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March 5, 2010

Gary Lineker: The predator

The most natural predator England has ever produced, Gary Lineker was a striker with the knack of being in the right place at the right time.

Gary Lineker with his plethora of awards in 1987
GettyImages / BobThomasGary Lineker with his plethora of awards in 1987

Though rarely known for his general teamwork or ability outside of the penalty area, Lineker's goalscoring instincts made him the archetypal "fox in the box", able to sniff a chance out of nowhere.

Lineker may have only played in two World Cup finals, but he won the Golden Boot in 1986 and netted another four goals in the 1990 finals. Always eager to feed off the creativity of players such as Peter Beardsley, Glenn Hoddle and Paul Gascoigne throughout his international career, Lineker fell just one short of Bobby Charlton's all-time goalscoring record, netting a total of 48 - though Charlton's 49 came from an additional 26 caps.

Lineker came through the ranks with his hometown club, Leicester City, but it wasn't until the 1984-85 season that he made his name in the top flight after his goals helped the Foxes win promotion, scoring 22 goals in just 39 top flight games. That form led to his first England call-up, and debut as a substitute against Scotland in the Rous Cup in May 1984.

Twenty-four league goals in the 1984-85 season, which won him the Golden Boot in England, led to a move to Everton. Another 30 goals and another Golden Boot marked his one and only season on Merseyside in the lead up to the World Cup in Mexico.

Lineker played throughout the 1986 World Cup wearing a lightweight plaster cast, a classic image of World Cup history, and the striker announced his arrival on World Cup football in devastating fashion. After a poor start to the finals, in which England had lost to Portugal and drawn 0-0 with Morocco, their passage into the knockout rounds came down to the final group game against Poland. England started the game poorly, but by the 34th minute Lineker had scored three goals.

He started the move for the first, working the ball from left to right through Trevor Steven to Gary Stevens, and was on hand to sweep home into the roof of the net from five yards out. Five minutes later and Lineker bagged a second. Beardsley played in Steve Hodge down the left with a blind reverse pass, and an inch perfect cross left Lineker with a tap-in; it was a superb goal. Then the hat-trick was complete when Lineker capitalised on horrific goalkeeping from Jozef Mylnarczyk, firing home after he failed to grasp a corner.

With England safely through, confidence grew and a Second Round meeting with Paraguay held no fears, with Lineker scoring another two goals. The first was the predatory prod home after Steve Hodge had pulled the ball back. Beardsley then doubled the advantage before Lineker then sealed a place in the quarter-finals, tapping home from six yards after Stevens squared across the face of goal.

Gary Lineker celebrates his first ever World Cup goal, the first of three against Poland
GettyImages / BobThomasGary Lineker celebrates his first ever World Cup goal, the first of three against Poland

The last-eight showdown with Argentina will be forever be remembered for Diego Maradona's 'Hand of God' goal and his outstanding second, but Lineker did sign off with his sixth goal of the tournament. His final goal, in the 2-1 defeat to the Argentines, was nothing more than a consolation.

Linkeker won the golden boot ahead of Maradona, Careca of Brazil and Spain's Emilio Butragueno, with all of his goals scored from within the six-yard box. He went on to be named as runner-up in the 1986 European Footballer of the Year awards.

Lineker's outstanding performances in Mexico led to a move to Spain ahead of the 1986-87 season, with then-Barca boss Terry Venables paying 2.2 million to pair him with Mark Hughes. With Barca he would win the Copa del Rey in 1988 and European Cup Winners' Cup in 1989. He scored 36 goals in his first two seasons with Barca, but fell out of favour under Johann Cruyff in 1988-89.

He rejected overtures from Manchester United to sign for Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 1989, taking him back to England in a World Cup year. Lineker soon rediscovered his form in netting 24 First Division goals which won him yet another Golden Boot.

England went into the 1990 World Cup in Italy short on confidence and under intense pressure. Their European Championships campaign in 1988 had been woeful, as they lost all three matches with Lineker failing to get on the scoresheet. It later transpired, however, that he had been suffering from hepatitis.

Lineker may not have won the Golden Boot in 1990, but England did go a step closer to glory in reaching the semi-finals before they were eliminated by West Germany in a penalty shoot-out.

The striker's tournament got off to the perfect start, with a goal after just eight minutes in the opening group game against Ireland in Cagliari. Again in was a goal from just a couple of yards out, but this time it came via a ball over the top by Chris Waddle, which Lineker chested down past the onrushing Pat Bonner before tapping home.

England squeezed through the group stage with a 1-0 win over Egypt, setting up a Second Round date with Belgium. An extra-time victory earned a quarter-final meeting with Cameroon, the African nation which had lit up the tournament.

Trailing 2-1 with just seven minutes to go, Lineker stepped forward to rescue England. Benjamin Massing sent the striker sprawling just inside the area and referee Edgardo Codesal Mendez had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Lineker himself stepped up to sent Thomas Nkono the wrong way and force extra time. It was the first time he had ever taken a penalty in international football.

Lineker secured England's passage to the semi-finals with another spot-kick in extra-time. This time the award was not so clear as a combination of Messing and Nkono sent the forward to the deck after he had broken through the centre. This time Lineker drilled the ball down the centre to earn what many considered to be an undeserved 3-2 win.

Gary Lineker scores from the spot in the quarter-final against Cameroon in 1990
GettyImages / BobThomasGary Lineker scores from the spot in the quarter-final against Cameroon in 1990

He was once again the late hero in the semi-final against West Germany as his goal 10 minutes from time made the score 1-1 and forced extra-time. The German defence failed to deal with Paul Parker's cross from the right, and Lineker's control with his right thigh - fooling two defenders - and finish with his left was true quality.

It was during the additional 30 minutes that Lineker was captured in one of the World Cup's most memorable moments. The talismanic Paul Gascoigne was booked for a foul on Thomas Berthold, his second caution of the tournament which would rule him out of the final, and Lineker was pictured gesturing to the bench to keep an eye on the midfielder, who was in tears.

Lineker converted England's first goal in the resulting penalty shoot-out, but misses from Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle saw a 4-3 win for the Germans. His four goals were not enough to land the Golden Boot for a second successive World Cup, as Italy's Salvatore Schillaci took that accolade with six.

Lineker enjoyed two more years at the highest level in England following the World Cup. He scored 15 goals in 1990-91, the same season Spurs won the FA Cup, and finished third in the voting for the FIFA World Player of the Year. Another 28 goals in 1991-92 brought the curtain down on his top flight career.

His England career came to an end in infamous circumstances at Euro 1992 in Sweden, as coach Graham Taylor controversially replaced him with Alan Smith late in the game against the hosts with England about to slip out of the tournament. Lineker didn't even look at Taylor as he left the pitch.

Lineker scored 48 goals from 80 caps (he had the chance to tie Charlton's record but missed a penalty in a pre-Euro '92 warm-up against Brazil), and is the only England striker ever to win the Golden Boot at the World Cup . He also scored four goals in one game twice for England - in a 1987 friendly against Spain in Madrid while he was playing in La Liga and again in another friendly against Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur in 1991.

Lineker's club career came to an end with two seasons in the newly-formed Japanese top flight at Nagoya Grampus Eight, though a persistent toe injury restricted him to just 18 appearances and four goals. He famously never received a single card throughout his whole career and was England's best goalpoacher on the grandest of stages.