One Emile Heskey

by Dan Hodges

Since embarking on an illustrious career as Uncut’s contributing editor I have been in receipt of  numerous queries from our discerning readership. Excluding the occasional request for me to combine sex with travel, the top three, in reverse order are: “What does the contributing editor actually do”, “When are you going to lay of Ed Miliband” and “Why do you have a Twitter avatar of Frank Bruno being chased by a long haired Scott Baio”?

The answers are: “I have no idea”, “Probably not for a while yet, though things are looking a little more promising”,  and, “that’s not Frank Bruno, it’s the footballer Emile Heskey, and he’s not being chased by Scott Baio, it’s Steve McManaman. Although at that stage in his international career, Scott Baio would probably have proved more effective at delivering a final ball into the box”.

Many have pondered the Heskey enigma. “Why Emile Heskey”?  has  become a refrain to rival “Why did the Light Brigade charge”? or “Why die for Danzig”?

To the uninitiated, Emile Ivanhoe Heskey was a footballing paradox; a striker who could not score. Actually, to the initiated he was a bit of a paradox as well. But to me, and to a line of England managers stretching from Kevin Keegan to Fabio Capello, he was an icon. An heroic, but ultimately tragic figure. Heathcliffe, with three lions on his chest.

My admiration for Emile Heskey is in part based on my own cowardice. When he first signed for my team, Liverpool, he became part of a tug of love triangle. Robbie Fowler, the scouse rough diamond whom the Kop idolised as one of their own, was in decline, though still adored. Some might say indulged.

Michael Owen, our other striker, was the nation’s golden boy. With lightning pace, a clean-cut image and boyish good looks, he had scored a goal that transcended mortality against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. But in that moment he became the property of England rather than Liverpool. And that, coupled with his implicit threat to the local hero, the Koppite diehards secretly resented.

So Emile was the safe option. By embracing him you didn’t have to chose a side. It was like abstaining in the 1981 deputy leadership election.

But then something happened. He started to display pace and power. He had a presence on the pitch. He could hold the ball, giving his team mates time to surge forward in numbers, providing options, overwhelming opposition defences.

This was important to Liverpool fans. The preceding decade had seen the team plunge from its pedestal as most revered in the land to a bunch  of makeweights and dilettantes. Years of failure culminated in the nadir of the 1996 FA cup final, when they toured the pitch resplendent in cream white suits, looking like a cross between colonial attaches and members of an overstaffed barber shop quartet. They lost, to arch rivals Manchester United, branding themselves, “the spice boys”, in the process.

Heskey was no dilettante. He did what he said on the tin. Represented solidity. Durability. Reliability.

Emile scored 20 goals in a season. The benchmark for quality, if not excellence. By then he was starting, as players do, to develop a persona. He was good with the supporters, taking times to sign autographs when other, more established names, brushed past. He was unassuming and popular with his team mates. Some said he was quite shy. Even that he suffered from bouts of insecurity.

Above all, Emile was a fans’ player. He made the contributions only true fans see. The runs off the ball. The innocuous but important knock downs. Puling defenders out of position. Creating space. If you watched the highlights on Match of the Day you missed these moments. The discerning eye framed them. And appreciated them.

But Emile was not widely appreciated. He scored for England in the historic 5-1 annihilation of Germany. Put in a titanic performance in a losing cause against Brazil in the world cup. Yet celebrity, not modesty, had become the currency of modern football. Players like David Beckham led a showbiz life with a pop star wife. Emile shunned the limelight and had left his own wife for a waitress from a lap dancing bar.

The rumours about his lack of confidence begin to build. His powering runs started to betray signs of hesitancy. His knock downs fell short. Chances flashed high, or drifted wide.

Then catastrophe. Brought on as substitute in the dying moments of England’s crucial European championship game against France, Emile lunged for a tackle, and mis-timed it. From the resulting free kick, France’s galactico, Zidane, drilled a ruthless equalizer. Seconds later, he slotted home a winner  from the penalty spot.

Heskey was pilloried in the press. Sven Goran Erickson, an England manager with a well-deserved reputation for allowing the media to pick his team, exiled him. Liverpool followed suit, sending Emile not to Coventry, but to Birmingham.

I followed him from afar. Smiled as I heard his new fans at Wigan chant, “He used to be shite, now he’s all right”. Felt bitter when I saw drunken morons taunting German fans with, “5-1, even Heskey scored”. Felt sad that commitment and hard work and honesty had become  superfluous.

Then one day I took a call from a friend: “Have you heard about Heskey”?

“Oh no, has his wife caught up with him”?

“He’s been recalled”.

“Recalled to what”?

“The England team. Owen’s asked for him. McClaren’s starting him against Israel”.

A week later I was standing in the top tier at Wembley, watching a familiar figure jogging warm up laps round the touchline. The papers had ridiculed the decision. The phone-ins went into melt down. When Heskey’s name was read out, a small section of England supporters booed.

