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Nice-guy Lineker braces for challenge

London: Former England captain Gary Lineker has exceeded expectations at nearly everything he has done in his 41 years, but this week he may have taken on his toughest task yet.

He announced on Monday that he is to head a consortium aiming to take over and revive his hometown club, Leicester City, which has gone into financial administration.

The history of football is littered with men who have got involved with clubs they support and lived to rue the day, but things will have to get pretty bad before Lineker’s reputation is severely dented.

Lineker has the sort of image that advertisers are prepared to pay a small fortune to associate with their client’s products.

One of the best strikers in the history of the game, he scored 48 goals in 80 games for his country and was a prolific striker for Leicester, Everton, Barcelona and Tottenham Hotspur. He is famously easy-going and never received so much as a yellow card in his 16 years as a professional.

He married his childhood sweetheart Michelle with whom he has four sons. His eldest, George, suffered from leukaemia as a baby and Lineker has since been heavily involved in charity work for children with the disease.

When he hung up his boots Lineker made a switch to a successful career in television, presenting sports programmes for the BBC.

Advertisers have also paid him a tidy sum, most notably Walkers — the Leicester-based snack manufacturer whose sponsorship led to City’s new stadium being named the Walkers Bowl. The family stand is, of course, named after Lineker.

Appearances as a team captain on the satirical sports quiz ‘They Think It’s All Over’ have shown he has a sense of humour and can laugh at himself, while his contributions rarely stray beyond puns and the mildest innuendo. But even in the lighthearted atmosphere of that programme, one thing shines through — while he may be a nice guy, Lineker hates to lose.

Gary Winston Lineker was born on November 30 1960, a birthday he shared with former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill from whom he got his middle name.

His parents owned a stall at Leicester market but sport was their son’s passion and he showed great promise in both football and cricket. Football won and he was snapped up by City as an apprentice in 1976, signing professional forms two years later.

After a period playing on the wing, his searing pace and eye for goal won him the central striker’s role at the club as Leicester fought their way back into the top flight in 1983.

He was the club’s top scorer for four seasons, scoring more than 90 goals in nearly 200 appearances, and made his international debut as a substitute against Scotland in 1984.

A move to a bigger side became inevitable and he duly joined league champions Everton for £850,000 in July 1985. The fans on Merseyside took a while to warm to him as his arrival meant the departure of their hero Andy Gray, now also a television pundit with a rival channel.

But Lineker won them over with 38 goals in 52 games that season as the club finished runners-up behind city rivals Liverpool in both the League and FA Cup.

His staggering strike rate made him an automatic selection in Bobby Robson’s England squad for the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico and it was there that he sealed his reputation as one of the best finishers in the world.

A hattrick in a first round match against Poland got England through to the knockout stages and he ended up with six in all as England reached the quarter finals, where they were beaten by Diego Maradona’s Argentina.

It may have been Maradona’s tournament, but Lineker became the first — and to date only — Englishman to win the Golden Ball to add to both the players’ and football writers’ Player of the Year awards.

Barcelona’s English manager Terry Venables decided he wanted Lineker to spearhead his attack in Spain and made Everton a £2.75 million offer they could not refuse for the 25-year-old.

The three-year stint at Barcelona was not an unqualified success, especially after Venables left to be replaced by Johan Cruyff and the Dutchman insisted on playing him out wide.

But he still managed 44 goals in 99 games and first got his hands on a piece of silverware when Barcelona won the Kings’ Cup in 1988 and the European Cup Winners’ Cup the following year.

He also illustrated that he was far from a typical English footballer abroad by adapting well to the Catalan culture and becoming fluent in Spanish.

Venables, by then at Spurs, brought him back to England in 1989, where he played alongside Paul Gascoigne, who was also to be his team mate for England at the 1990 World Cup finals.

In Italy, England reached the semis where they were beaten on penalties by West Germany with Lineker contributing four goals to his country’s cause on the way.

That campaign marked the rebirth of England’s love affair with football and Lineker was one of the symbols of the new relationship, even inspiring a successful West End play ‘An Evening with Gary Lineker.’

The next season, with Gascoigne and Lineker on fire, Spurs won the FA Cup. Lineker scored two goals in the famous Wembley victory over Arsenal in the semi-final, while his missed penalty in the final did not prove decisive.

Lineker had by then been made his country’s captain by Graham Taylor, who had replaced Robson. But Taylor’s decision to substitute him in England final match of the miserable 1992 European Championship campaign meant his international career ended on a sour note.

It was his last match and he was left one goal shy of Bobby Charlton’s record of 49.

After 80 goals in 138 games for Spurs, Lineker made a surprise move to Japanese club Grampas Eight in the summer of 1993.

Following a largely unproductive season in the J-League and dogged by a toe injury, he decided to end his playing days at the end of the 1993-4 season aged 33.

Lineker had always said he did not want to chance his arm as a manager, most of whom, he quipped, seemed to be mad or on the verge of depression. Instead, he took up golf and carved out a successful career at the BBC.

Now comes the Leicester challenge.

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