EMILE HESKEY

For­mer Eng­land striker and cur­rent Bolton vet­eran’s ca­reer in pro­file

The Football League Paper - - INSIDE - By Chris Dunlavy

TYPE the name Emile Heskey into Google and among the first sug­ges­tions to ap­pear is ‘Jokes’. Just one click, and there they are.

What do you get if you cross a ball with Emile Heskey? A goal kick; Emile Heskey has taken aim at his crit­ics – and missed; Emile Heskey has been wear­ing a Tshirt un­der his jersey ready for the next time he scores. It says ‘Free Nel­son Man­dela’.

Few play­ers have been sub­jected to the sheer vol­ume of ridicule that Heskey has en­dured over the last 15 years. Le­ices­ter, Liver­pool, Birm­ing­ham, Eng­land – no mat­ter where the 37-year-old laid his hat, his abil­ity to put the ball in the net was mocked.

Yet this is a man who scored 111 Premier League goals – more than Di­dier Drogba, Kevin Phillips and Ruud van Nis­tel­rooy. A man who moved for fees to­talling £23.5m. A man who won 62 in­ter­na­tional caps, played in two World Cups and was picked by four dif­fer­ent Eng­land man­agers.

“I just wish peo­ple would get off his back,” said Steven Ger­rard in 2009. “The stick he gets is so un­fair and a lot of it comes from peo­ple who don’t re­alise what he brings to a team. He’s cer­tainly ap­pre­ci­ated by those he plays with.”

So why the brick­bats? An Eng­land record of seven goals in 11 years didn’t help. But – like Wayne Rooney now – it is per­haps a case that ex­plo­sive early po­ten­tial was never born out by last­ing bril­liance. That the player we got wasn’t the one we’d ul­ti­mately hoped for.

A Le­ices­ter debu­tant at 17, Heskey burst onto the scene like an un­chained wreck­ing ball, a shy kid trapped in the body of a night­club bouncer.

Burly de­fend­ers were swat­ted aside or left for dead, goal­keep­ers left rooted by mis­siles from ei­ther foot. Gor­don Stra­chan fa­mously branded Heskey’s as­sault on his be­lea­guered Coven­try de­fence “a one-man war”.

“He was a mon­ster,” said Guy Branston, who played youth football with Heskey and later joined him in the Foxes’ youth ranks. “His touch was fan­tas­tic, his pace was fan­tas­tic. He could take peo­ple on or knock them out of the way. And he made any­one who played with him look good.”

An ag­ing Tony Cot­tee was one of those ben­e­fi­cia­ries and has since called Heskey his best strike part­ner of all time. “I was an ex­pe­ri­enced player by that point, but as soon as Emile came through I knew I’d have to fight for my place. It was a case of ‘Who’s good enough to play with Emile?’

Next came Eng­land caps and an £11m move to Liver­pool (then a club record).

In his first full sea­son at An­field, Heskey plun­dered 22 goals, form­ing a dev­as­tat­ing part­ner­ship with Michael Owen and help­ing the Reds to a unique ‘Cup’ tre­ble.

He scored against Ger­many in that fa­mous 5-1 de­mo­li­tion, and again in the 2002 World Cup against Den­mark.

Yet that goalscor­ing form was never repli­cated. Only once more in his en­tire ca­reer would Heskey hit dou­ble fig­ures, for Birm­ing­ham in 2005.

For many, the is­sue was one of belief. Though built like a freight train, Heskey – who dreamed of a ca­reer in ath­let­ics as a boy and idolised Lin­ford Christie – never had the ag­gres­sion or ar­ro­gance to com­pli­ment his physique.

Even as a young­ster, older brother San­tana was the con­fi­dent, wise-crack­ing mem­ber of the fam­ily. His dad Ty­rone, a for­mer am­a­teur player, said Heskey “did what he was told”.

Con­fi­dence

Later, at Le­ices­ter, Martin O’Neill once said that if Heskey’s first touch of the match went awry, he might as well take him off be­cause the striker’s con­fi­dence would be shot.

“From an early age, Emile was a real con­fi­dence player,” said Steve Clar­idge, a team-mate at Le­ices­ter. “Martin con­stantly needed to tell him how good he was. He would tell him be­fore games, at half-time and af­ter­wards. Emile could be un­playable at his best, but he needed that con­fi­dence boost.”

Cot­tee agrees: “We could all see how good Emile was,” he said. “But I don’t think he ever be­lieved it him­self.”

Yet there are many who ar­gue that Heskey’s game was never about goals; that, like Teddy Sher­ing­ham or Dennis Bergkamp, his strength was in bring­ing the best out of oth­ers.

Owen, cer­tainly, en­joyed his best years for club and coun­try along­side Heskey. Rooney, too, flour­ished at Euro 2004 with the Liver­pool man as his foil. At Birm­ing­ham City, in 2005, he won the fans’ and play­ers’ player of the year awards, de­spite net­ting only 11 times.

“He worked so hard for the team,” said Owen. “Track­ing back, win­ning head­ers, do­ing the phys­i­cal stuff. If I was do­ing that, I don’t think I’d have had the legs to make for­ward runs.”

Alan Shearer, who also part­nered Heskey for Eng­land, put it sim­ply. “If you want a cen­tre-for­ward to score goals, Emile is not the man,” he said. “But if you want a cen­tre-for­ward to bring other play­ers into the game, work their socks off for the team and get the best out of the other cen­tre-for­ward, then Emile is the man. He’s proven that.” And he still is. Now 37, Heskey spent two years with New­cas­tle Jets in Aus­tralia and then im­pressed enough at Bolton last sea­son to earn an ex­tended con­tract.

And whilst the Cham­pi­onship’s old­est player may have to wait for history to of­fer a reap­praisal of his abil­i­ties, he still re­fuses to let the knock­ers get him down.

“Crit­ics are go­ing to be crit­ics,” he said last year. “And peo­ple are al­ways go­ing to get on your back. But as long as you go out there and make sure that you do your job, then that’s all you can do.”

PIC­TURES: Ac­tion Im­ages

STAY­ING POWER: Emile Heskey has earned an ex­tended stay at Bolton

CAP-FULL: Heskey in ac­tion for Eng­land

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