Emile Heskey: England's Unsung Hero

Simon WilliamsSenior Analyst ISeptember 11, 2008

Germany 1-5 England, Croatia 1-4 England, two scorelines and matches that will live long in the memory of every Englishman or woman who has an interest in football, and even a few who don't.

The memories will mainly concern Michael Owen and Theo Walcott's hat-tricks, Steven Gerrard's blistering volley or Wayne Rooney's emergence from international slumber.

When you ask England fans in 20 years time to name the four players who played in both matches, some might guess Rio Ferdinand, some might remember David Beckham's late substitute appearance against Croatia, some might recall Ashley Cole's tenacity from left-back, but how many will remember that Emile Heskey played a key role in both matches?

Heskey has always been a bit of misfit amongst football fans, a striker who doesn't score goals is always a difficult one for the layman to get their head around. He was loved at Leicester City, where he began his career, because he was a home-town boy playing at a time of great success for the club under Martin O'Neill.

When he moved to Liverpool in March 2000 for £11m, he had played 143 league games for Leicester and scored 40 goals. A steady return for 22 year-old, but £11m worth of player?

Most were sceptical.

In his first full season at Anfield, 2000-01, Heskey was a revelation. He netted 22 times in 55 appearances, as Liverpool completed a historic cup treble. Paired with Michael Owen for the most part, with Robbie Fowler as back up, the trio netted a mammoth 63 goals between them in all competitions.

Heskey also scored his first goals for England that season, starting with a strike against Malta, and then netting on Sven-Goran Eriksson's debut as manager against Spain in a 3-0 win.

Alas, Heskey's prolific streak was not to last. He netted only 13 goals in his second Liverpool campaign, then nine, then 12. He was forever associated with Gerard Houllier, whose tenure had soured into a reign of terror by the end of 2003-04.

Inevitably, Heskey found himself surplus to requirements, and he has not since been able to regain a place at one of the top teams in the English pyramid. Birmingham signed him for £6.25m, he scored a few goals, he had a few injuries, and then Steve Bruce took him to Wigan for £5.5m.

While Heskey's club career has flattered to deceive, the same could be said of his international career. His goal record at international level is even worse than at club level, managing just five goals in his 48 caps to date.

It is important to look beyond goals when it comes to Heskey though. Apart from that one season in 2000-01, Heskey has never been a goalscorer. Even in that great personal season, his average was little better than one every three games—respectable, but hardly prolific.

It is when Heskey is played with others who can score goals for him, like Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, or Theo Walcott that he is worth his weight in gold.

Firstly, he is a great first line of defence. He works tirelessly, and his mobility (unlike the far more prolific Peter Crouch), allows him to cover the whole width of the pitch.

When he defends corners, he is a giant, and when you add his height to the likes of Terry, Ferdinand and James, it is little wonder that England have relatively few problems defending even the most wicked set-piece deliveries, compared to many other international teams.

Tricky midfield dynamos who keep the ball for fun, yes we are not too hot on them, but devilish free-kick experts? We eat them for breakfast thanks largely to the defensive attributes of strikers like Heskey.

Also, again unlike Crouch, Heskey is very adept at winning free-kicks. Lets be honest here, if Heskey were foreign we would call him a diver.

He positions himself with his back to defenders, protects the ball, then when he feels the slightest contact, he goes to ground. This is vital for England in particular, because as we all know, we are not the best at keeping possession.

Again, I do not mean to pick on Peter Crouch—as I like him very much as a player, and as a person he seems like a thoroughly nice bloke—but Crouch has the opposite effect on England to Heskey. Where Heskey wins free-kicks, Crouch gives them away, as referees seem unable to look past his height.

With Heskey in the team, the rest of the team looks more assured. They know they can hit a long ball if necessary, and he will willingly flick it on or chase it. When Crouch plays, the long-ball does not become an option, but a necessity, in the mind of the players, and England become increasingly stretched as a result.

Yes Crouch is a bigger goal threat, but he unsettles the equilibrium of the unit. Maybe that is why "Don Fabio" is ignoring the international goal record of the Pompey man.

When Capello admitted he was unhappy with Joe Cole and Wayne Rooney after the Andorra game, it was because they were leaving Heskey isolated. Capello knew that would be the death-knell against Croatia, and that meant that Rooney and Walcott made sure they kept high up the pitch in support of him, and gave England instant returns when in possession.

Joe Cole on this occasion was asked to play a little more inside, to help Lampard and Barry cope with the dangerous Modric. It gave Corluka space, but Capello trusted that he was one of the weakest in possession for the Croats, and a couple of scary moments aside, he was right.

Ashley Cole was left with an intriguing battle with the excellent Srna, and both had their moments of superiority over the other, but Cole's stamina meant he could cover the whole left-flank at times and go beyond both Cole, and later Jenas, when England were in cruise mode.

Note that Jenas, a right footer, looked entirely comfortable on the left. Why? Because England were at ease with the system, they were confident, and so they played like they can.

Tactically, for once, England were spot on last night, just as they had been seven years earlier in Munich. Heskey was a major factor in that tactical plan. It is this tactical prowess, above all else, that Heskey provides.

He is an outlet, a cog in a wheel. There are far better strikers out there in the wide world than Emile Heskey, but very few who are as willing to sacrifice themselves for the team as much as he is.

He is the 2008 version of Nobby Stiles, a man of little natural talent, but who does a very specific job very, very well.

Many England fans will not remember that Heskey played a key role in two of the best results in our recent history, but if his tactical astuteness can help the team to greater heights in the next few years, then the name of this softly spoken Leicester giant could go down in history.

Alternatively, we might have to wait another seven years before England produce another tactical masterplan. For everyone with England in their hearts, I hope its not the latter.

We have had enough false dawns to last us a lifetime.