Football legend Gary Lineker tells of his romance with fiancée Danielle Bux and reveals how they were both left awestruck by their TV experiences in Northern Ireland.
Watching Match of the Day presenter and former top footballer Gary Lineker roll down a hill inside a giant plastic ball is the last thing you would expect to see on television, but the legendary striker is nothing if not game and when asked to take part in the odd activity for this year’s Northern Exposure TV programmes, England’s second highest-ever goal scorer approached the task with the same focus as he would a penalty kick.
In the new six-part BBC NI series, Gary and fiancée Danielle Bux tour the province seeking out hidden gems, unusual things to do and places off the beaten track — all of which have been suggested by the public.
“The person that sent in the giant ball idea was obviously a Northern Ireland supporter,” jokes the ex-England international. “I was a bit queasy for a few hours afterwards,” he laughs. “I had to do that on my own while Danielle waited at the bottom, laughing her head off as I desperately tried to keep the thing straight.
“I’ve been over to Northern Ireland lots of times before, mostly to Belfast in my football-playing days or to do TV shows... or flog some crisps, but this was the first chance to really see the place and meet the people and it’s been fantastic.
“To be honest, it’s taken me by surprise. I didn’t realise that it was such a stunningly beautiful country. It’s just a shame that the programme will only be broadcast in Northern Ireland because it would make a wonderful advertisement.”
Gary (48) and Welsh-born lingerie model Danielle (30) first met in August 2007 when a mutual friend played Cupid.
“At that time, I’d been divorced for a year and a mate thought we would be good together,” explains Gary. “He told me that she was gorgeous, but I’d seen his ‘gorgeous’ before, so I Googled her and, well... wow.
“We went on a blind date and hit it off straight away. I knew there and then that this was something special. Yes, she’s gorgeous, but there’s so much more to her than that. Danielle’s bright and funny and we get on really well.
“The age difference doesn’t come into it. We don’t notice it at all. She’s a lot older than her years and I think I’m a lot younger than mine in ways.”
Danielle, who has a seven-year-old daughter, Ella, from her marriage to ex-Coventry City player Adam Willis, now lives in Surrey with Gary, who has four sons — George (17), Harry (15), Tobias (13) and Angus (11) — from his 20-year marriage to Michelle Cockayne.
Gary proposed last August and the couple are due to tie the knot in Italy next month.
“We have a lot in common,” he continues. “Our love of eating and travelling, our social circle, our sense of humour — we love taking the mickey out of one another.
“Plus Danielle is now starting a career as a TV presenter as well — she did brilliantly [coming third] in Hell’s Kitchen and is one of the new presenters on Loose Women,” he says proudly.
In the flesh, Lineker certainly does not look like a man approaching 50 and could easily pass as 10 years younger, despite the salt-
and-pepper hair. Stylishly dressed and with a slimmer physique than you might expect of an ex-sportsman, keeping fit is a priority and although he no longer plays football — even for fun — he works out in the gym at least three times a week and spends as much time as possible on the golf course.
Born in 1960, the young Gary Winston Lineker began his professional football career in 1978 with his hometown club of Leicester City before moving to Everton for the 1985/86 season.
Then followed Barcelona under then-manager Terry Venables. But before his first match, he travelled to Mexico with the England squad to play in the first of two World Cup campaigns and although the side didn't progress further than the quarter finals (thanks to Diego Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal), Lineker was the top goal scorer of the competition, winning the coveted Golden Boot award — the only English player ever to do so.
After three seasons in Spain, during which Barcelona won the Spanish Cup in 1988 and the European Cup Winners Cup in 1989, Lineker returned to England to Tottenham Hotspur where he remained for another three years, helping the club to FA Cup glory in 1991, winning the FIFA Fair Play Award the same year (he was never booked or cautioned throughout his entire career) and being awarded an OBE in 1992.
That year also saw the end of Lineker’s international career when he was substituted by manager Graham Taylor during Euro 92 in a match against Sweden.
At the time, team captain Lineker was only one goal away from equalling Bobby Charlton’s record of scoring 49 goals for England. Taylor’s controversial decision caused uproar at the time and I ask if that sending-off still rankles?
“I wasn’t sent-off, I was substituted,” he corrects, with mock fury.
“Does it still annoy me? No — it was forgotten in half an hour. The Press made a huge story of it at the time and honestly I wasn’t bothered about the record,” he insists. “My only gripe was that if I had of stayed on the pitch, I might have scored a goal that would have kept us in the competition.
“I’ve met and spoken to Graham Taylor lots of times since that. In a funny kind of way it was good because the team were lambasted at the time and because of that incident, I escaped a lot of the vitriol.”
Lineker ended his club football days in 1994 after a lucrative, though injury-plagued (most famously a damaged toe), two-year stint with Japanese team Nagoya Grampus Eight, before beginning a media career, first on Radio 5 Live and then replacing Des Lynam on BBC1’s Match of The Day and more recently Steve Rider as presenter of the station’s golf coverage. He is also the star of the long-running Walkers crisps advertising campaign.
Rumoured to now be worth around £30 million, Lineker is the first to admit that he’s a very lucky man, but there’s been heartache as well. His eldest son George was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia in 1991, when he was only six weeks old. The chances of survival were less than 50% and Gary and then-wife Michelle could only watch and hope as their tiny baby fought for life and underwent months of agonising chemotherapy treatment.
“It was a very tough time,” he recalls. “Thankfully, George pulled through and now is a big strapping lad who’s just passed his driving test.
“We were very lucky because a lot of children don’t make it. That was an unthinkable scenario for me. Leukaemia is the sort of thing that you never think could happen to your child, so it brings it home to you.”
Of his four sons, only 13-year-old Tobias is trying to follow in his dad’s footsteps and has a place at the Chelsea Academy.
I wonder whether the experience with George contributed in any way to his calm demeanour on the pitch and no-booking record and whether his son’s battle for life made him realise that there was more to life than football?
“No, I always knew what was important in life. I always had a sense of perspective,” he replies. “It takes a lot for me to lose my temper. I argued with referees and whinged, but I never abused them. If I was being kicked and fouled then I knew I was doing my job properly,” he laughs.
And he’s philosophical about the way that footballers have become celebrities and regular tabloid fodder.
“It’s just how it is now. Anyone who is remotely in the public eye finds themselves living under a microscope and unfortunately, the emphasis is often on the negative and some of the positive things that people do are ignored because it doesn’t make good copy.
“Danielle and I get quite a bit of it ourselves with photographers following us around, but there are advantages and disadvantages. We don’t mind really and we don’t let it stop us from living our lives. It just comes with the territory.”
But there’s one thing about the modern-day football that he definitely doesn’t agree with — the mega-salaries earned by the world’s top players.
“Never in a million years could you justify the wages paid, even when I was a player, never mind now,” he says emphatically.
“It’s not a real job compared to what most people do. When you consider what a nurse or someone like that earns, it is completely unjustifiable. But it’s not just footballers, actors and pop stars get paid absurd money as well. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of the game these days.”
Gary & Danielle’s Northern Exposure, BBC1 NI, Friday July 24, 7.30pm