Birmingham was good, and it felt a bit like Leicester to be honest – a smaller club that had a lot of players who wanted to fight.Emile Heskey.
Sean Cole spoke to the former England striker about his illustrious career...
Emile Heskey rarely gets the credit he deserves. He admits the perception people have of him as a hardworking striker who didn't score goals is so deep-rooted that even those who never watched him play share it. The criticism can sting, and he mounts a spirited defence of his record.
“If I said to you, your son’s going to make his debut at 17, go on to win four League Cups, an FA Cup, a UEFA Cup, a European Super Cup, a Community Shield, go to two World Cups and two Euros, and score 100 Premier League goals, how would you feel?”
Laid out in such stark terms, Heskey lets his achievements speak for themselves. There were undoubtedly more prolific players, but few who were as effective over such a long period of time. Numerous managers at club and international level relied on him to deliver big performances and he seldom let them down.
Powerful and quick from a young age, athletics was Heskey’s first passion. Football was something he did for fun and it wasn’t until he was on the cusp of reaching the Leicester City first team that he realised it could be a viable career path. In March 1995 he started away to Queen’s Park Rangers.
“There was a bug going around and a few players went down sick. I was only 17 but I was the only other real forward they had at the time. The manager threw me in at the deep end and it was great for me,” says Heskey.
“That was Mark McGhee who gave me my debut but then he left and went to Wolves. Martin O’Neill came in and started to pick me. It just went from strength to strength. Being involved with that team and the camaraderie we had, and the ability we had in all fairness, was great.
“The manager loved all that team bonding and stuff like that. The players fed into that and we more or less became like a family. We’d go out eating together and drinking together and we all felt like we had each other’s backs.”
That team spirit showed on the pitch as Leicester bounced back to the Premier League at the first attempt. Heskey led the line as his hometown club consistently finished in the top half of the table while reaching three League Cup finals in four years. They beat Middlesbrough in 1997 and Tranmere Rovers in 2000.
Heskey’s selfless forward play was rewarded with the first of 62 England caps in a friendly against Hungary, and then an £11m move to Liverpool. There was a lot of competition for places up front but Heskey became integral to Gerard Houllier’s plans. He gave the team a different dimension.
“I was the one who kind of knitted everything together,” he says. “The others were quite similar, and having similar players playing alongside each other doesn’t really help at times. I had a good relationship with all of them and blended quite well with them.”
Frequently paired alongside Michael Owen for club and country, they had an instinctive understanding. Heskey’s work ethic, intelligence and physicality dragged defenders away and created the space for Owen to prosper. “It worked really well. It just clicked. We worked on certain things at training but a lot of it was off the cuff,” he admits.
Heskey played 56 games and scored 22 goals in all competitions in his first full season at Liverpool as the club won three trophies. Despite some off-field difficulties, as he initially struggled to adapt to living away from home, he thrived and was called on to start in all the key matches, including the League Cup final against Birmingham City.
Although more cup success followed, the title continued to elude Liverpool. “We were more set up for counter-attacking football and that worked quite well for us in the cup competitions, but across the course of a league season Man United and Arsenal were more dominant. They were able to win more games back to back,” he says.
Heskey played and contributed regularly but criticisms of his goalscoring record became harder to ignore. Houllier defended the striker, and continued to lean heavily on him, but the arrival of Djibril Cisse from Auxerre in the summer of 2004 led to his departure.
“The chief executive at the time came to me and said they’d accepted a bid from Birmingham and I was free to go. I told my agent that I’d be more than happy to fight for my place, because I still had a year or so left on my contract, but he said that Cisse was coming in and I wouldn’t play,” explains Heskey.
“Birmingham was good, and it felt a bit like Leicester to be honest – a smaller club that had a lot of players who wanted to fight. I felt like they were building but maybe not as quick as some people were thinking.”
After successive mid-table finishes the recruitment of proven Premier League players such as Heskey, Muzzy Izzet, Jesper Gronkjaer and Mario Melchiot was intended to propel the club to the next level. There were some positive signs, as Blues did the double over Aston Villa and Heskey’s former employers Liverpool, but a lack of consistency undermined their efforts.
Steve Bruce was the manager and Heskey would later be reunited with him at Wigan Athletic. Stamina and work rate were key considerations. “He had the ability to get us super-fit and ready for the task ahead because with all due respect we were no Liverpool, Arsenal or Man United.
“A lot of the time we weren’t going to have the lion’s share of the ball, so you had to be fit enough to win it back and create something from there. He worked a lot on that and got us into good shape to play that way.”
Heskey impressed, scoring 11 goals and being named as the club’s player of the year by both team-mates and supporters, but other big names flattered to deceive. The good work of previous seasons was then undone by a listless relegation. The tide turned and the atmosphere soured. There was a sense that the club had moved away from the formula that had previously brought success.
“I think you need a blend. You can’t go all out with flair because you don’t know what you’re going to get at times. I still feel you need that backbone of hardworking players and someone who’s going to bring something different to the table. Especially in the Premier League, you’ve got to have a blend,” says Heskey.
For Blues, that blend wasn’t quite right. In the wake of relegation, several high-earning players left, Heskey included. He signed for Wigan, who survived on the final day in his first season after beating Sheffield United 2-1 at Bramall Lane. It was a monumental team performance, with Heskey even filling in at centre-back late on.
“We knew what we needed to do, and the lads were absolutely fantastic on that day. We rode our luck a little bit, but we just weren’t losing that game. I don’t think I was asked to go back but I just remember going back and thinking ‘I’m going to head and kick everything I can.’ That’s what I did!” he recalls.
Often competing at the wrong end of the table after leaving Liverpool, Heskey’s reputation suffered as a result. Even when he was recalled to the England squad by Steve McClaren, and then remained a key player under Fabio Capello in the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup, some sections of the media were unduly critical.
The collective is what matters most and Heskey’s appreciation of that fact was part of the reason why he was so highly rated by managers and club colleagues. He made others play better and never hid. “It’s a team sport. If you don’t have teamwork, what do you have? We’re so fixated on individuals. Take the rest of the players out and see what the individual does,” says Heskey.
“We’re so fixated on one individual and then when that individual doesn’t do too well and doesn’t give you the goals that you think he should give you, then he gets bashed. He’s c***, and he’s this and he’s that. It’s a team sport. I’d rather somebody give more to the team than just individual performances here and there.”
By 2012, Heskey’s Aston Villa contract had expired and he wanted to try something different. Moving to Australia to play for Newcastle Jets gave him a fresh lease of life and he then rounded off more than two decades as a professional footballer with a couple of years at Bolton Wanderers, working under former team-mate Neil Lennon.
Since retiring Heskey has gained some more coaching experience but found full-time opportunities hard to come by. If the right one comes up, he’s ready. “It’s something I’m interested in. At the end of the day I’ve got a lot to give back, whether that be the mentoring side of things or actual coaching.”
In the meantime, the 42-year-old has been busy looking after his family, promoting his autobiography, Even Heskey Scored, and making various media appearances, including back at St. Andrew’s recently for the ‘Strikers’ event. Other famous faces from across the eras, like Bob Hatton, Mick Harford and Kevin Phillips, were also in attendance.