It may be hard to recall now that he has the country’s biggest-selling newspaper baying for his head over his views on immigration, but the only thing Gary Lineker used to be criticised for was failing to have an opinion.
Famously never booked in his footballing career and gently mocked for his inoffensiveness during his playing heyday, the journey from being lauded by the Sun as England’s goal-scoring hero to “jug-eared leftie luvvie” has been a long and winding one.
The Match of the Day host, who is one of the BBC’s best-known faces and also presents BT Sport’s Champions League coverage, maintained his sense of humour on Friday after the Sun called for him to be sacked over what they called “migrant lies” amid ongoing public debate about the government’s treatment of child refugees from Calais.
“Getting a bit of a spanking today, but things could be worse: Imagine, just for a second, being a refugee having to flee from your home,” said Lineker on the social networking site through which he has aired his opinion on the way newspapers have reported events in Calais.
“Must say though, I’m rather chuffed to have been called a ‘luvvie’,” added Lineker, who also thanked those who had responded with messages of support.
In the wake of newspaper front pages earlier this week that questioned the ages of child migrants being admitted to join their families in the UK, Lineker had said: “The treatment by some towards these young refugees is hideously racist and utterly heartless. What’s happening to our country?”
The former Everton, Spurs and Barcelona striker has continued to speak his mind on Twitter despite the polarised reaction. On the eve of the European referendum, Lineker sent a late-night tweet that said: “Whatever happens, Nigel Farage will always be a dick”.
The 55-year-old presenter later apologised for the personal insult, but the next day made his feelings on Brexit clear: “Feel ashamed of my generation. We’ve let down our children and their children.”
Those views, in the face of rabid support for Brexit from the Mail and the Sun – combined with his role as a well-paid BBC presenter at a time when the corporation has again been under pressure from familiar critics – have made him a target.
Lineker’s distaste for the editorial agenda and modus operandi of the Mail and the Sun, in particular, is not new and has been simmering for some time. He quit his Mail on Sunday column after six months in 2011 following what he viewed as a sting operation on the FA chairman at the time, Lord Triesman, who was forced to step down at a time when England was bidding to host the 2018 World Cup.
Since then, he has frequently attacked the Mail in particular. In a 2013 Guardian interview, he said criticism of Match of the Day was essentially “a Daily Mail thing – and their anti-BBC issue”.
In 2014, he told the Guardian that “Twitter Gary” enabled him to be more outspoken than he could be on television. “I’ve quite often written tweets that I think are across that line, but I just delete them. There’s a few of those,” he said. “My law to myself is, if I’ve got doubts, then don’t send it. Do I really need the shit? Although I suppose I quite enjoy finding out where the line is.”
Lineker’s career as a television anchor has brought him a £2m-plus salary – he took a BBC pay cut, but then signed his deal with BT Sport for live Champions League coverage – and maintained his status as a household name.