British Players Abroad: Gary Lineker

A new series of articles focusing on the British players who have spent a portion of their career away from their native soil. The first part focuses on one of the best-known faces in English football. In spite of this, not a lot tends to be written about the club career of Gary Lineker. It seems largely forgotten that, during the 1980’s, he played for one of the biggest clubs in world football.

British Players Abroad

The Premier League has a large percentage of players from all over the world plying their trade. Many clubs have more players from outside the British Isles than not. Strangely enough, this does not work both ways, and never really has.

Look at all of the “Home Nations” who qualified for Euro 2016. Other than Gareth Bale at Real Madrid, only two players from those four teams play outside of Britain. They are Ireland’s Robbie Keane (L.A. Galaxy) and Northern Ireland’s Aaron Hughes (Melbourne City). The fact that both are in the twilight of their careers, and not playing in any of the world’s top leagues, tells its own story.

This is not altogether surprising today, as the sums offered in the Premier League dwarf that of any league in the world. It was a different story in the 20th Century when the salaries offered in Europe were vastly superior. Since the dawn of the new millennium, as the Premier League has become richer, far fewer players have departed from their comfort zone.

Early Career

Gary Lineker joined his hometown club, Leicester City, in 1977 at the age of 16. He turned professional a year later and made his debut on New Year’s Day 1979. Over the next couple of seasons, he was used mainly as a substitute. He did pick up a Second Division title winners medal in 1980, but barely featured the following season. Leicester were relegated at the first attempt.

The 1981 – 82 season saw Lineker become his club’s first choice striker, despite just seven goals in his first three years. He responded by hitting 19 goals, but Leicester missed promotion by five points. The following season, Alan Smith was added to the attack to partner him. His 14 goals, coupled with Lineker’s 26 fired the club back to the big time. Lineker scored more than 50 goals in all competitions over the next two seasons. He won his first England cap in 1984, in a 1 – 1 draw with Scotland

When a striker is in this type of form, he is always going to attract attention. Having finished the 1984-85 season as First Division top goalscorer, it was no surprise when champions Everton came calling. A bid of £800,000 took Lineker to Goodison Park, albeit only for one season.

Lineker has often stated that the Everton side of 1985-86 were the best he ever played for.  It was also the most prolific season of his career. He scored 38 goals in all competitions, thirty of them in the league. This form was carried into the 1986 World Cup, winning the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer with six goals. He remains the only Englishman ever to win the award.


Barcelona manager Terry Venables wasted no time in securing Lineker’s services following the World Cup. A bid of £2.8 million, almost twice the British transfer record, took him to the Nou Camp. He was partnered in attack by Welsh striker Mark Hughes, signed from Manchester United that same summer. Barcelona had lost the European Cup Final earlier that year, to Romanian side Steaua Bucharest.

During this period, there were two big factors in the decision of many British footballers choosing to play abroad. There was the higher wages offered abroad, which dwarfed the salaries paid to players in the UK. In addition to this, there was the lure of European football. Following the 1985 Heysel Disaster, English clubs had been banned from Europe.

While at Leicester, Lineker had never qualified for European competition. By the time he joined Everton the ban was in place, denying him the chance to play in what is now known as the Champions League. Had this not been the case, he could have lined up against Barcelona in that 1986 final.

Unlike Hughes, Lineker was an instant success in Spain. He and his wife learned the language, and almost immediately settled into the Catalan way of life. This undoubtedly played a part in the player reaping the rewards on the pitch. Another factor was that Venables played the traditional British 4-4-2 system.

Linkeker became an instant hero among the Barcelona fans. In his first season he scored 21 goals, and crowned it with a hat trick against Real Madrid in a 3 – 2 victory. His form throughout 1986 also saw him finish as runner-up in that year’s Ballon d’Or.

Although Lineker’s first season at the Nou Camp was a personal success, they finished second in La Liga. Despite the fact that Barcelona were only one point behind Real Madrid, it placed Venables under pressure. It made no difference that two years earlier he had made the club champions for the first time in over a decade. The fact that the previous year, he had led them to the final of both the Copa Del Rey and the European Cup counted for little. He won neither and this, coupled with a UEFA Cup exit to Dundee United, contributed to his sacking.

Luis Aragonés

For the 1987-88 campaign, Hughes was loaned to Bayern Munich, having failed to settle in Spain. The season had barely started when Venables was dismissed as manager, following a poor start. He was replaced by Luis Aragonés, at that time the manager of Atlético Madrid.

Aragonés had won the La Liga title and two Copa Del Rey trophies during two spells as manager of Atlético. They had also reached the 1986 European Cup Winners’ Cup Final, losing to Dynamo Kiev. He seemed a perfect choice to take over, but Barcelona’s league form never recovered, finishing sixth. Ironically Atlético finished in third place.

