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Gary Lineker at Barcelona: When Leicester’s Favourite Son Went Overseas

Having made his name with Leicester and Everton, the mid eighties saw Gary Lineker snapped up by ‘El Tel’ at Barca. Together, they would stir a slumbering Catalan giant, and restore glory to the club once more.

by Will Magee
26 January 2017, 8:30am

PA Images

Though opportunities to move abroad are perhaps more prevalent than ever before in football, there is a noticeable dearth of British players who are willing to take the leap overseas. With the high-profile exception of Gareth Bale, and perhaps Oliver Burke, there are no major British talents currently plying their trade on the continent. This has been a cause of much soul-searching on these shores, with countless pundits, columnists and commentators pondering why our footballers are so inwards-looking. Is it our island mentality? Is it a misguided superiority complex? Are we culturally inflexible, unable to adapt, or lacking that same sense of adventure which once sent intrepid Brits to all four corners of the imperial globe?

The reality is that it probably comes down to money, money, more money, and a plethora of comfortable opportunities at home. The English league pyramid, even down to parts of its lower levels, is awash with plush contracts, bonuses and cash in a way that its Spanish, German, French and Italian equivalents are not. While not every English club is wealthy, of course, there are enough moneyed sides in the Premier League and Championship to snap up the vast majority of British players. England has become a plughole for talent, and footballers swirl ever downwards into the cosy warmth of its black and gaping maw.

READ MORE: Double Disaster In El Clasico – The Mutual Humiliation of Barca and Real

It wasn't always this way, however. In the seventies and eighties, the English leagues were far less affluent compared to their opulent European counterparts. Especially in the eighties, English football was in a shabby state, with social strife, the hooliganism epidemic and governmental disapproval leaving the sport looking rather battered and dilapidated. This was before the shiny clean-up act of the Premier League rebrand, and the life of a footballer playing in England was rather less comfy than it is today.

It was in these circumstances that, on a semi-regular basis, some of the biggest names in Britain would be lured to the most prosperous clubs in Europe. Following the lead of the early overseas pioneers like John Charles and Jimmy Greaves, and the likes of Laurie Cunningham and Kevin Keegan in the seventies, the eighties saw Trevor Francis and Graeme Souness move to Sampdoria, Mark Hateley head to Milan, Steve Archibald seal two transfers to Spain, and Mark Hughes play for Barcelona and Bayern Munich, with varying degrees of success.

Lineker at Barca in 1986 // PA Images

Perhaps most successful of all the eighties overseas exports was the man now synonymous with Walkers Crisps and Match of the Day, Gary Lineker. Having made his name as a promising young striker with hometown side Leicester, he had moved to Everton in 1985 and scored a whopping 38 goals in 52 games. That had ensured him a starting spot in the England team ahead of the 1986 World Cup, where he was top scorer with six goals and so became the first (and, to date, only) English footballer to win the Golden Boot at the tournament. While England were dumped out in the quarter-finals owing to an iconic handball from Diego Maradona, Lineker was now drawing covetous glances from the continent having impressed so many on the world stage.

So it happened that, after a single season with Everton, Lineker was signed by Barcelona for a then-considerable £2.8m. On the recommendation of Bobby Robson, who would take the reins just over a decade later, the Barcelona board had appointed Terry Venables as manager in 1984. 'El Tel', as he became known, took over a club which had not won La Liga for a decade, with Barca firmly in the shadow of Real Madrid and at something of a low ebb in their illustrious history. Marshalling a side that included legends like Bernd Schuster, Victor Munoz and Francisco Carrasco, Venables managed to win the league in his first season, and so a British revolution in Catalonia started to take hold.

READ MORE: The Gentle Giant – Remembering Welsh Football Legend John Charles

Having recruited Steve Archibald ahead of that first glorious season, Venables then signed Hughes and Lineker within a short space of time. With their combined Scots, Welsh and English talents, El Tel planned to bring both a bit of grit and renewed flair to his Barca team. While Archibald was a moderate success, 'Sparky' struggled to settle in Catalonia and failed to recreate the form which had made him so popular at Manchester United. Lineker had no such problems, however. Of the three Brits, he was the one who would seal a place in Barca folklore forevermore.

When Lineker first arrived at Barca, he must have stood out like a sore thumb. Rangy, cheerful and sporting a boyish mop of a haircut, he was a quintessential Leicester lad amongst a brooding and moody group of Catalans. Barcelona may not have been an all-conquering side in the manner of the modern era, but they were cool, dashing and raw in a way which Lineker was not, with his schoolboy looks and his endearing chirpiness. These were traits that befitted a cult figure, however, and helped to secure the fans' affections once he took to the Camp Nou pitch.

On his league debut against Racing Santander, Lineker nabbed a couple of well-taken goals, whetting the appetite of Barca supporters and making a fast start at the club. He kept up a steady scoring rate throughout the season, and would end with a respectable 21 goals from 50 games. The highlight of the season came in El Clasico, where Lineker scored an eye-catching hat-trick in a 3-2 win over Barca's fierce rivals. Speaking to Joe.co.uk last year about his experience of that fixture, he said: "I scored two goals in the first five minutes and the noise was unbelievable. I had goosebumps all over me. It was incredible."

READ MORE: Royalist, Republican, Socialist, Fascist – The Chequered History of the Copa Del Rey

The importance of El Clasico wasn't lost on Lineker, who was woke to politics long before he started tweeting. In an interview with the BBC in 2009, he said: "The atmosphere in these games is incredible. There used to be 120,000 fans – mostly home supporters – in the Barca home games and... it really was something else. I don't think there is anything that quite compares to Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, it is more than just a football match. It goes back to the oppression of the Catalans under General Franco, when the only place they felt they could speak their language was in the stadium. The worldwide appeal comes from the fact that it is such an enormous fixture."

Lineker would score the winner against Real Madrid in two more derbies at Camp Nou, sealing his status as a Barca cult hero and as an adopted Catalan. He scored 20 goals in his second season at the club, ending the campaign with a Copa del Rey winners' medal. Unfortunately, after Venables was dismissed mid-way through that season, Lineker's career in Spain was curtailed somewhat. He suffered several niggling injuries, and found himself in and out of the side as a result. Though he won the Cup Winners' Cup in his final season with Barca, he was regularly shunted out to the wing by new manager Johan Cruyff, who seemed lukewarm on his English talisman and gave him limited opportunities to shine.

Desperate to ensure his place in the England side ahead of Italia '90, Lineker was left with little choice but to return home. Tottenham were more than happy to oblige and, having forked out £1.1m for his services, they got a decent bang for their buck from pretty much the moment he stepped back on to English soil. While there was an air of 'what could have been' in the manner of his departure from Barcelona, he could still look back on his time in Spain with fondness and judge his overseas adventure to be a success. He had scored goals, won major silverware and stuck it to Real on more than one occasion. In an era before Barca achieved world dominance, that was all that the fans at Camp Nou could ask.

Though it wasn't quite as magnificent as the Cruyff era which followed, El Tel's reign at Barcelona is still remembered fondly amongst Blaugranes. It was an age of experimental Britishness at Barca, and it helped pave the way for subsequent success. While it was doubtlessly a gamble for Lineker to move to Spain – even at a difficult time for English football – he ended up a fan favourite with a personal legacy that bridged national borders. Plus, he got a banging sun tan. If that's not reason enough for a footballer to move abroad, we don't know what is.

@W_F_Magee

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