He may be the fans' whipping boy, but I've loved Emile Heskey since his Leicester days, through his time at Liverpool, and now at my beloved Aston Villa. Ah, the nature of fandom.
Some people will read this looking for signs of cynicism, convinced it’s a thinly veiled lampooning of an already much maligned man. A few more will read through unstoppable scoffs of derision. Most simply won’t read at all. I care not. This is an honest account of purest fandom that is long overdue. It’s an account and justification of an affair that began many, many years ago, but reached a glittering peak when, last week, I was given the autograph of one of my idols: that of Emile William Ivanhoe Heskey.
Born in Leicester in 1978, Heskey quickly progressed through the youth ranks of his home town club to make his first team début at the age of just seventeen. After signing professional terms he went on to reach double figures for Leicester in back-to-back seasons and scored the equaliser two minutes from time in the 1997 League Cup final at Wembley, taking the game to a replay in which Leicester City were victorious. Three years later Heskey completed his £11 million move to Liverpool, setting the transfer fee record for the Merseyside club in the process. In his first full season for the Reds he scored 22 goals, and was a key part of the side that won a FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup treble.
A hamstring injury sustained in January 2004 kept Heskey out of the Liverpool side for several weeks, and on his return he faced stiff competition for his place from Czech striker Milan Baros. At the end of the season Heskey was sold to Birmingham City, where he failed to recapture his finest form, and they suffered relegation to the Championship. Heskey was subsequently sold to Wigan Athletic, where he enjoyed something of a renaissance, scoring his 100th Premier League goal on November 1st 2008 against Portsmouth at Fratton Park.
Then it happened. I’d experienced similar delight when my beloved Aston Villa signed David Ginola – another favourite – in the summer of 2000, but had never thought I’d see the day when my idol donned the sacred claret and blue, particularly after his time with our cross-city rivals. But Martin O’Neill, who had worked with Heskey at Leicester, wasn’t concerned by the association, and paid a fee of £3.5 million to bring the big striker to Villa Park. I was utterly delirious with excitement. A twenty yard strike on his début convinced me a beautiful relationship was about to begin, one which would see Heskey playing the greatest football of his career. My fellow fans however were far from convinced. Many were flat out despairing.
So what is it about this man that attracts such scorn? I have been chastised on many occasions for speaking up in Heskey’s defence. Yes his goal scoring record is far from scintillating – a club career record equating to 0.21 goals per game – but, as is often said, his game is not built just on goals. Defining his role is a trickier issue however. For a long time, most notably for England, Heskey was forced into a wide left role, a victim of the dearth of quality in a position where he was deployed as a back post option, a target man for aimless cross field balls. Sometimes he was instructed to play as an out-and-out winger, a role that failed to utilise his best qualities whilst simultaneously exposing the weaker aspects of his game.
Such short-sightedness naturally meant Heskey’s abilities were wasted. The same would have happened to any player so improperly managed. In his younger days Heskey had the kind of power and pace that made him a natural threat through the middle. Overshadowed in this mould by contemporaries such as Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler, Heskey’s natural game has evolved over the years. Now he is thought of as a bustling, strong centre forward who gives defenders a hard time and creates space for others. But still that 0.21 goals per game ratio draws negative remarks. Yet compared with, for example, Kevin Davies, a centre forward who shares many of the same traits but has a ratio of 0.19 goals per game, Heskey has the better record. Criticism of Davies’ goalscoring record is rare though, and few knocked his shot at playing for his country when it finally came.
Many will point to Heskey’s 62 international caps and Davies’ single England appearance and argue that Heskey has been overused by his country. Whilst this may be the case this is hardly his fault, and despite the barrage of criticism he attracts for his England record he has never once given anything but his best. Everything he had he gave, and he never once acted in a way to bring shame to the shirt. Two things that, to me at least, made him hugely appealing. But even then is his record for England quite as bad as many would have you believe? For a forward frequently selected to play out of position, Heskey’s international record of 0.11 goals per game is comparable with players such as, for example, Peter Beardsley, another forward deployed across a range of positions for his country. Yet Beardsley’s international record of 0.15 goals per game is never rebuked.
I accept that these numbers and arguments are all subject to interpretation. Essentially that is the point I am trying to make. I’m used to having to argue over a barrage of facts and figures designed to belittle one of my idols. But I guess that’s part of the appeal. I support Emile despite his faults. I root for him with an underdog attraction. I’ll concede that it’s a strange twist of fandom. Please don’t misunderstand: I adore Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo because they are brilliant. But I love Aston Villa even though they so frequently disappoint, and the same logic applies to my Heskey infatuation. Perhaps the concept of supporting individual players, and not just the greats, is rare. This may because the common view of players is that they are simply cogs in a machine. It’s the Ferrari people tend to love, rather than the spark plugs.
To many he is a joke. But as I sit here staring at that little white piece of paper and the signature that adorns it I feel a genuine happiness, and a connection with a player who, for better or for worse, I hold in the highest regard. True his Villa career may not have developed quite as I had dreamt, but then very few relationships pan out quite how you imagined they would. Heskey may have his critics, but his hard working, gentle giant appeal I find wonderfully attractive. There’s no patronising air to detect there. When I think of Heskey I think of that goal against Denmark. Or that goal against Germany. Sometimes I think of that distinctive celebration and I raise a smile. I think of these moments and wonder how it’s possible that he can be treated so badly. But I don’t worry, because to me he’s special, and I’m thankful for that.
This first appeared on the cracking Five in Midfield
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