Gary Lineker apologises for smelling of camels. It’s not the sort of introduction I was expecting. I’m with him to talk about Foxes not camels but he’s been out and about in London filming his latest Walkers crisps promotion with some unusual animal acquaintances – hence the fragrance that’s clinging to him.
But the ungulate aroma is the least of Lineker’s concerns at the moment. His mind is fixed firmly on his beloved Leicester City and whether they can write the final chapter to the ultimate football fairy tale and win the Premier League title – and in turn force the Match of the Day presenter to honour that infamous Tweet and host the show in his underpants.
Lineker is overjoyed – despite the possible briefs encounter – with his former club’s season – slightly baffled even – but admits he is suddenly more nervous than he was prior to the draw against West Ham. The chasing Tottenham’s victory over Stoke last Monday was so complete and classy it could only have added to the King Power collywobbles. But Lineker refuses to let himself believe, anyway. He has been refusing to even address it, turning down interviews from around the globe.
“It’s actually bonkers,” he says as we chat in the central London offices of a PR agency ahead of Leicester’s 4-0 win over Swansea that took them a step closer to the title. “Its difficult to comprehend. I’ve been suspecting a collapse all season and it’s kind of working, so forgive me if I continue to suspect the collapse might come.
“But they are doing it brilliantly. They are not showing any sign of nerves, they look like they are enjoying it. They are playing very professionally and patiently. Tactically they are very good. It’s getting closer…but it remains miraculous,” he adds with a shake of the head.
“If I was a supporter of any other club, I’d be saying what everyone else is saying: that I can’t see it going wrong… but when it’s your team, you always feel differently. But whatever happens from now on, what a story. The only one that gets close is Nottingham Forest back in the day but things were different then; it wasn’t as competitive and the money… This is just staggering. Considering where they were this time last year, doomed to going down to the Championship… I can’t really get my head around it.”
But he can, tactically at least, if not emotionally. Lineker might be the one who asks the questions on MotD and delivers the cheeky pay-offs – he’s always been a good finisher – but his knowledge of the game is deep, maybe not something you could say of every former footballer who has entered a TV studio.
“It’s funny because they’ve had two totally separate halves to the season,” he says. “The first half was: ‘let’s be gung-ho and outscore the opposition’. Latterly, a bit like Chelsea the season before, you suddenly get teams playing differently against you, starting to respect you, and they sit deeper which doesn’t suit Leicester because everything is about the counter-attack. But then they’ve developed this old-fashioned system – a flat back four. They don’t want both full-backs bombing on which is the modern way, they let one go and the other sits in, like we used to play.
“They don’t play [the old school] 4-4-2, they play 4-4-1-1 but it’s close to the old-fashioned style with two wide players and two central midfield players that cover so much ground; they pivot, one goes forward, one goes back…”
Lineker, 55, is off, explaining the nuances of Leicester’s season, his hands always on the move to help get his point across. It’s clear he could talk for ages about his hometown club that he supported as a boy from the terraces and joined straight from school in 1977 and stayed with for seven years before joining Everton.
“They’ve got people working hard,” he continues, “and chasing, and a great team spirit. So you can see why it might be successful but they’ve done it with some brilliant players and some,” he pauses, not wanting to offend… “you know, it’s a fairly journeyman back four and they’ve been great. The defence in the second half of the season is almost as staggering as the attack at the start.
“Teams have tried to counter it, to sit back and be patient too but Leicester have been more patient. They’ve not panicked. They’ve kept calm. And if they can do it right to the end it will be astonishing.”
Astonishing but won’t it reflect badly on the standard of football in this country? Not at all says Lineker. “The Leicester story is great for the game in England. It’s great for the appreciation of the Premier League. I’ve had hundreds of requests from journalists all over the world asking me to speak about Leicester which is astonishing. It’s captured the imagination. People are possibly not spelling Leicester correctly everywhere round the globe but they are at least saying it correctly now.”
Lineker does admit though that the league is not what it was although he doesn’t see the fall as terminal: “It isn’t as brilliant as it’s been in other eras. These things go in cycles. Our big teams, all at the same time, are going through a lull. And that’s reflected in recent years in the Champions League. But I feel that might change. We are getting the heavyweight managers coming over. The league is awash with money and it’s only a matter of time before the really big stars come. It’ll bounce back.”
But will Leicester bounce back next to fight to defend their title should they win it? “This season will be a one-off,” he says. “Next season just depends. They will struggle to keep one or two of their stars and it’ll be back to normal life – but who cares? If they win the league, I don’t think any Leicester fan will be overly-bothered. They just want to live this moment of magic.”
So, if the magic wears off is there a danger the Foxes could be embarrassed in the Champions League next season? I might as well have spat on his jacket. “No, no, no,” he says quickly. “Not unless they lose the big three.
“It’s going to be very hard to keep Kante. He’s unbelievable. He covers every blade of grass. I don’t think there’s a team in the world he wouldn’t get into. He’d be first on my team sheet – well, apart from the obvious pair. What’s remarkable about him, with the amount of interceptions and tackles he makes, is that never goes on the floor. He comes out of everything with the ball. He’s like Makelele but… better. He’s not Glenn Hoddle but he can thread little though balls – he’s a nice footballer as well.”
High praise and Lineker also reveals his impressive football-nerd side. “Kante topped the interception and tackle numbers in French football over the last two seasons so people had missed him but he is the most significant reason why they are where they are – as well as the magic of Mahrez and the goals of Vardy. Keep those three and they can cause teams problems in the Champions League. They’ll have a bit of fun, see how they go.
“They’ve had a lot of luck this season,” he adds, although he is adamant Vardy did not deserve to be sent off against West Ham. “You need that luck. Decisions have largely gone for them, they’ve had no injuries – touch wood.”
He is clearly a huge fan of Vardy. “He is electric, works his socks off and his finishing has improved. He reminds me of Ian Wright.” Not of himself, as many have claimed? “Hmmm, there are obvious parallels with myself but I was a slow developer while he’s come from non-league football in his mid-20s. He’s had issues in his life and come through and it’s all happened really late. It happened late for me but I was with England by 25. It’s more Wrighty. The obvious comparisons: had a bit of trouble when he was young, non-league football, kept going and then got his opportunity…and hasn’t he taken it?”
Which brings us round to his pants. As much as I’d like to avoid the subject. “Nah, nah, nah, I’m not going to get ahead of myself,” he says. But will he honour the Tweet? “I kind of think I might have to,” he says with a laugh. “I just hope I have to. Beyond that I’ve given it no thought. I’ll start thinking about it when I need to…let’s just wait and see.”
But the whole show? In his undercrackers? “I certainly never said anywhere in that Tweet that I would do the whole show…”
Walkers are launching Spell & Go, where people collect letters with packs of crisps to be in with a chance of winning one of 20,000 holidays