An Englishman Abroad
Gary Lineker looks back on his time at Barcelona and his tempestuous relationship with Johan Cruyff
Thirty years ago this summer, Gary Lineker came to the end of a highly successful first season with Barcelona. Signed from Everton after his exploits with England at the 1986 World Cup, where he won the Golden Boot, he was an instant hit at Camp Nou, scoring a match-winning hat-trick against Real Madrid in the Clásico and finishing his first season with 21 goals.
His time at Barcelona came to a disappointing conclusion in 1989 after Johan Cruyff elected to play him out of position on the right wing, but he returned to England as the highest British goal-scorer in la Liga history (a record since surpassed by Gareth Bale) and with winners’ medals from the Copa del Rey and the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
Spanish football was a very different game back then – more renowned for bruising centre-backs than pint-sized midfield technicians – and Barcelona were a very different club. Beaten on penalties by Steaua Bucharest in the 1986 European Cup final, they were yet to taste glory in Europe’s elite club competition and spent the latter part of the eighties in the shadow of the glorious Real Madrid team of Hugo Sánchez and Emilio Butragueño.
Lineker spoke to The Blizzard about playing for Terry Venables, Luis Aragonés and Cruyff, the joys of siestas and the longest 10 minutes of his career.
When did you first become aware of Barcelona's interest in you?
At the end of our season, prior to leaving for the World Cup. [The Everton manager] Howard Kendall called me in and said that they'd had a bit of interest from Barcelona. His words were that the club were quite happy with the transfer fee and would be happy for me to leave. He said go away and think about it, but the World Cup was close and I was concentrating on that. Then it went quiet for a little while. I went to the World Cup and after a couple of games – we had such a bad start – it went very quiet indeed. But then I started scoring at the World Cup: a hat-trick against Poland and then a couple against Paraguay. There was very little communication with home back then from Mexico. We were only allowed to make the odd phone call from reception, pre-mobile phones etc. I had a conversation with my agent [Jon Holmes] prior to the World Cup to say that I didn't want to hear about any possible transfer to Barcelona, or anywhere else, during the tournament. But then I got a phone call from him, just after the Paraguay game. He said, “I know we agreed not to talk, but I think it would be wrong for me as your representative not to tell you that Barcelona have been in touch saying they want to sign you. They've agreed a fee with Everton and if you don't agree to sign now, the deal will go away.” But I thought if they're that keen now, they'll be that keen after the World Cup as well, so I kind of put it on hold to concentrate on England. Then obviously we lost in the quarter-finals. I got back home, we met the Barcelona people and the Everton people and the deal was done.
Was it a distraction during the World Cup?
Not at all. There were quite a few weeks without anything, so I never even thought about it. I wasn't sure if I wanted to leave. Everton were a great team and I was scoring a lot of goals with them. I just put it to the back of my mind. Even after Jon Holmes's phone call, I just thought, “I'll think about that when I get home."
What were your first impressions of Barcelona?
We did the deal in London, at Claridge's, I think, or the Connaught. So the first time I'd ever been to Barcelona was when I was flying out for the presentation day, which was a training session in the stadium with thousands of people watching. It was incredible. It was kind of nerve-wracking, but it made it very clear what an enormous club it was. You'd got 80,000 fans in there, or whatever it was, just coming to a training session to welcome you. It was quite something. That was the first time I'd ever been to Barcelona, so I was kind of nervous and a bit apprehensive about what lay ahead.
What state were the club in?
They were in a kind of despondent state. They'd got to the final of the old European Cup and lost to Steaua on penalties, when none of the players scored, having won the league the previous season. So they were desperately disappointed that they'd missed out on what would have been their first European Cup. They felt sorry for themselves a little bit, so it wasn't the triumphant times of today. It was still a club where the big players of the world went. Maradona had just been and gone, they'd had Cruyff. They'd had many great players down the years. That stopped obviously when I joined!
Terry Venables was the manager, Steve Archibald was already in the squad and Mark Hughes arrived from Manchester United at the same time as you. How helpful was it that there was already a small British contingent there?
It was a bit odd, because you'd got Archibald and [Bernd] Schuster who were also there, but you were only allowed two foreign players in your [match-day] squad. So those players were actually turfed out of the squad at that time. Even though you trained with them, they weren't allowed to be in the squad at any point unless you took either Mark Hughes or myself out, which happened towards the end of the season with Mark. He struggled.
How did the Spanish contingent react to the British enclave? Was there any suspicion?
