Updated: Feb 18, 2021
Over 100 Premier League goals scored, 39 of them for Liverpool and 40 for Leicester City. Six major honours won with the Reds, two previously with the Foxes. Former forward Emile Heskey has played his part in the modern history of both football clubs, and it all began with a fondness for speed.
Athletics came before football, recalls the big man, who turned 41 earlier this month. “It was my first passion – I just loved to run, to sprint, from a very young age. I can remember being three or four and wanting to race people.
“My mum used to send me to the shops and I wouldn’t walk – I’d run there! I had so much energy I don’t know how they dealt with me.
“When you see people like Linford Christie and Carl Lewis, you want to emulate them. But when I got to junior school I discovered a ball and and I found I was good with that as well."
That was in Leicester and it soon attracted the attention of the football club’s centre of excellence. Heskey started training with the Leicester City academy from the age of nine, his pace and athletic build catching the eye. However, he’d still to play a ‘proper’ game of football. That opportunity was presented to him by local side Ratby Groby Juniors.
“I didn’t join Ratby until I was eleven or twelve. I was training at the Centre of Excellence where one of the parents was the manager [of Ratby] and he’d been pestering my mum and dad for about two years to get me to come down and play.
“They had a good team and I just added to that. But back then, I was just running around and kicking the ball. I didn’t know anything about positions. They asked me ‘What position do you play?’ I shrugged my shoulders, hadn’t got a clue. They put me in defence and I kept getting the ball and running through, so they soon put me forward!”
Emile might have been a boyhood Liverpool fan but, growing up in Leicester, his affiliation with his home-town club soon developed and his senior debut came in March 1995 as a 17-year old trainee. Arguably Leicester’s relegation that 1995/96 season provided him with more opportunities than had they had stayed in the top flight. Emile was confident he had the ability to make it, regardless of the division.
“At that time Leicester were an up-and-down team anyway. We didn’t have the spending power others had, especially when you compare to bigger cities.
“Although Leicester is a big city, it didn’t have the pulling power to get bigger and better players. We were punching above our weight and we didn’t have good enough players to stay in the Premier League, so it was difficult. But when you get relegated you have to kick on again. Regardless of whether we had stayed in the Premier League, I believed I had enough to succeed.”
Heskey helped that Foxes side make an immediate return to the big time. The following season he was runner-up to David Beckham as PFA young player of the year, and he scored in the 1997 League Cup final against Middlesbrough – a 118th-minute equaliser in extra-time, with Leicester winning the replay.
Ex-Everton striker Tony Cottee was one of several partners to benefit from Heskey’s unselfish style of play and the duo played in Leicester’s second League Cup success in four years, against Tranmere Rovers in 2000 (they’d also narrowly lost the 1999 final to Tottenham).
In time Emile’s performances in the blue shirt earned him an England call-up, and he made his debut in a friendly against Hungary in Budapest in April 1999. His first start came ten months later, against Argentina at Wembley in February 2000.
“To play for your country is a massive, massive achievement – to pull on that shirt with the Three Lions. I’d played for the Under16s and I thought that was the pinnacle. You are pulling on the England jersey, you’re playing for the national team, you’ve watched all these World Cup games and all these European Championship games and you’re so proud of yourself to get to this point.
“That was just the U16s, so to go on then and do it at every other level and get to the first team, it was just amazing.”
That senior breakthrough at international level – he’d go on to play at the Euros in the summer of 2000 – further enhanced his reputation, and Liverpool brought him to Anfield for a then club-record fee of £11 million. Fast, strong and direct, and with a fierce shot, soon he was firing them in for the Reds and celebrating with a DJ deck-spinning routine.
His importance to the treble-winning team of 2000/01 is summed up in one simple stat: Heskey was the only Reds forward to start in the FA Cup final, League Cup final, UEFA Cup final, Community Shield and UEFA Super Cup final in the same calendar year of 2001.
“I didn’t know that!” he says. “I think in a team sense you always have that player that plays for the team. He’s not playing today but look at James Milner, for argument’s sake. He’s been very important throughout his whole career for every club he has played for.
“We all know what he is capable of doing and what he brings to the team. You need those individuals and that individuality that can change a game. Over 90 minutes you are going to need a player that is very consistent, and that is where you look at team-players. I was one of those team-players and generally sacrificed myself for others and to get the best out of the team.”
