In his pomp, Gary Lineker only had problems with right-wingers if they wouldn’t pass to him in scoring positions. He didn’t do headers, so he always liked the ball delivered to his feet. Thanks to his team-mates, the service was normally good. Plentiful enough, at least, for Lineker to win the Golden Boot at the 1986 Mexico World Cup and secure a big money move to Barcelona.

Four decades and one successful broadcasting career later, his problems with right-wingers have developed, deepened and moved on a bit. That’s because, although he still shoots, he does it now on a smartphone and with his typing finger. With nine million followers on social media, the 62-year-old’s tweets can be as eye-catching as those dancing feet once were – and as irksome to the powers-that-be as he was to defenders and goal keepers in his playing days.

They certainly captured our attention last week, embroiling him in a furore which has taken him temporarily off air, caused some to question his fitness for high office at all – I mean that Match Of The Day presenter gig – and seen his character traduced by people who don’t like what they think he thinks about things they think he shouldn’t talk about. Or something.

Lineker’s target was the plan by UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman to deport virtually anybody arriving in the UK illegally. “It’s not fair that people who travel through a string of safe countries and then come to the UK illegally can jump the queue and game our system,” she explains in a Home Office video which has had 14 million views online.

The bill will ensure anyone entering the UK illegally can be sent back to their country of origin or, if it isn’t safe, to a third country (think Rwanda). They will also be banned from every seeking asylum in the UK, and there will be a tightening of rules around asylum claims. Those invoking modern slavery will be disqualified entirely.

Tory MPs like it. Rishi Sunak says there is strong support for it among the public. There’s certainly strong support among Europe’s far-right. Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland party have given it the thumbs up. So has French political commentator Éric Zemmour. He’s a proponent of an ideology known as the Great Replacement, a white nationalist conspiracy theory, and has been called an antisemite and a racist by France’s chief rabbi.

The draft legislation is called the Illegal Migration Bill – other people will have different names for it – and it’s basically an attempt to thwart those who cross the English Channel in small boats from France. Lineker, a “well-known multi-millionaire Lefty” according to DUP MP Gregory Campbell, didn’t think much of the proposals. “Good heavens, this is beyond awful,” he tweeted.

Needless to say his criticism was met with what pundits like to call euphemistically ‘pushback’. And it was Lineker’s response to that pushback which caused all hell to break loose, specifically his likening of the measures proposed by Braverman to those employed by You Know Who in the run-up to You Know What.

“There is no huge influx [of migrants],” he tweeted. “We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”

He didn’t actually use the N-word, but it’s obviously what he meant.

Before you could say ‘What’s the right-wing press going to make of a high-profile BBC employee likening the Tories to Nazis?’ the right-wing press had made of it a sock stuffed with billiard balls and was taking aim at Lineker’s finely coiffured head.

Metaphorically, anyway.

Like a bulldog catching the scent of a child too long sequestered in a Calais migrant camp, the Daily Telegraph went straight for the jugular. “Gary Lineker, the ludicrously partisan Match Of The Day presenter, has been given an easy ride for too long by his cowardly BBC bosses,” wrote one columnist. “He has shamelessly spewed his Left-wing, anti-Brexit bile for years, making no secret of his dislike for Tories and their values, in flagrant disregard of the corporation’s impartiality requirements.”

Downing Street wasn’t happy either. Nor was Ms Braverman. Not for the first time, the BBC found itself facing calls to sack Lineker from his profitable and high-profile sinecure. Lee ‘Cuddles’ Anderson, Tory MP for Ashfield and since February the party’s Deputy Chairman, probably spoke for many on the right when he took aim at Lineker. “It’s time to tackle this woke crisp salesman and hold him to account for the nonsense he spews,” he said.


The crisp jibe, by the way, is a reference to Lineker’s side hustle advertising a certain deep-fried potato snack. Woke is intended as an insult. For the record, Cuddles used to be a Labour councillor, but he left the party in a huff in 2018 after being asked by a Momentum activist if he had ever read Karl Marx. Of course he hadn’t. Another version of events is that the break occurred when he received a community protection notice for using boulders to block access to a site used by Travellers.

On Thursday, Lineker was braving the storm. He tweeted that it was “abating”. But late on Friday came a BBC statement saying that he was to “step back” from presenting Match Of The Day until there was “an agreed and clear position on his use of social media”. In solidarity with Lineker, fellow presenters Ian Wright, Alan Shearer, Mikah Richards and Jermaine Jenas have also walked and the show aired yersterday with no presenter.

Is there a future for AI presenting Match Of The Day? Now could be the time we find out.


Richard Sambrook, former head of Global News at the BBC and the man charged with reviewing the rules around employees’ use of social media, has helpfully pointed out one or two facts which are germane to the case. Primarily that while Lineker may have departed from BBC guidelines in expressing an opinion, he hasn’t actually broken Corporation guidance. It’s an important distinction. That’s because he’s not a member of the news and current affairs division. Instead he is, as his Twitter page points out, a man who used to kick a ball about and now talks about kicking a ball about.

Former BBC Director General Greg Dyke agreed with Sambrook’s position. Interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday he said the BBC had made a mistake.

But is it splitting hairs to say it doesn’t matter because he’s in the sport department? Apparently so. Also, broadcasting watchdog Ofcom requires the BBC to comply across the board with its commitment to impartiality. Then again, to what extent should a freelance employee be expected to let BBC guidance or guidelines control their private life? As Lineker’s fellow BBC presenter Chris Packham has pointed out, nobody took issue with Lord Sugar’s recent broadsides against transport union boss Mick Lynch, or called for him to be fired from The Apprentice (with regret or otherwise). 

It wasn’t his intention, but Lineker may have done Ms Braverman a favour, at least in the short term. His intervention has shifted the focus from a policy which even the government’s own beaks say has a less than 50% chance of complying with the European Convention on Human Rights. For a government to even consider presenting legislation with so huge a caveat beggars belief. Instead the spotlight is on Lineker and on the BBC, a favourite Tory target.

So is the red card coming? Possibly. He never received one as a player, but the ludicrously partisan Lefty crisp salesman could soon be heading up the tunnel. And Ms Braverman? There’s a much-loved terrace chant aimed at referees which goes: “You don’t know what you’re doing”. She thinks she does and is playing the game her way. But others look at the thing in her hand and imagine they see a dog whistle.