As the match kicked off, I didn’t follow the ball. I was fixated on a lone, seemingly isolated figure, working patterns in the last third of the Israeli half.

Then after five minutes a chance fell perfectly to Emile. He shaped, shot, and drilled the ball… over. I buried my head in my hands. The groans rang out. I knew what was coming. The old insecurities were about to crowd in. The demons were coming for him.

Then I looked again. He started to chase a ball down. But as he closed in, rather than pull back, he accelerated. He won the challenge. The man next to me murmured approval.

A ball was played high, seemingly too high. But Emile leapt, hung for an extra vital moment in the air, and nodded a perfect lay off into the channel. The crowd applauded.

A pass was played into space. He controlled it, pushed the ball forward and powered past a blue-shirted defender. The fans roared.

I could see him. The old Heskey, rising like Lazarus from the Wembley turf. So could  those around me.  They saw. And finally, they understood.

With twenty minutes left Emile was substituted. As he ran from the pitch the crowd rose as one and applauded. “Why are you crying mate”, the man next to me said. “Because you understand”, I replied.

Of course that should have been the end. But Emile was Emile. He played for two more years, earning more plaudits. He became a regular under Fabio Capello, and went to the world cup in South Africa. Against the USA, he was England’s best player for 60 minutes; then with the game finely poised, he was played through, one on one with US keeper, Tim Howard.

With the goal gaping, he shot tamely at Howard, and the demons returned. Three games later, he announced his retirement from international football.

It didn’t matter. He had nothing left to prove. In amid the dodgy agents, and fly-by-night-owners, and bung-chasing managers, and petulant superstars, Emile Ivanhoe Heskey had shown that courage and honesty and commitment and hard work can, even for one brief instant, showcase and deliver success.

Why do I have Emile Heskey as my avatar? Why don’t you?

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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15 Responses to “One Emile Heskey”

  1. Conor says:

    He’s no Benjani, Dan.

  2. Lobbydog says:

    As one who recently put the aforementioned questioned of “why Heskey” I feel I have a right to interject. Your yarn is touching, really it is. But a tragic hero needs underlying greatness that isn’t realised – there needs to have been unfulfilled hope that at some point that greatness might have been achieved, the eternal quest factor. But you can’t get around the fact that Heskey did fulfil his potential, there was no hope of him getting better, there was no unfulfilled capability, there was never any hope of him being a good striker who actually scored. The man didn’t have any “demons” that prevented him from being good at scoring, he just lacked talent in front of goal. Yes he was good at many other things on the pitch, but a striker needs to score, at least to be able to score. I do accept however that the frustration vented against him, is really a frustration with a lack of talent among English players generally.

  3. David Ward says:

    Because he was rubbish?

    For instance, in no way was Heskey England’s best player against the USA, and if he was that still wouldn’t make him good as the performance was abject. I can’t remember a single through ball or shot on target from that game.

    What I can remember is Heskey being unable to hit a barn door with a shovel for most of his career. Let’s face it, he was out of his depth after Leicester.

  4. Dan Hodges says:

    Conor: Who is?

    Lobbydog: It’s not about whether the striker scores. It’s about whether the team scores. The collective over the individual. Keynesian football rather than Thatcherite football.

    David: He may not have been able to hit the barn door. But he removed it from his hinges and handed it to people like Owen and Rooney so they could. And the shot against Howard was on target, right at his midriff. The step over against Algeria we can ignore.

  5. Shamik Das says:

    He had a nightmare on Wednesday! Missing an open goal and getting sent off!! Wasn’t as bad a miss as Ranger though. Fans never really appreciated the work he did for England; if only he HAD been able to score (which is, of course, the primary role of a striker!) things could have been so very different…

  6. Dan Hodges says:


    At times scoring is merely an added bonus…


  7. Richard Costello says:

    Speaking as an Aston Villa fan I can honestly say that Heskey is by far the most inept and for the Villa at least he could only be described as lazy, nonchalant and uninterested. If he were a politician he would be back bench Lib Dem in a university seat, resigned to losing his seat having already sold his soul.

  8. Dan Hodges says:


    You’re comparing Emile to a Lib Dem?

    Outside. Now…


  9. You don’t normally have this sort of admiration for ineffectual left-wingers do you?

  10. Dan Hodges says:


    Emile played down the middle. He was a centerist.


  11. Shamik – as a Sunderland fan I thought her performance on Wednesday was excellent

  12. Conor says:

    Benjani put two away against Liverpool on Wednesday night. I do hope you didn’t miss the game!

  13. The Truth says:

    What’s with talking about Heskey in the past tense? He’s still around, still doing a decent job, still missing sitters at the Villa.

  14. Jim Mackrell says:

    Kenny is King. That is all you need to know.

  15. John Moss says:

    I knew his Chairman at Leicester.

    Tried to sell advertising on the soles of his boots he spent so much time on his a**e!

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