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Gary Lineker sparks rage by telling public to 'relax' over SPOTY snub to NI’s sports stars

By Claire Williamson and Adrian Rutherford

BBC star Gary Lineker has caused fury after casually dismissing the broadcaster's snub to Northern Ireland's sporting heroes.

The Match of the Day presenter said that people here should "relax" over the Sports Personality of the Year controversy.

He also accused those hitting out of having "ludicrously short memories".

The criticism from Lineker, one of the Beeb's best-known faces, is surprising after he previously fronted a BBC programme showcasing the best of the region.

In 2009, Lineker and his then fiancée, Danielle Bux, embarked on a province-wide road trip for the Northern Exposure series.

Last night, Lineker came under fire, with DUP MP Gregory Campbell leading the criticism.

He accused the ex-England striker of a "knee-jerk reaction" and failing to understand the anger felt in Northern Ireland over the BBC's snub.

The awards ceremony in Birmingham later this month is at the centre of a growing row over the absence of local names on the 16-strong shortlist.

Boxer Carl Frampton was among a number of high-profile omissions.

Swimmer Bethany Firth - one of the stars of the Rio Paralympics - and double world Superbike champion Jonathan Rea were also omitted.

On Thursday, DUP MP Nigel Dodds told the House of Commons that the BBC was "London-centric" and had an "anti-countries of the UK approach".

Lineker - who will co-host the Sports Personality show on December 18 - took to Twitter to brand the criticism 'ridiculous".

He said: "How ridiculous! Moves around every year. Last year Northern Ireland, this year Birmingham.

"They need to relax, it's just a TV awards show."

He was then challenged when it was put to him that "it's about our athletes not getting nominated, not about the venue".

He responded: "Last year NI won best coach, Michael O'Neill, lifetime achievement, A.P McCoy. Such ludicrously short memories.

Mr Campbell, who is a long-term critic of the BBC, said: "There are some very well qualified and well-regarded contenders from Northern Ireland, and Mr Lineker does not seem to grasp the upset which this has caused in Northern Ireland.

"Rather than going on a knee-jerk reaction on Twitter, he needs to understand the bone of contention, which is not just the lack of athletes from Northern Ireland on the shortlist, but the lack of response to enquiries about how the selection panel is comprised and how it formed its decision."

Mr Campbell also laughed off Lineker's accusations of people here having "ludicrously short memories".

In an apparent reference to England's half-century wait for a major football honour, he added: "Mr Lineker is a very well-known Englishman.

"As such he probably has a longer memory.

"Most English people's memories go all the way back to 1966."

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last night, Ulster Unionist Party spokesman Andy Allen MLA said: "Gary Lineker needs to rethink his attitude.

"Carl Frampton, Bethany Firth and Jonathan Rea are all world champions, winners at the highest levels of the sports.

"If even one of them had made it onto the shortlist, this storm would not have happened.

"But for none of them to be chosen - it's very odd.

"I think we need a full review of how the SPOTY shortlist is chosen - and who does the choosing.

"For me, the whole SPOTY process just doesn't stack up," the east Belfast MLA said.

Frampton won the WBA title by beating the previously undefeated Mexican, Leo Santa Cruz, in New York this summer.

It made him the first boxer from Northern Ireland to win world titles at two different weights.

Tennis star Andy Murray is the favourite to lift the top honour.

But the lack of recognition for Northern Ireland athletes has caused fury.

Of the 16 shortlisted, only two are from outside England and only two are not Olympians or Paralympians.

The panel which determined the shortlist included 12 members. All are from either England or Wales.

Frampton's manager and former Sports Personality winner Barry McGuigan has said they will boycott the event.

He told the Belfast Telegraph earlier this week: "We won't go. We are not going. We are boycotting it."

However, Paralympians who won fewer medals in Brazil than the Co Down swimmer's haul of three golds and a silver did make the 16.

A BBC spokesperson said: "Those people on the shortlist are there in recognition of their sporting achievement and impact, not on the basis of their nationality.

"There have been contenders from the Nations on the shortlist every year since the panel process was put in place, including this year.

"BBC Sport also takes SPOTY to locations around the UK every year, including Northern Ireland in 2015 and Scotland in 2014."

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