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Heskey no longer a Villain

By Alec Shilton



Emile Heskey had the pleasure of a rare scenario last week. His arrival at is being greeted with the warmest of welcomes by fans of his new club.

A-League outfit Newcastle Jets have signed the 34-year-old on a one-year deal and promptly shifted their entire batch of shirts with Heskey’s name and number 9 emblazoned on the back. 5,000 more have been ordered. Incredibly an additional 1,000 members joined the club, too.

Australian football is enjoying an exciting period with Alessandro Del Piero committing to two years with Sydney FC. It seems ironic that the two high profile signings for the league are two forwards of stunningly stark contrast with the diminutive Italian exuding grace and guile and the Englishman is renowned for, well, not a lot of grace and not a lot of guile.

But in his pomp Heskey was truly a sight to behold. He gained recognition at international level via powerful performances for Leicester City he managed to combine an almost freakish work rate with something that has long since deserted him. Goals. How many toe-pokes over the have sailed high, wide and handsomely past metallic frameworks to diminish memories of a stunning left-footed piledriver against Arsenal or a looping effort from distance against Southampton? And what about a first Wembley start against Argentina that was of such physicality that it forced veteran Nestor Sensini from the field before half-time. But, yes, this was all some time ago and if you go looking for footage of these particular performances, you’ll be watching Emile Ivanhoe Heskey gracing stadia that have long since been knocked down.

It became his badge of honour that his play seldom reaped any rewards directly for himself. Often it was due to personal sacrifice although more often it looked just like sheer ineptitude. Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney both named Heskey as preferred playing partners at different points in his playing career. The Leicester-born forward tore around the park running channels, helping out defensively and becoming the target of almost every goal kick from his own area. It often went against him with officials, men in black deeming that he had often unfairly brutalised opponents when in reality it looked as though they just could not handle him. The team ethic didn’t go unnoticed by England managers, Sven Goran Eriksson in particular, who opted to deploy Heskey on the left flank. It was mostly due to England’s lack of a genuine left winger that has plagued them for over two decades but he didn’t do badly for a player with seemingly none of the traits required of an international number 11. Of course none of this was his own fault. Better players than Heskey retired from England duty for being shoe-horned onto the left side of England’s midfield.

He forged a partnership with Owen at Anfield – costing Liverpool around £11million – that yielded a satisfactory goal ratio of his own of around one for every three appearances. Not a bad return for a forward primarily utilised to unsettle defenders and create the space and uncertainty that allowed his partners with superior finishing qualities to steal the headlines.

When the starting berths dried up in a red shirt, Heskey moved to St Andrew’s where the goal ratio dropped off to about one in five. Birmingham’s relegation meant a move to Wigan to ensure top flight football and here the goal record was similar with 15 scored from 82 games. But still the reputation as an unselfish thoroughbred ensured a move to Aston Villa. The move meant a reunion with Martin O’Neill under whose tutelage he had flourished at Filbert Street earlier in his career.

At that point in O’Neil’s Villa tenure, the Northern Irishman could do no wrong. The signing of Heskey – a figure of derision in B6 when leading their rivals’ forward line – was perhaps a move that few managers might have got away with at the club. Minutes into his Villa debut at Fratton Park, Heskey exchanged flick-ons with Gabby Agbonlahor before leaving the man-mountainous Sol Campbell for dead and cracking a technically superb effort beyond David James the edge of the area. The fans sang: “he used to be s***e but now he’s alright,” as they walked in their Heskey wonderland.

Newcastle Jets begin their season on Sunday against Adelaide United and their fans will be hoping Heskey makes the same kind of impact he did on his Villa debut. But they’ll be hoping that from then on, Heskey’s services are more fruitful than his one-in-ten record at Villa suggests.

Jets coach Gary van Egmond is confident that Heskey will thrill their supporters. “The members and supporters are going to be able to see him in the flesh 12 or 13 games this year, so, from that point of view, the fans are very, very fortunate.” A fair few fans that have parted with cash at Villa Park, among other grounds, for the pleasure of witnessing Heskey’s talents might beg to differ. But van Egmond did provide a caveat, alluding to his experience and attitude.

“From a holistic view, what Emile brings to the club is invaluable,” he said. After all, he never was all about the goals.