Not at all. It wasn't cliquey. They were very welcoming. Just good guys, most of them. I can't fault them in the slightest.
How important was it for you to learn Spanish?
It's hard to judge how important it is, but I personally felt it was very important. I looked at the [British] players that had done well abroad and there were quite a few in those days, unlike today. I always thought the ones that did well on the pitch were the ones that settled most off the pitch and accepted the culture and learnt the language, so I was determined to do that. I went to school three days a week over two years. In my last year, I was speaking in it, I dreamt in it occasionally. I was very fluent. I think it was very important.
Did it come easily?
No, it was hard work. I didn't speak a word of Spanish when I arrived. I did a bit of French and German at school, but to no great level. I immersed myself in it. I completely ignored the British expat society that sent me numerous invitations to various things and just spent most of my time socialising with Spanish and Catalan people. I think that helped. It was just such a good opportunity, living in a country, which is probably the only real way you're ever going to learn a language unless you study it properly. I didn't want to waste that opportunity.
Any awkward moments?
I remember going into a shop. We were shopping for furniture. We were trying to get some bedside tables and I asked for “dos mesitas con cojones”, instead of cajones – cojones being, obviously, bollocks, whereas cajones are drawers. That was one mistake I do remember in the early days. Dropped a bollock, as it were.
How did you find the adaptation to the Spanish lifestyle?
That was easy. I loved a siesta. That was great. Had one of those every day. The climate's magnificent, the food is stupendous. It's got everything. You've got beaches, you've got mountains. It's a very, very easy place to live and such a great town, so that side of things was easy.
What were the biggest discoveries on the playing side?
That was different. Lots of teams in those days used to play man-to-man with deep-lying sweepers, whereas everyone in England played offside with a high press – I scored a lot of goals one-on-one with keepers. In Spain it was quite rare to get that kind of opportunity, so I made a lot of runs and scored more goals from crosses even than I had for Everton. You had to adapt your game a little bit. It was very educational and made me a better footballer, as well as a more thoughtful player. You had to learn fast. People talk about the pressures on players here, but over there, especially for the foreign players, as there were only two, it was tough. As Mark Hughes found. They got on his back really quickly and he found that difficult, by his own admission.
Why didn't it work out for him?
We did OK, but they decided that he didn't score enough goals. He was quite a robust, aggressive footballer, as we know. The referees went against him a lot because he gave a lot of free-kicks away. They didn't like that backing-in style that he had and that didn't help him either. Then he got a bit down off the pitch. He was young and he was on his own in those days. He had his mates, who used to come out at times, but he spent a lot of time on his own and he was a bit lonely. Mark's a great lad and a terrific player and I appreciated his game. We got on great and still do.
Which players impressed you at Barcelona?
There were a lot of different players over two or three years. We obviously had a very good goalkeeper in Andoni Zubizarreta, who played for Spain for donkey's years. We had [José Ramón] Alexanko and Migueli as central defenders, who were strong and tough as Spanish players were in those days. It was after my time there that they changed their style so emphatically to the old tiki-taka. I played with Txiki Begiristain, who's now doing things at Manchester City. He was a good player. Francisco José Carrasco was a good player. So we had some really good players, but it wasn't a great Barcelona side. It was a bit of a transitional team, post the success of Venables, who did so well, and pre-Cruyff. It was a side that was in a transitional period, which was a bit of a shame, and Real Madrid were very strong in that era. They won the league all three years. Brilliant side. [Emilio] Butragueño, [Ricardo] Gallego, [Jorge] Valdano, obviously Hugo Sánchez, who was something else. They had some really great players, right throughout the side.
Spanish defenders had a pretty notorious reputation back then. Who were your most difficult opponents?
I played against [Andoni] Goikoetxea, the so-called ‘Butcher of Bilbao’. They were tough and uncompromising. They used to kick you in those days. You weren’t as protected as strikers are nowadays. It was hard. But I never minded playing against players that were aggressive and tried to kick you. It was the quick ones I didn’t like.
How quickly are foreign players made aware of the importance of matches against Real Madrid at Barcelona?
Pretty quickly. It's something they talk about all the time. That rivalry with Real Madrid, you quickly understand the history behind it. It's not just about football. It's about political ideals, going back to Franco's fascism and the fact that the Catalan people were suppressed, that they weren't allowed to talk their language and that the place they did it was on the football field at the Nou Camp, where they could speak their language secretly. You get to know the history very quickly and the significance of that fixture.
How did you learn about it?
