Interview: Dan Sandison
Images: Offside Sports Photography
In 1986, the world was at Gary Lineker’s feet. He had scored 40 goals in 57 games for Everton and was on his way to the Mexico World Cup with a brilliant England team. Mark Hughes had signed for Terry Venables’ Barca in March of that year, and Lineker was about to follow him out there. The England legend and BT Sport presenter told us about how it all came about, his first Clásico, and walking out into the Nou Camp for the first time on the set of BT Sport’s ‘What I Wore’.
Tell us how the Barcelona move came about
I’d had a really good season with Everton. I remember just before the World Cup Howard Kendall pulled me aside and told me there a bit of interest from Barcelona, and it was only fair to tell me. I asked him what he wanted to do about it, and he said at that point he just wanted to tell me. Then I got off to the World Cup, and I told my agent that if any interest was expressed not to contact me because I just wanted to focus on playing for England, and he told me that was fair enough. We had a couple of pre-World Cup friendlies and stuff, and it had all gone a bit quiet. After two games of the World Cup it went really quiet, and I hadn’t scored, and then I got a hat-trick against Poland, two goals against Paraguay. I was in the hotel, and we were only allowed one phone call home a week, and that was from reception—it was the only phone in Mexico, there were no mobiles in those days and stuff. I know it sounds mad, then I got this message: ‘There’s a phone call for you’. I thought it was unusual, so I go to the phone, and it’s my agent, he said: ‘I know you told me not to get in touch if anything happens, but I feel obliged to do so because Barcelona have been on, and they’ve agreed a fee with Everton, and they want you to say yes now, or the deal’s off’. So I said: ‘Well I can’t have that in my head, and told him that if they wanted me now, they’ll want me at the end of the World Cup. So I took the chance and then, as soon as we got knocked out, it all happened. So there I was, signed for Barcelona.
You spoke a little earlier about the difference in culture. What was the footballing culture, local culture like? Was there a culture shock?
Well I adapted. Culturally it was a very different just in lifestyle. In those days they had the siesta, which was a big lunch and a sleep—that was great, and I adjusted to it really quickly [laughs]. You’d eat really late at night; you wouldn’t get in a restaurant before 10 o’clock, and I quickly got accustomed to splitting my sleep. The climate was great, the food was different—a lot of seafood and shellfish, prematch meals would have a bottle of red wine on the table, there would be four tables of four of us, and everyone would have a glass and a half of wine at the prematch lunch. The main difference was the language, which I decided I was going to really study, so I went to school three times a week for two years, because I felt that would be important, and it really helped.
What did it feel like pulling on the famous shirt and stepping out at the Nou Camp?
Putting on the Barca shirt is something special; obviously, it’s one of the glamorous clubs of world football, just huge. Even to this day, the biggest stars go to Real Madrid and Barcelona so to actually have played for them was amazing. They have this thing called presentation which is at the beginning of the season. It’s a training session with the squad, but 60,000 people turn up to watch it, and I thought this was different. And then just walking out down that tunnel and walking out onto the pitch, which is massively lower than ground level, so you don’t get the feeling of how big it is from outside the ground. But when you do, it just goes up for ever and ever, especially when it’s packed with one hundred and twenty thousand people, which it was most weeks,
What do you remember about your first Clásico?
That first Clásico was... Extraordinary. It was January in my first season there. I scored two goals in the first five minutes, both tap-ins. I was really chuffed, particularly with the first one because I absolutely made a massive gamble on where the ball was going to be, and it was pinpoint, two or three yards out, for me the perfect poacher’s goal. Then I scored again, the keeper saved it and just slid it in. And the roar of the crowd, all 120,000 of them (they didn’t have away fans there back then; they have few now, but not many) was just incredible. I had goose bumps all over me. And then, we’re 2–0 up at half-time and then just after the break, there’s a big kick from the keeper. I could see the guy was getting underneath it, so I took a chance, and It comes off his head and the keeper, Buyo, came out, and I dinked it over him, and it was a hat-trick and I just thought: ‘my God...’ Suddenly with 20 minutes they got two quick goals, and it was 3–2 and I’m thinking: ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, don’t ruin this’. I mean, imagine scoring a hat-trick and losing 4–3 in a Clásico having been three up. It would have been a disaster, but we managed to hang on. It was just special, it really was.
You’ve played in big games before, how did it compare?
I’ve played in both the Merseyside derby and the North London derby, but in comparison the Clásico is different. It’s huge, but huge in a different way because there are no away supporters. If you scored in the Bernabéu there’s deathly silence; you think ‘has it been disallowed?’ because there’s no roar, there’s always a roar. I remember when Madrid scored in the first Clásico I ever played, and then they got a goal to make it 3–1, pulled one back and I thought: he’s not given it. There’s no noise, absolutely no noise whatsoever. It was the weirdest... I’ve never heard that before. It was the first time in my life I’d ever heard nothing after a goal. It was really, really weird. Because the whole ground is on your side, it just makes it a bigger noise when you’re doing well than perhaps a derby here. But there's not that rivalry between the supporters because there are no away fans.
Were you ready to leave Barcelona when you left and did you want to?
I didn’t want to. I had no real choice; I had to do it for career reasons because Cruyff came in. I’d had two good seasons playing up front, and you were only allowed two foreign players in those days, and I think he wanted his own foreign players, which is understandable. He tried to mess me about and played me on the wing, so I just had to go. The year before the 1992 World Cup I had to make sure I was playing in a permanent position to get the chance, so I reluctantly, reluctantly left, it was a great place to live and an amazing club to play for, but it was time.