Any Real Madrid fans with a particularly close affiliation to the Spanish national team may well have been sick of the sight of Gary Lineker during the early part of 1987. After netting an El Classico hat-trick in Barcelona’s 3-2 win at the Nou Camp on January 31, Lineker’s thirst for goals continued as England visited Spain’s capital eighteen days later.
With England flying high in their European Championship qualifying group, the match in Spain was expected to give an indication of the progress of Bobby Robson’s team. Playing against a Spanish team unbeaten at home in three years, Robson was aware of the task ahead. “Spain will lift their game because they are conscious ours is a good scalp to get,” Robson said.
The inclusion of 20-year-old Tony Adams was the biggest news when England’s squad was announced. After working his way into the Arsenal team towards the end of the previous season, Adams had seen off the threat of Martin Keown and Tommy Caton at club level, and under new manager George Graham, Adams and Arsenal were thriving.
Robson was gushing in his praise of Adams. “The boy has everything. He is tall, quick, good in the air, reads the play well and, above all, seems to have great composure for a player of his age.” Compared in temperament to Bobby Moore, and already labelled a future England captain, Adams would become England’s first full international debutant born after the 1966 World Cup.
The fine season of rivals Arsenal and Tottenham was reflected in Robson’s final eleven. Built on solidity in defence, Arsenal provided Adams, Viv Anderson, and Kenny Sansom in a back four that also included Terry Butcher. Tottenham’s creativity in midfield saw Glenn Hoddle, Chris Waddle, and Steve Hodge selected.
The biggest debate related to Lineker’s strike partner. With Mark Hateley struggling in Italy, and Peter Beardsley scoring only three goals for Newcastle during the campaign, many implored Robson to select 34-goal striker Clive Allen. But Robson was adamant that Beardsley was the ideal foil for Lineker, and despite heavy criticism, England’s boss would be proved correct.
On a boggy pitch at the Santiago Bernabeu, England started brightly. But the visitors were made to pay for their missed chances, with Emilio Butragueno giving some indication as to why he had been given the nickname El Buitre (The Vulture). Evading a challenge from Anderson, the Real Madrid man finished with clinical coolness inside the box to put Spain ahead after 14 minutes.
Butragueno was one of six Real Madrid players that featured in Spain’s team, and soon their latest Gary Lineker inspired nightmare was about to commence. Unbelievably, just before the hour mark, England were 4-1 up, with Lineker scoring all four. Sweet dreams are made of this.
Throughout the night, Waddle, Hoddle and Beardsley buzzed around the pitch, and England were rewarded for their endeavours when Lineker equalised after 24 minutes. A Robson strike crashed against the post, Andoni Zubizarreta saved Hoddle’s attempt from the rebound, before the Tottenham man chipped to the far post for Lineker to head past his Barcelona team-mate.
Zubizarreta would get used to the sight of Lineker wheeling away in delight on this memorable night. Just four minutes later a Hoddle free-kick was nodded by Anderson into Lineker’s path for his second, and he would complete his hat-trick just a minute after the break, heading in from close range after Zubizarreta could only parry Beardsley’s original attempt.
Another contribution from Beardsley resulted in Lineker’s and England’s fourth on the evening. His lovely weighted pass to Lineker was followed by an equally delicious touch and left-footed finish by England’s man of the moment. After 56 minutes, England were leading 4-1 and you had to pinch yourself.
Spain would narrow the margin of defeat, Ramon Vazquez heading past Chris Woods, who had pulled off a couple of fine saves after coming on for Peter Shilton just after the hour. But it did not take the shine off of England’s night in Madrid. The display was the ideal present for Bobby Robson on his 54th birthday.
“We have done well in Brazil and in the Soviet Union over the last few years but that was perhaps our best display since I've been in charge,” Robson enthused. Praising a fine team performance, naturally Robson was delighted that in Lineker he had a rare gem.
“He has to be arguably the best finisher in the world,” Robson declared. “He gets a chance, and it's a goal. That’s what makes him a world-class player.” It was hard to argue with Robson. Lineker had now scored 18 goals in 21 internationals for his country, and 12 goals in his last six matches.
“That is the first time I have scored four in my career, but I should have had six,” Lineker said. “It was a night the chances fell for me. I'd like to pay tribute to Peter Beardsley, who made life easy for me. I love playing with him.” On scoring four past his good friend Zubizarreta, Lineker grinned: “I'm looking forward to training with him on Friday.”
Quasar must have been delighted that Lineker’s first game in his new boots had seen him score four goals, although the fact that the soles were hanging off their product at full-time was a less than impressive advert. Immediately linked to a £10 million move to Juventus, Lineker seemingly had the world at his feet.
Never slow in banging the drum, the English press went to town, calling Lineker the “Matador of Madrid” and announcing that “Spain are Linekered.” Steve Curry, writing in the Express, felt that with Lineker up front, England could win the 1990 World Cup; in fairness, he wasn’t too wide of the mark.
It wasn’t all good news for England. Sadly, three English fans were stabbed before the match, and 18 were arrested, on a night that was seen as another blow for English clubs and their readmittance to European club competitions. But for once, the headlines on the back pages seemed to overshadow the familiar news on the front.
As was reported at the time, the Spanish media laid the defeat out neatly: “The match was a short course in which the professor, England, gave lessons to a dizzy pupil who did not understand a thing.” As an England fan, the win was quite hard to comprehend. But one thing was certain; in Gary Lineker we now possessed a centre forward capable of finding the net on a regular basis.