Under-appreciated forward heads down under

7 October ~ Now that Emile Heskey is playing in Australia having failed to find a suitable offer closer to home, the time is right to reassess what became of him. The forlorn figure who blundered along at Villa Park bore such little resemblance to the explosive talent capable of barrelling through defences in his Leicester days. Despite an impressive record of 117 Premier League goals, 62 England caps and appearances in two World Cups, there won't be many mourning Heskey’s departure. His release from Aston Villa at the end of last season was hardly a surprise.

Twenty-nine appearances, many as a substitute, and in midfield rather than attack, yielded a solitary goal. Such fallow strike records have been the bane of Heskey’s life, his contribution to general play continually overlooked in favour of the headline statistic.

Throughout his career Heskey has worked selflessly to get the best out of others, Michael Owen most memorably, then Wayne Rooney in his England renaissance. The most instructive example of Heskey’s evolution can be seen in Martin O’Neill’s use of him as an attacking focal point at Leicester, before he became a foil for Gabriel Agbonlahor when they were reunited at Villa. While never an especially composed finisher, his profligacy became more pronounced as the years wore on and he was forced to play further from goal.

Any mention of Heskey now seems to lead inevitably to laughter at his expense. The unwitting victim of a football culture which can condense an entire career into a single moment of unrepresentative incompetence, it somehow seems entirely appropriate that when you type in his name on Google one of the search terms it offers up is “Emile Heskey jokes”. Although hardly in the same league as Ronnie Rosenthal, who we instinctively associate with his crossbar clanger, Heskey’s attempted step-over against Algeria endures in perpetuity. He performed the move seemingly in slow motion, falling over his own feet before shanking the ball high into the stands.

His selection in the England squad for the 2010 World Cup was a source of constant mirth and ill-considered opinion. A diverse range of managers, at domestic and international level, including O’Neill, Gérard Houllier, Sven-Göran Eriksson, Steve Bruce and Fabio Capello have appreciated his efforts, but football fans in general failed to take Heskey to their hearts. He seems to serve as a painful reminder of our misplaced faith in the merits of the big man. The irony is that Heskey didn’t start out this way – he was a veritable powerhouse who didn’t play with his back to goal. That his style changed over time was England’s loss as well as his own.

At least he is, in the main, fondly thought of by fans of the clubs he played for. There was the season where he broke the 20-goal barrier at Liverpool, a hat-trick against Derby that included a thumping 30-yarder, the excellent run and clipped finish against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Super Cup final (a throwback to his former abilities). There was also the time that he helped keep Wigan up on the final day of the season by putting in a dominant display at centre-back.

After representing five clubs with varying degrees of success in 516 top-flight appearances, Heskey should be something of a Premier League icon. Instead he is our target man in an entirely different sense. Even when his greatest moment in an England shirt was immortalised in song, it was with a cruel twist: “5-1 and even Heskey scored”. Retreating to Australia at the age of 34 has at least given him the chance for a final flourish away from the boo-boys. Sean Cole

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