England legend and Match of the Day host Gary Lineker has lifted the lid on the heartbreaking moment he was told his son George had hours to live after being diagnosed with leukaemia at just eight weeks old.
Lineker, 61, is one of the most famous names in English footballing history, but he has rarely spoken out about his son George’s seven-month stay in hospital as a baby.
Now 30, George was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia just two months after his birth, with father Gary told on a number of occasions that his son wouldn’t make it through the night.
Speaking exclusively to The Athletic’s new ‘The Moment’ podcast with Kelly Cates and Geoff Thomas, Lineker explains his feelings on the first night at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London back in 1991.
‘I’ll never forget that first night,’ he begins. ‘I was with Michelle [Cockayne, George’s mother] and they did all these tests and stuff. At the end of the night they gave us some sort of evaluation of prospects and they said it’s not good. They came to us with a somewhere between 10%- 20% survival rate with this thing at this age.
‘It was such a difficult time because we were being told that it would be incredibly difficult for him to make it through the night. They said they’ve got to start chemotherapy immediately because the leukaemia is in such a state.
‘So the first thing they told us was “we’ve got to try and get him over the next two or three days and then we’ll evaluate. So it was pretty grim. Pretty grim.”‘
Lineker was playing for Tottenham at the time, and was one of the most famous footballers in the world having left Barcelona in 1989.
He was also a mainstay in the England team, but football was far from the front of his mind as he cared for his first-born son at the start of the 1990s.
‘I wanted it to me that had it [Leukaemia],’ he continues. ‘I didn’t want it to be my little kid. But whilst there was hope that he’d get better, I was alright.
‘I used to have this recurring dream, and I’d had it for quite some time even after he finished treatment, of carrying a tiny little white coffin. It’s horrible.
‘It woke me up so many times, but actually living through it even when you’re in hospital, there were good moments as well and bad moments. There were ups and downs.’
That said, Gary explains that football was a solace for him at the time, with training and matches the only time he was able to stop thinking about the hospital.
‘Football was the only time I could almost get it out of my mind,’ he explains. ‘I had three weeks without training and then I said ‘”Right, Terry [Venables, then-Tottenham manager], can I come in’” because I needed it for me, in a way.
‘There’s a little bit of an escape from a whole day in the hospital ward looking for the worst signs or sometimes looking for good signs or whatever it was.’
George is now healthy and has just turned 30, with the pair regularly pictured together on social media.
Listen and subscribe to The Athletic’s The Moment podcast, including the first episode with Gary Lineker, here