For Lineker the season would be still be a success, as he won the first major trophy of his career. In spite of their poor La Liga showing, Barcelona reached the 1988 Copa Del Rey Final. A goal from defender José Ramón Alexanko was enough to beat Real Sociedad 1 – 0. This also guaranteed European football for the following season.

Lineker had scored another 20 goals, two of them in the semi-final against Osasuna. He could look back on his season and point to a job well done. This did not stop the Nou Camp hierarchy appointing the club’s third manager in less than a year. In the summer of 1988, Aragonés was removed from his position. He was replaced by a man who was already a club icon from his time as a player. Johann Cruyff would become an even bigger legend from the dugout.

The Cruyff Era

Although Gary Lineker had scored more than 40 goals in his two seasons in Barcelona, his position in the team was far from secure. One of the first signings Cruyff made was Spanish international striker Julio Salinas from Atlético Madrid. He signed several other players such as Eusebio Sacristán, Guillermo Amor and José Mari Bakero. All them would become vital components of Cruyff’s 1990’s “Dream Team”.

One of the first things Cruyff did upon his arrival from Ajax was to change the system that Barcelona played. He favoured a 3-4-3 formation, based on the Dutch ideal of Total Football. The idea is that the three centre-backs are mobile, with a holding midfielder protecting the space in front of them. Two central midfielders are tasked with distributing the ball to the forward players. There would be what is now known as the Number 10, behind a three-pronged attack of two wingers and one centre forward. The style of play would eventually become known worldwide as Tiki-taka.

The change of system meant an unwelcome switch for Lineker. He was placed on the right wing, where he hadn’t played since his early days at Leicester. Salinas was Cruyff’s preferred striker, and with 26 goals during the 1988-89 season his decision was justified.  Barcelona finished second in La Liga, but there were signs that they were shaping up to dominate Spanish football.

Cruyff’s first season as Barcelona manager would be Lineker’s last. Despite playing in an unfamiliar position, he still contributed eleven goals. Four of these were in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, which Barcelona won by beating Sampdoria 2 – 0.

Cruyff strengthened his squad further with the additions of Ronald Koeman and Michael Laudrup. With Brazilian defender Aloísio already a vital part of the squad, a decision had to be made. UEFA’s rule on only allowing three foreign players meant that Lineker was surplus to requirements.

Lineker’s record of 42 goals from 103 games was the highest of any British player in La Liga until earlier this year, when he was eclipsed by Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale. In July 1989 Barcelona accepted a £1.1 million bid from Tottenham Hotspur. His Catalan adventure was over.

Return to England and later career

Lineker resisted advances from Alex Ferguson, preferring to team up once again with Terry Venables. He repaid his manager’s faith by scoring 24 league goals, finishing as the First Division’s top scorer. Tottenham finished third in the table, and great things were expected in the coming seasons.

The 1990 World Cup in Italy brings back memories of Paul Gascoigne’s tears as England lost in the semi-final. Lineker was once again his country’s main marksman, netting four times in the tournament.

The 1990-91 season saw Tottenham disappoint their fans in the league, finishing in 10th place. There was solace, however, in the FA Cup as Lineker won his only major trophy in English football. They beat Nottingham Forest in the final, during which Lineker had a penalty saved and a goal disallowed.


1991-92 was Lineker’s last in English football and he surprised everyone when he announced his next destination. His decision to join Nagoya Grampus Eight of Japan’s J-League seemed very strange. Scoring 35 goals in all competitions for Tottenham hardly indicated that his powers were on the wane.

1992 was also the year that Lineker called time on his international career. His goal in a friendly against the C.I.S. was his 48th for his country. This made him England second highest scorer of all time, one goal behind Sir Bobby Charlton. Although he was selected for Euro ’92, England failed to win any of their games. Lineker was visibly annoyed with manager Graham Taylor for substituting him in England’s last game, against Sweden. This proved to be his last international appearance.

Lineker had agreed to move to Japan midway through his final season with Tottenham. It was during that time that he picked up a foot injury that restricted him to just 23 games for Grampus Eight, scoring nine goals. In September 1994, despite rumours that he would return to English football, he retired aged 33. He immediately took up a position as a pundit on BBC’s Match of the Day. He is now the show’s main anchorman, and works in various other areas of the media, including BT Sport.

Final Thought

While many British players have plied their trade on the continent, few can match the success enjoyed by Gary Lineker. He instantly adapted to his new surroundings, scored goals and won trophies. His hat trick against Real Madrid ensure he will be forever remembered by the Barcelona fans. He also remains one of the few players to have never been booked or sent off in any type of game.

Lineker’s time at Barcelona came to an end probably sooner than he would have liked, especially considering what the club achieved in the years following his departure. In spite of this, he remains one of English football’s finest exports.