Match of the Day review: Lineker’s return restores charm and calm
“Ah,” tweeted Gary Lineker from the Etihad Stadium, an hour before coverage began on BBC One of Manchester City v Burnley in the FA Cup quarter-final. “The joys of being allowed to stick to football.”
The speed of the modern news cycle means it seems like months since Lineker was suspended by the BBC for criticising government immigration policy, but in fact it was only last weekend when Match of the Day aired as a 20-minute shell of a programme, with no presenters or commentators having been willing to work on it in Lineker’s absence. In an extraordinary show of solidarity from BBC staff and freelancers, other football shows on television and radio were forced off-air.
By Monday morning, the Beeb had climbed down, sheepishly promising to review its rules on social media impartiality. Lineker’s brief ensuing Twitter thread included a fresh plea for sympathy with refugees; his avatar on the app was quietly changed to a picture of him in front of the George Orwell quote on the wall outside Broadcasting House, the one about liberty being “the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.
After that comfortable 1-0 win, Lineker enjoyed a normal week online – commenting on Champions League goals, retweeting funny viral clips and recommending podcasts that turned out to be made by his production company – before heading back to work.
Cup weekend meant Lineker’s comeback began early, presenting a live game in the late afternoon. But that didn’t change the first question viewers wanted answered: what would Gary’s opening line be? Surely it wouldn’t just be the usual fare, a basic but well-timed gag about Alan Shearer’s baldness or Micah Richards’s vanity?
Perhaps being back in the presenter’s seat was enough, because Lineker solved the problem of what to say to camera by not saying anything. Instead the opening shot was of a young Burnley fan as Lineker, audibly struggling with a cold, voiced a video package about the Burnley manager, Vincent Kompany.
When we finally cut to the presenters, Lineker contented himself with turning to Shearer and cueing him up: “Alan, it’s great to be here.” Shearer, glancing nervily at a sheet of paper, duly gave a short, slightly po-faced speech about the previous week’s farrago: “I just wanted to say how upset we were that audiences missed out last weekend … some really great people in TV and in radio were put in an impossible situation, and that wasn’t fair. So it’s good to get back to some sort of normality and be talking about football again.”
Lineker agreed, and that was that. The show went on, with Lineker barely noticeable in the way a good host should be, unobtrusively lending professional insight to a discussion of Kompany’s qualities and pulling the trademark move of self-deprecatingly referencing his own football career by saying of City striker Erling Haaland: “He scores proper goals … all in the six-yard box.”
The Haaland chat continued at half-time, the Norwegian having put City ahead with two goals. Despite sounding more and more croaky, Lineker hit his stride as he drew on his former occupation as an England striker and explained how the secret to centre-forward play is constantly attacking space in the knowledge that the right pass will come eventually: “It’s not intuition. It’s the law of probability.”
Lineker’s job now, apart from casually being better at links, trails and VT intros than people who have spent their whole careers presenting television, is to oversee studio conversations reliably offering lightly worn expertise and hearty banter, the last of those flowing easily with Shearer and Richards. One of the trio’s go-to joke formats – Richards teeing up Shearer to boast that one of his career statistics was better than Lineker’s – gave the host the opportunity to slyly reference the controversy of a week ago, when Richards had been quick to publicly back him up: “At least you were on my side for a week!”
Later, after Manchester City had completed a 6-0 victory, all that was still required of Lineker was to lead a swift summary of the action and rib Shearer about potentially losing his scoring records to Haaland before wrapping up bang on time, ready for Michael McIntyre’s The Wheel. Another easy win was in the bag.