When I was 24 and working on a glossy magazine, I decided I wanted to see what went on behind the scenes at my favourite television programme, Match of the Day. So I called up the BBC press office and asked if I could spend a Saturday hanging about the studio with the likes of presenter Gary Lineker. They said I could. It all seems like a dream now. Like some sort of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-type fantasy where the snot-nosed urchin is handed a golden ticket to explore his own personal Xanadu. But it really happened. The magazine I worked for wasn’t even that popular but, I suppose, nobody else ever had the naive chutzpah to just call up and invite themselves in for a poke around the nation’s flagship football show before. Journalism seemed so much easier and more fun back in 1999.
I rocked up at Television Centre the following Saturday with my little tape recorder and notepad. The press officer ushered me into a ramshackle office filled with TV sets, each of them showing a live feed of a different Premier League match. Sat about the office were Alan Hansen, Trevor Brooking and Gary Lineker plus a couple of producers and Mark Lawrenson, who told me he wasn’t working that day but had decided to hang around anyway. It was a den-like atmosphere with everyone slumped around with their feet up on desks, drinking tea, munching KitKats and talking shit to each other while they watched the game. I was in dreamland. They were all really friendly. I even got to join in the sweepstake. In the hours between the games ending and the show beginning, I spent some alone time with the stars. Hansen was a nice bloke but grumpy in a pantomime sort of way, as if he wanted to play up to his on-air image. Sir Trevor Brooking took me to the fabled BBC canteen for something to eat and managed to order us both some fried eggs even though they weren’t on the menu. The canteen ladies just seemed to melt in his presence and do whatever he asked.
Lastly, I spoke to Lineker in his dressing room where he was putting the finishing touches to his script. He had just taken over from Des Lynam as the show’s anchor. There was huge pressure on him. But he seemed as calm and unruffled as when I’d seen him step up to slot two penalties away against Cameroon at Italia 90. I had a strong sense that Gary would soon make the role his own. I remember him being friendly, smart, down to earth and funny. He could see I was a pup starting out in journalism who was somewhat overwhelmed by my assignment, and he helped me through it. Before I left, he made sure to get the photographer to take a picture of me larking about with him, Hansen and Brooking on the MOTD set. He could tell I was too shy to ask for it. My mum still has that shot framed on her wall.
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Nowadays I live round the corner from Gary Lineker. I see him regularly in the grocers or the coffee shop, or while we’re walking our dogs on the green. He, of course, is oblivious to me. I’m now 47, a grizzled hack who has since met all sorts of famous people. Yet I am still too starstruck and shy to say hello and tell him that he once helped create one of the most memorable days of my career. Thing is, ever since he scored that hat-trick against Poland in 1986, he’s been my hero and no matter how old and cynical I have become, I still feel like a wide-eyed schoolboy in his presence.
At this stage, you might be waiting for the pay-off to all this soppy, dewy-eyed reminiscing. Some sort of killer detail or profound insight that unveils a hitherto unconsidered perspective on Lineker’s recent travails. I’m sorry to disappoint, but there’s nothing more to this story than (a) Me showing off about a brilliant and memorable experience I had two and a half decades ago and (b) Me reiterating something you probably already know, that Gary Lineker is an excellent human being.
These days, the world – particularly Britain – can sometimes seem like a right shitpile of wankers. But it really isn’t. There is kindness, love and decency all around us. Unfortunately, it’s often the minority of wankers who are making the loudest noise. Recently, it’s been life-affirming to see one of the good guys getting all the attention.