Emile Heskey. The marmite of English football. Though apparently some people actually like marmite…It is questionable as to whether there has ever been a more maligned figure in the history of our game, and yet Emile is still plugging away in the top flight. Recently however, whilst watching Aston Villa vs. Manchester United on Match of the Day, I was left with a puzzling conundrum. How is he still plugging away? The game had entered its later stages and as Villa pushed for an equaliser; the ball broke to Heskey on the edge on the box. Unfortunately, his effort didn’t remotely threaten the United goal. It did however end up rolling out for a throw in. Popping up next on the TV screen was a rather irate Villa fan, apparently describing their side’s Number 18 with a selection of words you certainly wouldn’t say to your grandmother. It appears people are beginning to forget the value of Heskey’s ‘hold-up play’ (something that plenty of managers have previously rated so highly) and now only notice his increasingly abysmal goal scoring record. So here is the big debate. Emile Heskey’s career – Deal or No Deal?
We’ll begin the defence for the witness with a look at the beginning of his career. He began life as a bullocking centre-forward with Leicester City, as his size gave numerous Premier League defenders nightmares about facing him. No, honestly. Even his goalscoring record was reasonable, collecting a fairly respectable 40 goals in 154 games. Such form made a regular for England’s U21 side, where again he proved a valuable asset to the side. Emile was such a promising prospect that Foxes fans were sorry to lose him when he signed for Liverpool in a £11million move in 2001. At Anfield though, the debate began over the merits of having Heskey in the side. Liverpool weren’t exactly short on quality striking options at the time, indeed their ranks boasted the then-darling of English football, a certain Michael Owen. Robbie Fowler was pretty handy in a penalty area as well. Nonetheless, Gerard Houllier recognised the benefits his underfire striker could bring to a side, indeed playing Heskey as the target man proved rather effective for both club and country. Emile was second-to-none at linking up with those around him and creating chances for others and his presence in the red of Liverpool and the white of England undoubtedly boosted Owen’s impressive goal scoring tally for both sides. Sven Goran Eriksson also recognised the potential of this partnership for the Three Lions and no-one questioned Heskey’s value to the team in the run up to the 2002 World Cup, even chipping in with the final goal in the 5-1 Munich demolition, something appreciated by Ant and Dec in their song, ‘On the Ball’ that contained the famous lyric ‘AND HESKEY MAKES IT 5!’ He also had a cracking celebration during this period; many schoolboys across the land practised their ‘DJ Heskey’ impressions on a regular basis, in recognition of the striker’s turntable routine after scoring. The problem was that while everyone agreed Emile was a cracking player, he needed to improve his goal scoring record to maintain his status as an international standard player.
Heskey came under a lot of criticism for his lack of goals, something that sealed his exit from Liverpool. During the same period, he lost his place in the England side, coming under fire from the Three Lions supporters after poor performances in Euro 2004. Birmingham snapped him up for an initial fee of £3.5million and despite a decent first season, where he won Player of the Season, the Blues were relegated the following year with Heskey coming in for a lot of flack for his inconsistent performances. It appeared that Big Emile’s time was up, as he looked set to drop to the Championship with his England days long since finished. A move to Wigan kick-started a career revival however, and though he only scored 15 goals in his 82 appearances there, Steve Bruce believed him to be invaluable to Wigan’s cause, regarding him as the side’s key player. During his time at the club, he scored his 100th Premier League goal and became the first Wigan player to be capped forEngland following a recall for the crucial Euro 2008 qualifiers against Israel and Russia. Steve McClaren picked him in place of the injured Wayne Rooney on the recommendation of Michael Owen, who stated he wanted to play alongside Heskey once more. This tactic paid off, as Heskey produced two of his best performances for the Three Lions, leading Alan Shearer to comment “Never in a million years did I expect to be discussing whether Emile Heskey should keep his place ahead of Wayne Rooney but the Wigan striker was outstanding over both games.” The whole of England fell back in love with the powerhouse striker and he was a regular fixture in Fabio Capello’s side, even being accredited for Wayne Rooney’s return to form in international colours. He even bagged a couple of goals, his first in an England shirt for 6 years against Slovakia, before also getting on the scoresheet against Kazakhstan.
This reversal in fortunes saw Heskey linked with a return to Liverpool, but he eventually signed for Aston Villa for £3.5million in January 2009. The move has subsequently turned out to prove disastrous, injuries have prevented Emile from ever producing his best form for the club, and he found himself often used as a substitute in the lead up to the World Cup. The tournament in South Africa highlighted the love-hate relationship the player has held with supporters, it even started badly for the striker who injured captain Rio Ferdinand in training before the finals had even begun. Heskey was nothing less than abysmal during the group stages, just search Heskey doing stepovers on YouTube against Algeria and you get the picture. To the joy of England supporters, Capello decided to drop him to the bench for the remainder of the tournament, spelling the end of Heskey’s international career and he retired after the tournament.
He has become something of a joke figure amongst football fans, an iconic legend for being so terrible. Many mock videos have been produced that poke fun at Heskey’s ability, check out this FIFA 12 tribute video or TalkSports mockumentary about his retirement.
The question is, why now? Heskey’s style of play hasn’t changed; he has never scored goals consistently, so why has he become such a figure of hate in the English game? People have short memories, indeed just 3 years ago, he was the national team’s saviour after his re-instalment to the England side and the Wigan fans loved him despite his appalling goal scoring record there. The fact is, his form at Villa just hasn’t been good enough, contributing just 9 goals in 76 games, whilst England fans have suddenly noticed his record at international level stands at just 7 goals in 62 games. Rather embarrassing considering former Paraguay goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert managed 8 goals for his country! Heskey himself has tried to explain just why opinion on him is so divisive, stating that he is ‘no better or worse than before, it is just the perception of my talents have changed.’ To some extent this is true. Using physical strength to bludgeon defences is no longer enough for most managers. Back in the day when Heskey first came onto the scene, the majority of Premiership strikers were nifty, alert poachers like Fowler, Sheringham or Andy Cole, meaning players like Emile or Dion Dublin provided a different option upfront. These days the division is littered with targetmen who are in the side specifically for their ‘unselfish manner of play on the pitch.’ Think Zamora, Kevin Davies or Carlton Cole. Now teams are overloaded with strikers who are limited in skill, but committed to the cause, something managers are now trying to change. The performances of players like Van Persie, Aguero or Darren Bent have highlighted the need for those who consistently find the back of the net. Even some of the targetmen have decent goalscoring ability, Adebayor can hold the ball up, Balotelli is superb at taking it into his feet and even Peter Crouch combines his link up play with a trickle of goals. So although Heskey’s talents were once fundamental to how some managers played the game, it appears the new breed of Premiership footballers have condemned Emile to a life of ridicule.