It's a mixture of everything, from the directors, people that lived through it, people that were on the board who were incarcerated because they spoke Catalan. For the players, it was the result that they always looked for first when you got off the pitch. “How have Real Madrid got on?” For all different reasons, it's something that hits home quite quickly, even for someone that wasn't necessarily aware of the meaningful nature of the game prior to getting there.
What do you remember about the build-up to the game against Real Madrid on 31 January 1987?
I remember the excitement of the game. I remember the papers were full of it. Just to put things into perspective, we have sport on the back of our papers here [in Britain] most days and it's a reflection of all different sports, all different sides; in Barcelona alone there were two daily newspapers just purely about Barcelona Football Club. That's what you're dealing with. Weeks before the Clásico, building up to the game, you've got 40 pages a day in two newspapers, which shows the significance of it. It was just exciting. The players told me about the atmosphere and what it's like in the stadium. And nothing disappointed.
Can you describe the feeling of walking out in front of 120,000 fans at Camp Nou to play against Real Madrid?
It's an interesting one because most of the games when you play at Barcelona, it's a relatively timid atmosphere. It's the wealthy of Barcelona that are what they call the socios, the members. You get a little patch behind one of the goals that you can hear. The rest of them are waiting to be entertained, rather like an opera crowd. If something was worthy of applause, you'd get applause. If you did something that wasn't particularly impressive, you'd get white hankies waved at you, so it was quite challenging playing there and it was quite quiet most of the time. Until you played in the Clásico. So then you come out of the tunnel. A lot of the ground at Nou Camp is actually below ground level, so you come out in this massive theatre that goes up forever and there's this roar. It was like nothing I'd ever experienced ever, anywhere. And it was so different to any other game, even at the Nou Camp. It was just incredible. Nerve-tingling. The noise was like nothing I'd ever heard. It was so loud. I had goosebumps on the back of my neck. But exciting. I loved that kind of stuff. That's why you play.
You scored twice in the first five minutes and completed your hat-trick two minutes into the second half, but Madrid hit back to make it 3-2. What were those last 10 minutes like?
I couldn't really believe what had happened to be honest. It was obviously a memorable moment, a magical moment, and then they got a couple of goals back. Then I was starting to think, '”Please don't, please do not let this happen. Please hang on.” I don't think I've ever wanted my team to hang onto a lead more in any game ever! I thought they're going to ruin my day here if they score. Probably selfishly of course, like true strikers. But we held on so it was perfect. Three-two and it doesn't get any better than that.
So you were conscious during the game that you were close to sealing a place in Barcelona history?
Of course I am. I'm perfectly aware on that pitch of the situation. I think you'd be lying if you said you weren't.
How did the hat-trick affect your standing in the eyes of Barcelona's supporters?
It made an enormous difference. To do that against Real Madrid, it was something they remember even to this day whenever I go there. But it wasn't just that. In the three home Clásicos that I played, I scored a hat-trick in one and I scored the winner in the other two. They used to call me ‘the Madrid Bogeyman’, which was a huge compliment and obviously something that makes it lovely whenever I return. They have to be of a certain age now to recall it, but they do.
How often do you get asked about it?
You get reminders on social media. That's quite pleasant. Sometimes they'll send you the goals you scored and you can remind people you actually used to play the damn game! You're not just a bloke that talks about it and sells crisps. It's quite useful to put little reminders out there. Not every game was televised when I played. The only goals I ever see are pretty much the same ones, whereas nowadays every goal that someone scores is seen and you've got a record of it. Loads of my goals are never seen, but I'll always see those three thanks to YouTube and this, that and the other. They're there and it's a great reminder for people that you played at a decent level.
A few weeks later you scored four goals against Spain past Zubizarreta. How did that go down in the Barcelona changing room?
It didn’t go down that well, but it went down well for me, obviously. I’d travelled to Madrid from Barcelona with half a dozen of our Spanish players, so there was a little bit of banter going into the game. Then I played the game and managed to score four goals in a 4-2 victory. Funnily enough, Andoni came in after the game. They’ve had Terry Venables coaching them for two years, whose Spanish was pretty good actually. Grammatically not brilliant, but pretty good. But he did a lot of it in English, so they’d obviously picked up things. Zubizarreta came into our dressing room at the end of the game, shook my head and went “Facking hell!” in a perfect cockney accent.
Barcelona missed out on the title by a point in your first season, but were also beaten by Dundee United in the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup and Venables was sacked the following September. Should he have been given more time?
That’s the nature of how it is. I think we’d only played about four or five games when he went. It certainly wasn’t many more. So it was ridiculous, it really was. And it was a shame, because Terry was a great coach and a brilliant manager.
