With a club career record of 281 goals in 567 games and 48 strikes in 80 England caps, Gary Lineker was a pure number 9. Except he didn’t really wear it all that much and not at all for the last 12 and a half years of his career.
Today, December 12, marks the 38th anniversary of the last time Lineker wore 9, scoring for Leicester City in a 1-1 draw at home to Watford. However, he picked up a minor injury in that game and was out until the clash with Oldham Athletic three days after Christmas. He wore 8 in that game and it would prove to be the only shirt he wore as a starter for the remainder of his time at Filbert Street. The Foxes proved to be the club where he was most peripatetic in terms of what he wore.
Leicester City (1978-85)
Having left school in 1977, Lineker turned professional with his hometown club and made his debut on New Year’s Day 1979, wearing 7 in the 2-0 win over Oldham. He played seven games that season, scoring once, wearing 7 in each game apart from the scoreless draw at home to Millwall, when he wore 8.
The following season saw Leicester promoted, with Lineker featuring 19 times. Three of those appearances were as a substitute, wearing 12 (just one sub in those days) with 7 again most common for him as a starter – he wore that on 13 occasions, he played in eight twice and appeared in 10 for the first time against Cardiff City.
Leicester went straight back down in 1980-81 and Lineker played just nine league games as well as scoring in the FA Cup third-round win over Cardiff. The win over Middlesbrough saw him wear 9 for the first time and he also wore it against Birmingham City but failed to score in either game.
Back in Division 2 in 1981-82, Lineker wore 9 for much of the first half of the campaign, playing three games in number 7. In 14 games wearing nine, he scored five time (as well as one goal as a sub), but having switched to 8 upon his return, he scored 13 in 28. From there, he became prolific wearing 8, with 26 goals in 40 league games in the 1982-83 promotion season, 22 in 39 in 1983-84 – joint second in the first division – and 24 in 41 in 1984-85. He was aided in his endeavours by the number, Alan Smith.
Moves to bigger clubs beckoned for both and the summer of 1985 saw Lineker join the reigning champions, but not before international recognition.
Having made his debut as a sub against Scotland at Hampden Park in 1984, Lineker’s first start was the 2-1 win over the Republic of Ireland at Wembley in March 1985. He scored and wore number 10 – the only shirt he would ever wear as a starter for his country’s senior team.
Given that Everton won the league the year before Lineker joined and again the season after he left but they failed to do so during his sole campaign, you might think his time on Merseyside was a failure, but he scored 40 goals in 56 games across all competitions, wearing 8 in each and every one of them. It was enough for a continental power to take notice.
Barcelona, managed by Terry Venables, were coming off the back of a penalty shootout loss to Steaua Bucharest in the 1986 European Cup final and Lineker, having won the Golden Boot at the 1986 World Cup, was signed for £2.8m along with Mark Hughes as they chased continental superiority.
Lineker scored 42 goals in 103 appearances for Barça and in the 2019 book Behind Closed Doors: Life, Laughs and Football, co-authored with Danny Baker, he looked back on his time on Catalonia, including a mention of the number situation.
I was given the number 8 shirt, which I had also worn at Everton and Leicester. People sometimes ask why, as a centre-forward, I didn’t opt any point for the traditional number 9. And the motivating factor, not for the first time in my life, was pure superstition. I had worn number 9 a couple of times very early on at Leicester and had bad games while wearing it. Number 8 worked better.
However, when Mark Hughes left Barcelona after one season to go to Bayern Munich, Bernd Schuster replaced him as the second foreign player and asked for my number 8 shirt, which he had previously worn, so at that point I took number 10. I was already wearing 10 for England. It’s the number you want to be wearing, in my humble opinion.
Schuster had been reprimanded in the wake of a storm-off following the loss to Steaua. Incidentally, in the earlier part of his Barcelona career, he was responsible for Scottish striker Steve Archibald wearing 10 for the blaugrana. The Scottish striker joined from Tottenham Hotspur in 1984, just after Diego Maradona had left the club to join Napoli and he relayed the following tale:
Who’s taking over from Maradona was the question from day one. They gave me his locker with his name still on and all his stuff still inside. His number was available but I wanted to wear 8. It was my number and it was in my contract. Come match day, Bernd Schuster goes and sits beside the 8. Bernd was a big figure with a strong German mentality; a wonderful player and my supplier from midfield. Like Glenn Hoddle, he’d find you anywhere with left or right foot.
I needed to handle it delicately. So I go over and say: “Bernd, it’s my number. I’ve got an agreement. I like the 8. I’ve scored goals wearing this number. It gives me confidence. I really need to wear it.” Fortunately, he spoke good English. He said: “I understand, but for all the reasons you just said I like 8.”
‘I walked away and Terry Venables came over to ask if there was a problem. I said: “Well, Bernd’s not giving me the 8 shirt.” He said: “Do you want me to get it for you?” All the players were watching and it would have been a big controversy to knock Bernd off his pedestal. He would have walked out before the game. I said I’d handle it, and went back and gave him more spiel. Tried it from another angle. Again, he said: “Yes, but I really need this shirt.”
‘Then he looked around and said: “Steve, I am not taking the 10.” As soon as he said that it clicked. He couldn’t take the 10. As soon as you put the 10 on, people are comparing you to Maradona. So I said: “I’ll take 10. Ten’s fine”. From that moment we were solid friends.
Unfortunately for Lineker, Venables’ replacement as manager, Johan Cruyff, didn’t consider him an automatic starter and often played him on the right wing, which meant that in the latter part of his Barcelona career he often appeared in number 7, as he had starting off at Leicester. After signing off with victory in the 1989 European Cup Winners’ Cup, a reunion with Venables beckoned.
Tottenham Hotspur (1989-92)
Whether his preference had changed due to international success or if it was down to the fact that the Tottenham number 8 shirt was the property of Paul Gascoigne, Lineker wore 10 in all of his 139 games for Spurs, scoring 80 goals and winning the 1991 FA Cup.
Nagoya Grampus Eight (1992-94)
Lineker finished his career as one of the main attractions in the fledgling J-League. Unfortunately, he was hampered by injury and was limited to 23 games over two years, scoring nine time.
However, there can be no denying the quality shown throughout his career, proving that you don’t need to wear 9 to be a great goalscorer.