GOALS change players’ careers and public perceptions of managers – more especially those scored in major footballing tournaments.
Thirty years ago, in the Mexican city of Monterrey amid 40-degree heat, one such epochal moment arrived for under-fire England forward Gary Lineker – on an afternoon which was, by his admission, life-changing.
For his international manager Bobby Robson, the significance of the events of June 11, 1986, at a sparsely-populated Estadio Tecnologico in Mexico’s north-east also ranked highly.
It was the day when England came to the World Cup party of ’86 and lessened the strain upon their besieged management and squad, even accounting for the sweltering, intense conditions. The country could breathe again.
England faced Poland, their nemesis during qualification for the World Cup of 1974, with memories of that Wembley night in October 1973 vanquished by the final whistle, thanks to that man Lineker.
Hitherto largely unknown on the international stage, the Leicester lad, whose family ran a fruit and veg stall, made up for lost time.
And by half-time of that fateful Group F encounter with the Poles, the name of Lineker was on the lips of millions of football fans across the globe after his predatory 28-minute hat-trick.
In the process, Lineker became the first England player to score a World Cup treble since Geoff Hurst in 1966, with no one having emulated that feat for the Three Lions since in a major tournament.
For those hardy souls back home who stayed up for the 11pm (UK time) kick-off, events in the Americas brought belated rewards after desperate events in their opening two group games with Portugal and Morocco.
Joy was particularly unconfined when Lineker fired home England’s second goal just 14 minutes in – memorably dsecribed by the BBC’s Barry Davies after the Everton striker finished off an exquisite move.
The urbane doyen of commentary called it a ‘magnificent goal’. And so it was with Lineker arriving right on cue to power home Steve Hodge’s sweet first-time cross – which had followed a sublime reverse pass from Peter Beardsley.
England – Robson, Lineker et al – were finally in business at Mexico ’86. “It’s been a long time in coming, but we are here now,” said Davies, speaking for a nation.
A few hours earlier, the central figure to proceedings, Lineker, had not been quite so assured.
The striker had netted 40 goals in his debut campaign for Everton, but went into the World Cup on the back of a four-game drought with England.
He then drew blanks in the opening two group games and was expecting the axe ahead of the pivotal match with the Poles.
A far cry from a few weeks later by which time he had secured the World Cup’s Golden Boot and had the continent’s leading clubs forming a queue for his services – most notably Barcelona.
Instead of excluding Lineker, Robson – ahead of a watershed game in charge of the national team – made a huge call. He elected to keep faith, instead dropping Mark Hateley to the bench, and brought Peter Beardsley into the starting line-up. As decisions go, it was an inspired move, although Lineker used a different adjective.
He said: “I thought I was going to be axed and I would have had no grounds for complaint if it had happened because I wasn’t playing well or scoring goals.
“It was a huge relief when Bobby confirmed it was Peter and myself to face the Poles, a hugely brave decision by him, knowing that defeat would see us out of the World Cup and possibly him out of a job.
“It all worked out. I was lucky enough to score a hat-trick and it was a huge turning point for my career.”
The context to the game was considerable. England, after failing to find the net in two dire group performances, were teetering on the brink.
The absence of the suspended Ray Wilkins and injured Bryan Robson further muddied the waters.
The press pack were also hovering above manager Robson’s head like vultures, and the England boss had considerable food for thought ahead of that appointment with the Poles.
To add spice into the pot, a revolt at a squad meeting followed England’s wretched stalemate with Morocco, with several players having their say in a candid exchange of views.
Robson had several other calls to ponder aside from the Lineker issue. Other key changes were made with Hodge, Peter Reid and Trevor Steven handed first starts of the tournament.
The moves worked a treat with the decision to pair Beardsley with Lineker going down as well as a side order of bacon with a couple of nicely fried eggs.
The game started with the Poles pressing, Peter Shilton denying Zbigniew Boniek and Terry Butcher making a key follow-up block.
But in front of a crowd of just 22,600, England applied some balm eight minutes in by virtue of a sumptuous team goal, which had the royal blue stamp of Everton.
Steven played the ball to the overlapping Gary Stevens, whose well-weighted low cross was dispatched clinically from close range by Lineker, who had evaded his marker.
Another Lineker strike of the highest order soon followed.
As fluid in all departments as they were disjointed in the previous two matches, England almost sealed it when Hodge netted, only for the linesman’s flag to cut short the celebrations.
But they didn’t have long to wait for the killer third, with 10 minutes of the half remaining.
This time, the goal was more down to the hesitancy of Jozef Mlynarczyk, who flapped badly at a corner, with Lineker firing home the rebound from close range to clinch a remarkable treble.
For Lineker, there was redemption after missing a succession of chances against Portugal and being anonymous against the Moroccans – he had written the first chapter of a summer story that ended in him swapping Goodison Park for the Camp Nou.
And for Robson, there was justifiable relief and a touch of defiance too, having been piqued by press criticism of his players, many of whom were metaphorically hung, drawn and quartered ahead of June 11, 1986.
After the game, Robson roared: “People can say what they like about me, but never ever accuse my players of lacking character. This was a phenomenal performance given the pressure they were under. Phenomenal.”