Written by Barney Ronay (arguably the best football journalist in the game)
So, farewell then Emile Heskey. You scored 15 goals in 111 appearances for Aston Villa. Which isn't actually that bad. By your standards. Plus, of course, you did a great deal of "other work that goes unnoticed". This will be your legacy: other work that goes unnoticed. Although, it might be quite difficult now to edit all that work that goes unnoticed into a sufficiently eye-catching highlights reel while you look for a new club. At the very least it's going to need an excellent commentary. Not specifically Heskey! Semi-Heskey! Tangentially Heskey! Perhaps, looking back, you could have done just a tiny bit more work that goes noticed. Just to balance things out.
This is, of course, intended in a spirit of affection (I also do a lot of work – so much work – that goes unnoticed) and Heskey hasn't actually retired yet. He is simply "unattached" after being released by Villa at the age of 34. It seems likely he will soon find another club, and equally likely that when this happens there will be an ambient swell of carping derision to match that which greeted news of his release.
The fact is Heskey remains an unshakably divisive figure, the mere mention of his name a kind of wincing, sighing punchline all of its own. This is unfair – but it is also significant, and with the end now near it is perhaps time to reflect that history will be if not kind, then perhaps archly sympathetic to a player who seems to express something vital about his own fevered mini-age. But what exactly?
There is no real case for Heskey revisionism. This is player who will not be Moneyballed. The missed chances, the muffs and shins and skews, stack up too deep. Above all, it is the consistency of Heskey's missing that stands out: day in, day out, right foot, left-foot, and most spectacularly with his head, where Heskey seems to have an ability to see two steps in advance exactly how the chance will be missed, allowing him to crumple into a stumbling elbow-clash, neck-wrenched, ref-waving collapse, often before the ball is even delivered.
For all this, Heskey is still a more nuanced attacker than he is given credit for. Never the classical big man who seeks to provide control of the skies, Heskey is instead a ground-weapon, his intended impact similar to the bit at the end of a game of bowls where the commentator says "Well … no real other option for Jeff here" as one last desperation-bowl is sent hurtling down, bent on total clonking destruction after all that delicate wooing of the jack.
What a vision in his pomp. Nostrils flared, thighs quivering, undulating with fearsome beefcaked momentum. Point him in the right direction, twiddle his fuse wire, and he will lay waste like a blazing fire-ship scattering the Spanish fleet.
There was great excitement at Wembley on the occasion of Heskey's first England start and during which, for about 20 minutes, he basically assaulted an unsuspecting early middle-aged Argentinian, forcing Nestor Sensini to leave the pitch after a first half of being charged and jostled and battered, a contest that resembled a rheumatic pensioner trying to control a startled horse. No actual goal resulted. But it was a vision of muscular foreigner-pummelling that seemed to speak to something basic, that innate English suspicion that footballing supremacy is actually nothing to do with homework or practice or the tiresome meritocracy of perfectible skills, but is based in simply being more ragingly possessed, more deeply infused with "belief".
And then he never did it again.There was one potent season with Liverpool and he was unstoppably his old snorting self for England in Croatia in 2008. But mainly there was a worthy congealment into the compromise of late-Emile, a paragon of earnest labour, drenched in righteous perspiration like a disappointed 1950s' matriarch furiously and unceasingly doing the washing up.
It could even be argued Heskey was one of the first "false No9s". Not one of those false No9s caught up in all sorts of diffuse and unstencilled attacking work, but instead a defensive false No9, an attacker who confuses by simply not attacking very much. You cannot mark him – because he's already marking you, seeking out the safety of the 90-minute mutual neck-wring.
This is probably the root of that enduring anti-Heskey-ism. A player who once seemed blessed with scattergun brio became instead a roundhead, a safe bet, beloved of his team-mates and successive coaching pragmatists, accruing more England caps than Robbie Fowler, Matt Le Tissier and Stan Collymore combined.
And so, despite that lovable mallet-footed persistence, his endearing honesty and heart, a wider affection-deficit remains. Heskey never did quite cross that line into English sporting anti-heroism: the cultish fanclub, the Heskey wigs, the lager-sozzled Heskey conga.
In part this is to do with the Premier League's politics of envy. It is harder to love these distant princes. Money corrodes the finer feelings and there are those who will see Heskey as an instance of remunerative absurdity, a striker who has scored 39 league goals in eight seasons while amassing a personal fortune of £13m. Mainly, though, there is that sense Heskey has serviced all too eagerly a particular English footballing vice, that deep neurosis of work-rates and bullocking imprecision. It is all too familiar, too raw.
And so he remains a folk hero manqué, starved of the rueful doofus love that might have been his due. Perhaps we will only be able to enjoy him when he's gone, to see with clarity this appealingly folk-ish figure, trapped between ancient fault-lines of footballing confusion.
Great article, I love the bowling reference, that sums him up precisely.
I also loved those couple of occasions when playing for Villa when this, by all accounts genuinely nice man, a gentle giant, completely lost it. I forget who it was against, but total red mist (I wonder what caused that).
How many times last season did we shout in disbelief - NOT HESKEY YOU FOOL!!!! As he was brought on to hold the ball up so the opposition didn't win by too many LOL.
I for one won't miss him, but I do wish him luck in the future.
The good bits? His partnership with Owen. When he could latch on to the ball he knew where Owen would be. He himself was never a goalscorer, he didn't have that instinct. But he could hold the ball up and lay it off, if there was an attacker good enough to be in the right spot. I did wonder whether him and Weimann might produce something. But in Eck's eyes that would have been an attacker too many. Or two... Or three....
I got "Heskey" on the back of my Villa shirt as my final tribute to the big man (and also as a reflection of my own footballing prowess) and I have to say me and my friends will miss him on the whole, the delirium with which we celebrated his goal against Blackburn one of last season's highlights, as well as his excellent performance against Norwich at home (subbed off to a sort-of standing ovation!)
Obviously there were low points, the miss against Man United at home from practically underneath the crossbar, and pretty much every occasion he was subbed ON while we were chasing a goal. He has become a caricature of himself now, a legend for no other reason than being the ultimate non-goalscoring forward.
Farewell Emile, it was fun while it lasted!
yeah, i will actually miss him as well.
Seems the type of player, that if we had loved him, no matter what, through thick and through thin he would have been awesome. But its as if he knew his own limitations, and we just made it worse.
i love the way that the article talks of "not having to worry about marking him, as he was already marking you!" - classic.
though in fairness he was still better than a few strikers we have had at Villa park, namely Crouch, Collymore and Baros.