“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 their 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.”
After a conversation with a couple of minor giggles, some light football expertise and a complete absence of awkward pauses, Lineker handed over to match commentator Guy Mowbray bang on time. Another easy win was in the bag.