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Gary’s path to Golden Glory – how Lineker finished top scorer in 1986 World Cup

As Colombia’s James Rodriguez returned home from the 2014 World Cup with six goals to his name after the quarter-final stage and his value rocketing, one man could probably identify with him better than anyone else. Gary Lineker may have been a different type of player to Rodriguez (no stunning volleys from outside the area for him), but in 1986 he matched his goalscoring tally from the same number of matches and found himself in big demand after his first World Cup finals. So let’s look back at the summer that changed his life…

Lineker’s rise to prominence was pretty rapid. He made a relatively slow start to his football career and would not have been in anybody’s thoughts as England played the 1982 World Cup when he was 21 and a low-profile Second Division striker with hometown club Leicester City. But the goals started flowing in as promotion was achieved in 1982-83 and in May 1984 came the big moment when he was brought on for Tony Woodcock during England’s 1-1 draw away to Scotland.

He didn’t score and wouldn’t win another cap until March 1985, when his international career began to take off with a goal against the Republic of Ireland. He would net twice against the USA in June and then came the night that appeared to have confirmed his arrival on the international scene, a hat-trick in a 5-0 destruction of Turkey in October as England celebrated World Cup qualification. By that point he had made the switch to Everton and continued his prolific goalscoring form at club level as he netted 40 times in 1985-86.

But then the doubts set in. Lineker played in four more internationals before the World Cup and failed to score in any of them and a wrist injury sustained in the last warm-up match against Canada led to fears he would miss the finals. There would be three other strikers vying for a forward place in Bobby Robson’s line-up. There was the powerful duo of Mark Hateley and Kerry Dixon, who both could act as the proverbial handful for any defence to contend with. And there was the customary latecomer to the party, with Newcastle’s Peter Beardsley adding a touch of class to the attack after only making his international debut in January 1986. He’d linked up well with Lineker in a friendly against USSR in March, but then had clicked with Hateley in the penultimate pre-World Cup friendly.

Nearly over before it began
Lineker, with his wrist in plaster and having felt ill on the morning of the match, took his place in the side for England’s opening game in the World Cup against Portugal in Monterray and partnered Hateley in attack. Although Portugal had reached the semi-finals of Euro ’84, England were expected to beat them and they created enough chances to do so. On another occasion Lineker could have had a hat-trick with his three decent scoring chances, coming closest in the second half when his effort was cleared away by the final Portugese defender with the goalkeeper beaten. But his potency and luck was out and England were made to pay in the closing stages as Carlos Manuel grabbed a winner. Things got worse in the second match against Morocco, Lineker fairly anonymous in a goalless draw forever remembered for Bryan Robson’s World Cup ending through injury and Ray Wilkins being sent-off after throwing the ball in the direction of the referee.

The pressure was now on Bobby Robson and it looked certain he would act and make changes. Although there was a chance England could progress with a draw against group seeds Poland, for the matter to be in their own hands they had to win. If they lost they would definitely be out, a humiliating failure in one of the weakest of the six groups. Bobby Robson was left to make tough calls for how to find the goalscoring answer. He could quite easily have dropped Lineker. Instead Hateley was the unlucky man to miss out, with Beardsley brought in. It was a move that helped save England’s World Cup and Bobby Robson’s reputation, along with bringing in understated players like Steve Hodge and Peter Reid who did excellent jobs.

A life-changing moment (or three)
“It was the game that changed my life,” Lineker has said in numerous interviews over the years. It’s hard to argue with that. While he had been absolutely prolific in recent seasons at club level, English football has been littered with strikers who have scored goals for fun in the top-flight but could not find the finishing touch when they pulled on the England shirt (Clive Allen, Andrew Cole and Kevin Phillips to name but three). At this point he was barely known outside of England, having not appeared in a major tournament or in a European club competition. By half-time he’d be talked about globally as his predatory instincts transformed the contest, to the delight of the millions staying up late back home to watch the 11pm kick-off.

England started nervously and were twice almost punished for their slackness, but after nine minutes came the moment that changed the tournament. A good move involving Beardsley, Lineker, Trevor Steven and Gary Stevens (his Everton team-mate, there was also confusingly the Spurs player of the same name in the squad) ended with Lineker scoring from close range to the delight of every Englishman, epitomised by Jimmy Hill’s cheering being heard on the BBC commentary as he sat alongside Barry Davies. The second goal quickly followed, Beardsley playing a delightful ball to Hodge whose perfect cross was sweetly finished by Lineker. Hodge had a goal disallowed before England wrapped victory up before the break. The Polish goalkeeper failed to handle a corner and Lineker showed his poaching instinct to pounce from typically close range. The second half was after the Lord Mayor’s show as England saw the game out with a 3-0 win and through in second place, having also helped to finally dim the memory of that infamous night at Wembley against the Poles in October 1973.