The collective accomplishment of the treble season under Gerard Houllier obviously stand out, but it’s games against Everton and Manchester United that Emile remembers most vividly. He scored home and away against the neighbours in 2000/01 (in 3-1 and 3-2 wins respectively).
“A goal in the derby always helps. I’d played against Everton for Leicester and we’d won and I was thinking: that was a good game, not too tough. I thought it would be the same playing for Liverpool – that was an awakening! Everyone was running faster, tackling harder, it was crazy. It’s then that you get to understand the full meaning of derbies.
“Going into the derby we’d usually be the ones that were on top. It was different with Man United but we were always in those games. Looking back, I can’t remember losing too often.
“Danny Murphy got three winners there [December 2000, January 2002 and April 2004]. At home Michael Owen scored twice against them, one of them a header when their keeper came out and I flicked it on for him – the same game where John Arne Riise smashed that one in [3-1 in 2001].”
The Heskey-Owen partnership became a mainstay of Houllier’s Liverpool side. Emile scored 22 times in that first full season at Anfield, 2000/2001, and his powerful, unselfish work was much admired by the manager. Injury, though, disrupted the strike-duo and Emile’s goal-tallies fell to the still-commendable 14 in 2001/02, nine in 02/03 and 12 in 03/04. Houllier began shopping for another marksman but had left by the time Djibril Cisse arrived. Heskey originally wanted to stay and fight for his place under new boss Rafael Benitez.
“I had one more year left on my contract and, if I’m honest, I was confident in my ability and thought I could still play. But when a club pays a certain amount of money for someone, they are generally going to play them. So basically, it was said that I wasn’t going to play. Then you think: okay, let’s see, what options have I got?”
Eventually Emile moved to Birmingham City and in his first season, 2004/05, was the club’s player of the year as well as top-scorer with 11 goals. It might have ended in frustration with Liverpool, who of course went on to win the Champions League, but that didn’t stop Heskey from cheering on his old pals in Istanbul while he was on a plane home from Antigua.
The following years he joined Wigan Athletic where he became the first Latics player to be capped by England. A subsequent move to Aston Villa brought a call-up to England’s 2010 World Cup squad under Fabio Capello.
All told he won 62 caps for his country and played in four major tournaments. Of his seven goals, one came in the famous 5-1 win over Germany in Munich in a qualifier for the 2002 World Cup. At the end of the match some England fans chanted, ‘Five-one and even Heskey scored’. How did he feel about that?
“It didn’t make me feel anything, to be honest. We can all have a joke about things but you only ‘skit’ people who have achieved more than you.
“If I said to those people [who sang] that by the age of 16 their child was going to play for England at youth-level, make his debut for his local Premier League team in pre-season, then make his league debut at 17; play for England U18s, win a promotion play-off final at 18, win the League Cup at 19, then go on to win four League Cups in six finals and the FA Cup, UEFA Cup and Super Cup; go to two World Cups, two Euros, score over 100 goals in the Premier League… How would you feel? It wouldn’t be a joke then, would it?
“Some players are worshiped but don’t achieve half as much as that. It’s just an easy option when people have the mindset to have a go at you – that’s the way it is.
“The worst thing was when I got called back into the England squad when I was at Wigan. The press were saying things like, ‘Oh no, not him again’. It wasn’t a case that I had to prove them wrong, but I shut them up with my performances. I don’t think any player should have to go through that. In the end, it amounts to bullying of a kind.”
Well said. Emile did more than enough to prove his critics wrong over his 22-year playing career (he last played against the Reds for Bolton Wanderers as recently as January 2015) and he will always be held in high esteem among fans of Leicester City and Liverpool. But here’s a final question: would he rather have been a part of the 2005 Champions League-winning side or the 2016 Premier League title-winners?
“Woah! You’ve really put me on the spot there, haven’t you! It’s hard, isn’t it, you want to win the Premier League, you want to win the Champions League, you want to win both. That’s tough, really tough.
“Probably winning the Premier League. I’m not at all saying that the Champions League isn’t prestigious, but we do say the Premier League is the best competition. So to go on and win that over the course of 38 games, it’s a wonderful achievement.
“On a personal level, for Liverpool, I’d just like to be remembered in three words: a loyal worker.”
Words: Peter Kenny Jones