Lineker, Owen, Vardy, Romario: Football's greatest ever poachers

  • Kobe Tong
England icon Lineker smiles.

Gary Lineker is one of the most lethal finishers that men’s football has ever seen.

While the England legend might not be world-renowned for 30-yard screamers, stunning free-kicks or mazy runs from the halfway line, he nevertheless established himself as one of the sport’s finest strikers in his very own way.

Lineker was the master of smelling blood in the penalty area, arriving at just the right moment to either tap home from mere inches, profit from a rebound off the goalkeeper or just generally bundle the ball over the line by any means necessary.

Lineker’s goalscoring instinct

You only have to look at Lineker’s finest hour, the iconic World Cup hat-trick against Poland, to see exactly what we mean with each of his instinctive strikes coming within just a few yards of the goal line.

It might not have been the most glamorous way of scoring goals, granted, but boy was it effective with Lineker enduring as England’s fourth-most prolific goalscorer and a revered poacher across spells at Leicester City, Everton, Barcelona and Tottenham Hotspur.

In fact, so engrained in Lineker was this sense of lurking in the box, picking his moment and stealing goals that others couldn’t sniff out that the 61-year-old goes as far as saying that he was born to be in the penalty area.

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Lineker on being born to play football

During a brilliant chat on the High Performance Podcast, Lineker spoke about the raw talent that he had for football and specifically penalty area poaching compared to, say, his later broadcasting career.

The Match of the Day presenter really did speak as though there was an instinct wired inside of him that led to goal after goal after goal in the way it seems to do for every striker who commands the box.

Lineker explained to Jake Humphrey and Damian Hughes: “I think I was born to be in the box, and I kind of learned how to be on the box, and I’ll end up in a box not long after!

“I’m kind of proud of the longevity I’ve had in football, and proud that I’ve made something happen in terms of television that I probably wasn’t a natural at, certainly not at the start.

Read more: The High Performance Podcast hub

“Football kind of came easy. I knew what I was doing. Obviously, you still have to work hard and give it everything. But I had some kind of gift, whereas TV-wise, I understand the sport and understand football, but I didn’t understand television.”

It’s a sixth sense that is rare amongst top-class footballers, but not entirely unique to Lineker at the same time with other centre-forwards having similarly ditched the glitz and glamour for the bounty of six-yard tap-ins.

Lineker poses at Tottenham.
Football – Stock Season 93/94 Manadtory Credit: Action Images Tottenham Hotspur’s Gary Lineker

From the relentless penalty box finishes of Miroslav Klose to the striker Sir Alex Ferguson claimed was born offside, Lineker finds himself in esteemed company when it comes to football’s most prolific poachers of all time.

The greatest poachers in history

So, in celebration of these increasingly-rare strikers that could guarantee you a goal out of nothing, be sure to check out 14 players who can proudly take their place alongside Lineker as one of the greatest poachers in the history of the men’s game.

1. Ruud van Nistelrooy

Just one of the 150 goals that Van Nistelrooy ever scored for Manchester United came from outside the penalty area and that, in itself, tells you everything you need to know about a lethal finisher who dominated every six-yard box he ever set foot in.

2. Raul

A viciously intelligent footballer upon whom Real Madrid could always rely no matter how many ‘Galacticos’ came through the door, consistently and unerringly popping up in the right place at the right time in the box.

Raul scores for Real Madrid.
Football – Real Madrid v AS Roma – UEFA Champions League Second Round Second Leg – Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, Spain – 07/08 – 5/3/08 Raul celebrates scoring the first goal for Real Madrid Mandatory Credit: Action Images / Lee Smith

3. Filippo Inzaghi

“That lad must have been born offside,” goes the immortal Ferguson quote that summed up exactly what made Inzaghi simultaneously the most fashionable and unfashionable of strikers: constantly loitering to gobble up half-chances.

4. Michael Owen

For all the fond memories of Owen’s iconic goal at the 1998 World Cup, he loved himself a scrappy goal just as much with his penalty-box instincts during his Liverpool prime flying somewhat under the radar.