Luis Aragonés came in after Venables. What was he like to work with?
He was a great character. Slightly mad. He wouldn’t have minded me saying that. A real gritty, tough person who would defend his players to the nth degree. He was excellent to play for. I liked him a lot. Real character.
What sort of football did he want you to play?
It was still Terry’s football, to be perfectly honest. It wasn’t him who brought in that characteristic style of football. That was more down to Cruyff and his changing of La Masia and the youth development. He contributed to it when he got to the national team [in 2004]. He went with it and played that style of football.
In April 1988, the Barcelona squad – and Aragonés – united to call for president José Luis Núñez to resign. It became known as the Hesperia mutiny, after the Barcelona hotel where the squad made their announcement. What are your memories of that time?
The players all signed the petition against the president. I was actually on international duty, which was quite useful because it meant I escaped it. I wasn’t involved in the signing of that form because I was away with England at the time.
What was the mood like when you got back?
It was interesting. Aragonés stuck behind the players rigidly. It probably cost him his job. It was a fascinating time. I’d have gone along with the players and they might have seen me out as well if I had. I don’t know. It was something I hadn’t seen before. But footballers there had that kind of togetherness and they were very intelligent, a lot of the Spanish players. They were strong and had their argument. Obviously they didn’t win it in the end!
Fifteen players were sold following the mutiny, but you survived the cull. Do you think your absence had anything to do with the fact you were retained?
Quite possibly. The fact that I wasn’t there so therefore didn’t sign it was a contributing factor. Having said that, Cruyff came in. I was ill at the beginning of the season with hepatitis. I was out for a few months and Cruyff wanted his own foreign players to come in. He messed me about. He deliberately played me on the wing to try and wind me up so I’d have a hissy fit. But I saw through that, so I just carried on professionally and played on the wing the whole season, which knackered my goal-scoring record! It was a frustrating season, but at the end of it we won the Cup Winners’ Cup [beating Sampdoria 2-0 in the final]. I played a part in one of the goals, from the wing. But he wanted me out. In the end we came to an agreement and I left.
Did he explain his vision for you as a winger?
He just said I was fast and therefore suited. He played a guy called [Julio] Salinas up front, who was a decent centre-forward. The most frustrating thing was that with his system of play, if he’d have played me in the central role, it would have been absolutely made for my game. But it wasn’t for him. He was entitled to do that and I understood it.
Did you tell him that?
Of course I did. He kind of fudged it. He didn’t like one-to-one stuff. He was a brilliant coach and a great visionary and a wonderful footballer and I admired a lot about him, but he was also an incredibly arrogant man. Super-confident, know-it-all about everything. Which I think you have to be, to a degree, to be that successful in management. And I understood that and I got it. I met him many times subsequently and we got on fine. We had the odd little fall-out. I opened [up about] my frustrations. But that was it.
Did he impress you as a coach?
Very much so. I learnt a load from him: spatial awareness, how to make the pitch as large as you possibly can when you attack. His whole training thing was about that, that when you have the ball you make everything large, when you don’t you make everything small. I was fascinated by the way he got that across. It was all possession football; 9 v 7, 7 v 5, all different numbers. It was very, very interesting and clever.
Did you have any regrets about leaving when you saw what Barcelona went on to achieve under Cruyff, winning four league titles and a first European Cup in 1992?
I was happy for them. I remember when they won their first European Cup. I was there at Wembley and it was brilliant to be there.
How close did you come to joining Manchester United before signing for Tottenham in 1989?
I’d pretty much done the deal for Spurs and then all of a sudden they weren’t sure that they could do the deal, money-wise. My agent spoke with Alex Ferguson and they were keen, but the next day Spurs got it together, so that’s how it was. If Spurs hadn’t got it together, I would have gone to Manchester United.
Did you speak to Ferguson?
Not me personally, no. It didn’t get that far. Obviously I would have done if Spurs hadn’t have done the deal. But I wanted to come to London. And you’ve got to remember, that was the early days of Fergie. It wasn’t the days of success. He hadn’t won anything at that particular point.
How had you changed as a player during your time in Spain?
I was just more experienced. I’d experienced lots of different styles of football. I was a better player. I came back at 28 or 29 and at that stage your physical prowess gradually declines. So it was a mixture of a better player in terms of the head, but perhaps not quite so strong in the legs. I have massively fond memories of my time there. It was a brilliant place to live and the people were lovely to me. I’ve got nothing but positive memories of the whole experience.