Here’s a question for you. Which former England striker is often labelled as one of the worst strikers ever to play for his country and to grace the Premier League?
The answer if you haven’t already worked it judging by the title of this article is none other than Aston Villa’s Emile Heskey.
Now just to set a record straight here – and it’s something I’ve always maintained to my friends, and family for a number of years – I am a fan (if that’s the right word) of Heskey. Yes as incredible as it sounds Heskey is a player that I’ve always liked ever since he burst on the scene at Leicester City.
Under Martin O’Neil, Heskey showed a lot of potential and had the makings to be a top class player in the Premier League and for England.
He was getting noticed by England as well and impressed in the U21’s linking up well with a certain Michael Owen as the two rekindled their form up front from where they’d left of in younger age categories’ for England.
As most of you will know Heskey went onto became a huge part of O’Neil’s side at Filbert Street and after making two appearances for England moved to Anfield in March 2000 to join Owen’s Liverpool.
After adjusting to life at Anfield in the second half of the 1999/2000 season, Heskey kicked on the following season and played a huge part in the Liverpool side that won a cup treble the following season scoring 22 goals in all competitions.
By now Heskey it seemed was fulfilling his potential and he was now first choice in partnering Owen for both club and country. Despite his form the previous season he had strangely perhaps failed to convince Gerard Houiller (who would later manage him at Villa) that he could score the goals required to win Liverpool the title and Nicolas Anelka was brought in January on-loan to support Owen.
That decision by Houiller was important as Heskey was then switched more to the wing in order to hold up the ball more and be abit more unselfish and play to the strengths of the team.
It could be argued that he was already doing that with Owen who at the time was the best English striker about, but with El Hadji Diouf and Milan Baros being given a run up top, Heskey was the sacrificial lamb so to speak and was moved out wide where he could be as effective as before.
Whilst this decision was done to benefit the team, it didn’t benefit Heskey and in his final couple of seasons at Anfield, his form nose-dived and he at least on the pitch appeared a player who wasn’t playing to his potential.
Houllier’s decision to move Heskey out wide (where he didn’t let himself down) was picked up by Sven-Goran Eriksson who whilst not moving Heskey out wide so to speak, made sure that he played more of a ‘supporting’ role for England.
In truth Heskey’s never been able to get out of this ‘rut’ so to speak and ever since about 2003 has played that role for both club and country ever since. Sadly it’s earned him a bad reputation as a poor forward and whilst he was never a ‘fox in the box’ type of forward, it would be fair to say his finishing over the last 7-8 years has not been inspired to say the least.
The question is though: If Heskey had signed for us would he have fulfilled his potential that he showed whilst at Leicester?
It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Forgetting the fact that at the time when he signed for Liverpool, we already had four excellent strikers who had all played their part in our treble winning season the year before, there’s no doubt in my mind Heskey’s reputation would not be what is today had he signed for us.
In no way am I saying that I’d have wanted us to sign him at the time. It’s just that I think Sir Alex would have brought out the best in him and made him the powerful striker that arguably he should have been for the last 6-7 years.
There’s no doubt that sometimes players at the highest level rely on confidence in order to play their best football. You would only have to look at someone like Rooney last season, who after he came back into the side following his time out through injury last season took around 4-5 weeks to even look like half the player we know he could be.
I am in no way saying that Heskey could have grown to become a ‘Drogba’ type player at us who would’ve steam-rolled defenders in the Premier League and in Europe, nor am I saying that his resultant form would have definitely made him more prolific for England.
I just think that at United playing under the best manager English football has ever seen in Sir Alex Ferguson, a very different Heskey would have left his mark on the game and he certainly as a result would not have been the ‘butt’ of most football fans’ jokes today.
There is no doubt with his physical build; he should have achieved alot more than he’s done in the game. It’s sad that despite scoring 109 goals in the Premier League that people are often surprised that he’s scored that many and laugh about him.
Perhaps as other people have suggested, Heskey was always destined to be the ‘support striker’ at whatever level he has played at and was never ‘mean’ or ‘selfish’ (if they’re the right words) to be the no.1 striker who teams played for to bring out the best in him.
Maybe therefore I’m wrong for thinking Heskey would have done better at Old Trafford, but it’s still a thought that crosses my mind – as strange as it may seem for fellow United fans.
Perhaps the encouragement he’d have gained at United to play to his potential and the support he’d have got on and off the field from the characters in our team like Roy Keane and Gary Neville might have really made him become the ‘force’ that he should have been. Who knows?
By Adam Dennehey - @ADennehey87