Owen scores for Liverpool.
Liverpool striker Michael Owen celebrates after scoring the opening goal against West Ham United during their FA Premier League season opener at Anfield, August 18, 2001. REUTERS/Ian Hodgson NO ONLINE/INTERNET USAGE WITHOUT FAPL LICENCE. FOR DETAILS SEE WWW.FAPLWEB.COM. IH/GB

5. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

A ‘Super Sub’ and a penalty box poacher doesn’t exactly make Solskjaer the most glamorous of centre forwards on paper, but you only have to look at his razor-sharp instincts when it mattered most in the 1999 Champions League final to see just how well it worked for him.

6. Miroslav Klose

The World Cup’s all-time record scorer bagged every single one of his strikes at the tournament from inside the penalty area with the five goals that he notched in the 2002 finals all proving headers. Klose loved himself an ugly goal.

Klose scores at the World Cup.
Germany’s Miroslav Klose does a flip after scoring a goal during a 2010 World Cup quarter-final soccer match against Argentina at Green Point stadium in Cape Town July 3, 2010. REUTERS/Oleg Popov (SOUTH AFRICA – Tags: SPORT SOCCER WORLD CUP)

7. Hugo Sanchez

The sexiest of all foxes in the box. In fact, Sanchez was so much of a poacher that he even turned bicycle kicks into poaching, astonishingly scoring 38 La Liga goals for Real Madrid in the 1989/90 season all from first-touch finishes.

8. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar

Not all the players on our premier poaching list will also happen to be legends of the game, but for what Huntelaar might have lacked in world-beating significance, he certainly made up for with his nose for a tap-in.

Huntelaar in his Real Madrid days.
Real Madrid’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar celebrates his goal against Atletico Madrid during their Spanish First Division soccer match at Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid March 7, 2009. REUTERS/Susana Vera (SPAIN SPORT SOCCER)

9. Jamie Vardy

Is it just us that feels like a solid 50% of Vardy’s Premier League goals see him arriving at the back post and rifling the ball into the roof of the net from two yards out? We’re not knocking it, but just saying.

10. Gerd Muller

A Ballon d’Or and World Cup Golden Boot winner who formerly held the world record for the most goals in a calendar year, Muller’s ability to dominate the penalty area was a huge contributor to his status as one of the greatest strikers in history.

Germany legend Muller relaxes.
LONDON, ENGLAND – JANUARY 01: A portrait of West Germany striker Gerd Muller pictured circa 1972 in England, United Kingdom. (Photo by Don Morley/Allsport/Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

11. Javier Hernandez

The streets will never forget Hernandez’s first season at United where he proved to be nothing short of a menace for teams, particularly Chelsea, looking to have so much as a split-second break in the penalty area.

12. Romario

If you’re going to lay claim to more than 1,000 career goals, then the chances are that you’ve had to graft your way to some ugly, scrappy and close-range finishes along the way with Romario not shying away from a tap-in.

Romario lifts the World Cup.
Football – 1994 FIFA World Cup – Final – Italy v Brazil – Rose Bowl, Los Angeles – 17/7/94 Romario of Brazil celebrates with the trophy Mandatory Credit: Action Images

13. Mauro Icardi

At the end of his first season at Paris Saint-Germain, Icardi had scored 12 goals from inside the penalty area and eight goals within the six-yard box with each of his 47 shots in Ligue 1 and the Champions League coming from… yeah, you get the picture.

14. Emilio Butragueño

Much like Lineker, Butragueño’s sixth sense for penalty-box poaching was summed by a hat-trick at the 1986 World Cup as he hit Denmark for four with a quartet of goals firmly entrenched within his favourite 12-yard office.

Butragueño playing for Real Madrid.
Emilio Butragueno – Real Madrid – Stock Season 91/92 Mandatry Credit: Action Images

An increasingly-rare talent

Again, please don’t think for one second that we’re criticising these players by way of calling them poachers because there can often be just as much skill behind a six-yard tap-in as there can be a 25-year screamer.

The nous required to time your run into the box, identify mistakes at full speed and posture yourself to pounce at a second’s notice is infinitely more difficult than it looks, and increasingly rare in the modern game.

For all the tika-taka, gegenpressing and false nines that we see nowadays, surely even the biggest of footballing hipsters must crave, every now and again, the sight of a goal so ugly and scruffy that it’s just as beautiful.

“De Jong agrees to join Manchester United!” (Football Terrace)

We’d take more of Lineker and co scrambling the ball into the back of the net from two yards out every day of the week.

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