Suddenly Lineker was big news. Film crews converged on the family’s fruit and veg market stall back in Leicester and attention would be given to how, showing a typically superstitious outlook for a footballer, he sought his damaged boots to be repaired rather than replaced now he was on a scoring run.

The game that changed Lineker’s life.

More of the same
Considering they had only finished second in their group, fortune was on their side in terms of the second round draw. England had a week to recover before they played in Mexico City against Paraguay, not regarded as a strong side. Had England finished first in the group it would have been West Germany they would face; if they had gone through in third, they would have been up against Brazil. They would also have a chance to get used to playing at the Azteca Stadium before potentially playing there again against Argentina in the quarter-finals.

England looked far more confident than in the group stage, although again they could have been punished at 0-0. But they were to carry on where they left off as Lineker netted his fourth of the tournament, sticking out a leg to turn the ball into an empty net from Steve Hodge’s assist. The Paraguayans were not afraid to compete physically and Lineker was floored by a flying elbow into the throat in the second half. While off the field being treated, Beardsley scored a Lineker-esque close-range goal from inside the six yard box following the corner. Lineker returned to the action and wrapped up the win from just outside the six yard box, after excellent approach play by Hoddle and Gary Stevens (the Spurs one this time).

Lineker, goalless two games earlier, was now the World Cup’s top scorer with five goals. “It’s a great honour to be ahead of some of the names who are in the competition. I just hope I can stay there and hopefully we get to the final and even bring the cup home,” he told the BBC, while praising the team as a whole for their part in the goals he scored. The team-spirit seemed strong and confidence was flowing.

Lineker nets twice in the win over Paraguay.

Moving onto six, but so nearly seven
And so to quarter-final Sunday, a showdown with Argentina that would be talked about for years. We all know what happened with Argentina running out 2-1 winners, but perhaps an interesting subplot concerned the destiny of the Golden Boot. Maradona of course scored twice, Lineker once. His late header from John Barnes’ excellent cross gave him six goals, the same as had finished top scorer in the past two World Cups. An action replay looked certain minutes later as England rallied and Barnes sparkled, Lineker somehow having the ball somehow cleared away from him as he prepared to level from close range (ITV commentator Martin Tyler screamed “goal”, such was the assumption Lineker would score). He would have to be content with six goals for the tournament and, more importantly, just a place in the last eight in the World Cup. It also became clear how in demand Lineker was, with stories emerging of Barcelona being willing to spend big to sign him. With English clubs banned from Europe, a move overseas seemed inevitable.

It was now out of Lineker’s hands if he could claim the Golden Boot, with the four surviving teams all having two games left to bang the goals in. But one consolation was Brazil (Careca) and Spain (Emilio Butragueno) also went out in the quarter-finals, meaning the two players on five goals would not be able to overtake him. Realistically the main threat to the Golden Boot would come from Argentina. Maradona had scored three and was coming into form. He underlined that three days later with two goals in the semi-final against Belgium, including another great solo goal. He now stood on five goals.

Lineker’s sixth and final World Cup goal in 1986.

Winning the award while in the hallowed studio
Lineker, back home in England, was getting an early insight into life presenting on the BBC as he was a pundit for the final alongside Lawrie McMenemy and Terry Venables, with Des Lynam presenting. Lynam would get a telling-off from McMenemy for raising the subject of Lineker possibly moving to Barcelona without Everton manager Howard Kendall being present. Lineker was giving nothing away, although his suggestion he would simply “play for the team I want to play for next season” was hardly a reassurance to Evertonians he was staying at Goodison Park.

Lineker could only watch and wonder if his name could join such names as Kempes, Eusebio, Rossi and Fontaine as Golden Boot winner. Maradona had been so influential for Argentina that it seemed inconceivable he wouldn’t score. But this was to be one of his quieter games and it was his turn to turn provider rather goalscorer, in managing to tee up Burruchaga for the late winner as Argentina triumphed 3-2. Maradona was the player of the tournament, but not the top scorer.

Watch the moment Gary discovered the World Cup Golden Boot would be his…

As expected, Lineker headed off to Barcelona in a £2.8 million move. The next time he pulled on the England shirt, he scored twice against Northern Ireland in a European Championship qualifier, including a superb chipped goal. His stock was rising all the time and he must have fancied his chances of landing the Sports Personality of the Year award. But Lineker was surprisingly to not even make the top three, Nigel Mansell taking the prize despite missing out on the Formula One championship. Lineker must have looked on with a touch of envy when Paul Gascoigne (1990) and Michael Owen (1998) subsequently won the award off the back of World Cup performances.

But for Lineker, the World Cup Golden Boot would provide ample consolation. He still remains the only British player ever to win it. And later advertising deals with Walkers Crisps and the Match of the Day presenting gig have again softened the blow I’m sure…

englandmemories View All

Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

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