lineker says. “They have struggled against the top-six teams. Their recent results against Manchester City don’t make great reading for Watford fans. But they’ve got a lot of good players, they play within a structure and organisation that has clearly worked for them, and they’re a good side to watch. I think [Javi] Gracía [the manager] has done a fantastic job; it will be interesting to see if he can take it one step further.”