Emile Heskey exudes a Zen-like calm whether discussing criticism of his goalscoring or recalling crying. The former Liverpool and England striker is at the Alderley Hotel in Cheshire to discuss his new book, Even Heskey Scored. The title was chosen because, he laughs, this is “what everyone said”.
Yet if his career numbers are low for someone who played most of his career as a No 9 – seven goals from 62 caps, 110 in 516 Premier League games – his 53 assists in the top flight is a clue to his real worth. The figure stands at only two fewer than the vaunted master-creator Paul Scholes. And when Heskey’s seventh place in the all-time appearance chart is factored in, alongside a 21-year, seven-club career that ran from 1995 to 2016 and took in Leicester City, Liverpool, Birmingham City, Wigan Athletic, Aston Villa, Newcastle Jets and Bolton Wanderers, there is further evidence of why he was so successful.
“I play for the team; it wasn’t anything that really bothered me,” Heskey says of his strike return. “I know forwards will go out and if [the team] score five and they don’t, they are fuming. I don’t care. I still got to the top 1% or whatever of the game.”
He offers a response to critics. “Your son is eight,” Heskey says. “So if I tell you by the age of 24 he would’ve represented England youth all the way through, would have made his debut at 17 and gone to three cup finals in four years for his hometown team [Leicester], then been sold for a record to Liverpool – one of the biggest clubs in the world; then he’d go on to win the treble [FA Cup, League Cup, Uefa Cup] that first season, represent England at two World Cups, in the European Championship, and play in one of England’s most memorable games to date, winning God knows, six or seven trophies by the age of 24, how would you feel?”
The international match cited is the 5-1 victory over Germany in Munich in September 2001, Heskey scoring the fifth, before performing a mock DJ-style celebration.
This highlight has top billing in what was, as he says, an impressive career. Heskey was only 18 when he was in the Leicester side that beat Crystal Palace in the 1996 First Division play-off final, drinking a full bottle of champagne afterwards, which, he writes, “finished me”.
Heskey had made his debut in the previous season under Mark McGhee but by now Martin O’Neill was manager, the Irishman proving a particular influence on Heskey. “All he asked was: ‘Son, be quick. Get it and run.’ Martin allowed me to be free and Gérard [Houllier, at Liverpool] taught me about football. I tell people, and they laugh – with Gérard you were in a meeting for hours: pitch black watching video for hours. I used to fall asleep I was so tired.”
Sven-Göran Eriksson, the England manager from 2001 to 2006, was the same. “I liked him,” Heskey says. “Very meticulous in preparation. I can’t remember him coaching. But when you go on that pitch you knew everything.”
Yet Steve McClaren, Eriksson’s successor, caused bemusement when recalling Heskey, via phone, for the first time in three years in September 2007. “He said, I’ve spoken to Michael [Owen] about you.’ It’s like – thank you but why would you?” says Heskey. “I’d played how many seasons in the Premier League – it’s not like you don’t know me. I probably have to thank Michael for getting me back into the national team.”
After Alan Shearer retired in 2000 Heskey’s pace and presence made him Owen’s strike partner for three years until Wayne Rooney’s emergence. He expresses surprise at Owen’s recent spat with Shearer - which centred on loyalty and their time together at Newcastle United – given how close they were, “laughing and joking all the time with England”.
When Heskey joined Liverpool in March 2000 the club paid a record £11m for him. By then Heskey had claimed two League Cups – in 1997 and 2000 – and been given his England debut by Kevin Keegan in a 1-1 draw with Hungary.
Yet homesickness marked his beginnings on Merseyside. “It lasted six months,” says Heskey. “I had to grow up very quickly because I had kids, I had a girlfriend. I literally laid on the floor and started crying. I was like ‘What have I done? I don’t know if I have done the right thing’. But the weirdest thing was I’d go to training and I would be all right.
“Then like a drop of a hat I found a barber, I found friends, a routine. Yes, it was a tough time but it was weird, I was silly and, looking back, you think: why didn’t you just go and sit with mates?”
The other mention of tears relates to an O’Neill rollicking. “I would’ve been a teenager,” Heskey says. “He just laid into me at Southampton away, at full-time. I was crying, but I [had] missed a few chances.”
Heskey’s honesty and self-awareness are striking and denote a particular type of intelligence. “I’m a people’s person,” he says. “I understand them [and] I’ve got a calming nature as well.” He laughs. “Even though I can lose the plot sometimes. I got sent off once in a friendly. Before, on the phone, I had a full-on argument where I’m telling this guy ‘I am coming for you’ and I guess that had something to do with me getting sent off.”
Heskey, now 41, played with a glittering array of footballers that included Scholes, David Beckham, Rooney, Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell and Steven Gerrard. While he nominates the latter as the most talented and Campbell his toughest opponent, he rates Cole the “finest” footballer of England’s so-called golden generation.
In the book there is an intriguing picture of Cole as an incessant “chain-smoker” who could still keep Cristiano Ronaldo in “his pocket”. Heskey laughs again. “I don’t know what it feels like to smoke but I couldn’t imagine that it helps you a lot,” he says.
Heskey is thoughtful on the issue of racism. His paternal grandfather was from Antigua, his maternal side from the nation’s other island, Barbuda. He writes of how his father, Tyrone, and mother, Albertine, arrived in Leicester aged 10 and had to deal with ugly discrimination which included having to read a sign that stated: “No Black, No Irish, No Dogs allowed.”
While Heskey himself was “chased from a bar” as a teenager, this season Manchester United’s Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford, Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham and Kurt Zouma and Reading’s Yakou Méïté have all been abused on Twitter.
Heskey, too, still experiences racism. “Recently I was at an airport on the way to France and I sat down there with my drink. A woman was there with her bag on the chair. She picked it up and left. You just take it with a pinch of salt and you move on,” he says. “You can’t let it affect you.”
Heskey has seven children – Jamaal, Micah and Liyah with his former partner, Kylee, and Jaden, Reigan, Milanna and Mendes with his wife, Chantelle. All will have been amused to watch the YouTube clip of him meeting Rod and Emu when their father was 11. “It was a great experience,” Heskey says. “I was on television with one of the biggest stars back then. But he kept calling me Emily.”
What, then, of the future? Heskey may have no “burning desire” to coach yet he says: “I do want to have a go.” With his relaxed demeanour and deep well of experience Heskey would surely be an asset to the game.
The Guardian Sport