Manchester United

Gary Lineker, Man Utd and the 1989 move that was 'very close'

Jamie Spencer
How different would Man Utd's history be had Gary Lineker joined them in 1989?
How different would Man Utd's history be had Gary Lineker joined them in 1989? / Marc Atkins/GettyImages
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Gary Lineker was ‘very close’ to joining Manchester United back in 1989 when he was in the process of returning to England from a spell at Barcelona, a move that would have rewritten history.

Lineker was one of the best strikers in the world at the time, having previously won the Golden Boot at the 1986 World Cup and was at the peak of his powers.

Despite moving to a foreign country, he had scored 20 goals in his debut La Liga season and it was only a change in philosophy once Johan Cruyff took over as manager that saw his spell at Camp Nou end when it did – he retains a close relationship with the club and speaks fluent Spanish.

Now world famous as a broadcaster and social media presence, Lineker had made his name as a football for home-town club Leicester in the early 1980s. He scored prolifically for the Foxes in the Second Division but then continued to do so after the club was promoted.

United were first interested in the summer of 1985 when Ron Atkinson was the man in charge at Old Trafford. The club had just won the FA Cup and were consistently finishing fourth in the First Division, but Everton were reigning champions at the time and were a more attractive option.

Tweeting about the 1985 saga 34 years later in 2019, the Match of the Day host explained, “I wanted to go to Everton and I did. Important to remember that Manchester United were very average at the time and Everton were champions.”

United missed out because that sole season at Goodison Park yielded 38 goals in all competitions. Everton narrowly failed to retain their title, but Lineker completed the PFA Players’ Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year double and took his form into the 1986 World Cup.

Under the leadership of Englishman Terry Venables, Barcelona paid £2.8m for Lineker off the back of the tournament in Mexico and also invested heavily in Manchester United forward Mark Hughes.

Hughes struggled to make the same impact in Spain and returned to Old Trafford in 1988, via a loan spell at Bayern Munich. By then, United were being managed by Alex Ferguson, who wanted to reunite Hughes with Lineker in Manchester when the latter then became available a year later.

In a newspaper report published in November 1988 as the player’s time at Barcelona was beginning to come to an end amid a disagreement with Cruyff, Ferguson said, “When a player like Lineker comes on the market you have to think carefully about.”

In that same story, the late Cruyff was also quoted as saying, “It is true that I telephoned Manchester United last week. Some people came [to Barcelona] saying they acted for Manchester United and I wanted to know if it was true, so I spoke to Alex Ferguson.”

Speaking to FourFourTwo in 2019, Lineker revealed that Fiorentina was an option for him, but star player Roberto Baggio and revered coach Sven Goran Eriksson both then left La Viola. A deal was subsequently put in place for him to reunite with Venables, who had landed a job at Tottenham. But a hold up in the transfer being completed briefly left open a window for Ferguson and United.

“Right at the 11th hour, it suddenly appeared that Spurs might not be able to do the deal, financially. That’s when my agent spoke with Alex Ferguson, who was keen to take me to Old Trafford. It was close to being done, but then Tottenham came back and said they could do it,” Lineker explained.

“You have to remember that the Manchester United of 1989 weren’t the Manchester United of four or five years later.”

Looking back on that sliding doors moment once again, almost 33 years on, Lineker has further revealed on Twitter it was actually ‘very close’ to happening.

Ferguson was in the process of completely rebuilding Manchester United at the time. The Scot had arrived at a struggling club in late 1986 and set about breaking an infamous drinking culture and bringing in his own players – by 1990, only Bryan Robson and home-grown pair Clayton Blackmore and Gary Walsh survived from the original squad he had inherited just four years earlier.

Lineker’s arrival at that time could have accelerated United’s return to success. As a Tottenham player, he was First Division top scorer in 1989/90 with 24 goals – Hughes scored 13 for United in the league – while Spurs also finished 10 places and 22 points better off that season.

The 1989/90 campaign was when pressure on Ferguson peaked and the infamous ‘excuses’ banner appeared at Old Trafford. United at least finished it with an FA Cup win, which in the end proved to be the catalyst for the decades of success that eventually followed. But it was still another three years before the club finally got over the line to secure a heavily overdue league title.

With Lineker, who finished his Tottenham career in 1992 with 80 goals in 138 appearances in all competitions, it begs the question if it would have happened sooner and how the 1990s might have transpired very differently at Old Trafford had he delivered that elusive success.


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