Emile Heskey – Blunt Instrument or Underrated Leader of the Line?

Back in the latter years of the 1990s, Leicester City fans had often chimed up with a chant of “Bruno, Bruno,” whenever Emile Heskey featured in a game. I used to think this was a complimentary reference to the muscular build of the pugilistic heavyweight warrior of the time. A friend who supported Leicester later corrected that assumption for me however, insisting that, rather than his physique, it was the young striker’s propensity to spend much of his time on the floor after any physical contact, no matter how slight, that provoked the comparison. Whether that was just a personal view or an accurate reflection of a number of Leicester fans’ attitude wasn’t clear. It serves however as an example of how a player who spent the best part of two decades in top-level English football and accumulated 62 full England caps, found it far easier to inspire ridicule than respect.

After progressing through the Leicester youth system, Heskey made his first team debut for the club aged 17 in a Premier League game against QPR in March 1995, whilst still a trainee. It would hardly be a happy time though, as the club were relegated at the end of the term, and his first professional contract was signed with a Championship club, rather than a Premier League one. The following season though, he would appear 30 times in the league and helped Leicester achieve promotion back to the top-tier via the play-offs.

The following term would be a major breakthrough, despite his goalscoring record hardly increasing to just 10 in 35 league encounters. A triumph in the League Cup Final brought his first major medal, a feat repeated in his final season with the club. His overall display and ability to lead the line for the Foxes saw him finish second to David Beckham in the PFA Young Player of the Year award. It’s often said that the recognition by your peers is the sincerest of acclaim. Heskey clearly was considered to be a coming force among his fellow professionals.

Any superficial view of his statistics over the next few seasons may suggest that Heskey was fortunate to retain his position in the team, but manager Martin O’Neill knew the oft unseen value of his player. A total of 27 goals across 114 games hardly speaks of a ‘fox in the box’ striker, but his ability to occupy defenders and create for others was a boon for players such as Tony Cottee who flourished on the service provided, much as so many others would do in the future.

Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier was clearly not one of those “superficial” observers and persuaded the club to layout a reported £11 million to take Heskey to Anfield. It was a record fee for the club, illustrating the value Houllier perceived Heskey to offer. Such sapient opinion was justified when Heskey’s ability to lead the line and carry much of the weight was neatly dovetailed with the pace and prolific scoring ability of Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler. Joining in March 2000, he would complete the curtailed season with three goals in 12 appearances – very much on par for his goalscoring record. The following season though, with experience of the Liverpool set up under his belt, that would change dramatically as Liverpool captured three trophies.

In February, a starting position in the League Cup Final against Birmingham City saw Heskey collect his first medal for Liverpool, following a penalty shootout victory over Birmingham City. The second and third would not belong in following. Again, in the starting eleven, he featured in the 2-1 FA Cup Final triumph over Arsenal and then did the same in the thrilling 5-4 extra-time win over Deportivo Alavés in the UEFA Cup Final four days later. The season ended with the striker scoring 22 goals in all competitions across 56 appearances, including 14 in 36 league games. Given he was playing alongside two of the most prolific goal scorers in the history of Liverpool, it was a borderline successful haul.

The early months of the new term would follow neatly in line. Both arriving in August, a Charity Shield triumph over traditional rivals Manchester United was followed by a 3-2 victory over Bayern Munich in the UEFA Super Cup. All of this meant that in the space of five ‘actively competitive’ months, Emile Heskey, a player who many had considered the epitome of a blunt instrument playing the position where the razor tip of a rapier is far more suitable, had played full parts in winning no less than five major finals. It was time to review the reasons for that ‘Bruno’ tag.

Those who had doubted Houllier’s decision to bring in a player even the French manager had conceded was still an unfinished product were now difficult to find. Those glorious months would however be the zenith of Heskey’s time on Merseyside. He would play there until the end of the 2003-04 season, without threatening to repeat that run of glory, or goals, despite picking up another League Cup triumph – in the quaintly named guise of the Worthington Cup – in 2003.

Time was running out for Houllier as the end of the 2003-04 season drew near – he would leave in May of 2004 – and Heskey’s days in red were also numbered. Thirty-five goals in all competitions, across more than 150 appearances following the run of cup triumphs saw a return to his previously more prosaic strike rate and with new players arriving at Anfield, including Milan Baroš, the writing was on the wall.

A move to Birmingham City was inevitably seen as a step down in his career path, but Heskey responded with typical endeavour and application. Although the club endured a more than mediocre season, the striker won universal acclaim at the club being lauded as both Player’s Player of the Season and Fan’s Player of the Season. His 11 goals also made him the top scorer, a somewhat rare occurrence in his career to date. The second-city club stumbled in the following season though, as form deteriorated and league position slipped. Inevitably, in such circumstances, fans look for someone to blame. With inconsistent form and a mere four league goals to his name, Heskey was an easy target, and the fans didn’t miss. Relegation followed for the club, but a move to Wigan Athletic preserved Heskey’s Premier League status.

It was while at the Lancashire club that he achieved the distinction of recording his 500th league appearance. For a forward who would score just 120 goals in a shade less than 600 league games in England by the end of his career, it’s both a remarkable achievement, and a testament to the coaches over the years who saw so much in the value of Emile Heskey, when the vociferous majority of others saw so little. He would score 15 goals in 88 games under Steve Bruce for Wigan before Aston Villa, then managed by old Leicester boss, Martin O’Neil, took him to the claret and blue side of Birmingham.

Villa would perform well under the Irishman until a dispute with owner Randy Lerner, inevitably over money, saw the parting of the ways. O’Neill would be replaced by yet another admirer of Heskey, when Gérard Houllier took the hot seat at Villa Park. By now, Heskey was into his thirties and the inevitable accumulation of playing time and injuries began to eat into his availability, together with the accompanying loss of effectiveness, and after O’Neill left, the club struggled for a while. A health problem caused Houllier’s departure and his successor Alex McLeish might not have been a Heskey fan. A single goal in his last term at the club, may explain why.

A two-year spell in Australia with Newcastle Jets was followed by a couple of seasons back in England at Bolton Wanderers. By now though, it was merely a case of playing out time on a career in terminal decline. He was released by the club at the end of the 2015-16 season.

In the history of football, there are many players who divide opinion, and Emile Heskey clearly drops into that category. Proponents of his worth would point to his success at Liverpool, the accumulation of trophies in those heady months, and the money spent on him by a raft of successful managers, plus his 62 England caps. Detractors however would counter by contending that the triumph at Anfield was but a fleeting oasis of glory in a career almost as deprived of goals as water in a desert, adding that seven goals in 62 games hardly warrants acclaim as an international striker.

Each can decide for themselves of course, and football divides opinion like knots no other topic. It is perhaps worth considering however, whether a forward’s job is merely to score goals. If so, then it’s difficult to look back on Heskey’s career as outstanding. If however, there’s merit in the view that a frontman can be both a leader of the line, focus of attention for defenders, a foil for others and still not be prolific, then that would cast an entirely different light on matters.

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