Emile Heskey: The forgotten foreword
He was brutish. He was barrel-chested. He was unplayable. And not in the same way in which he is portrayed these days. Not in the sense that managers didn’t want to play him, but in that defenders didn’t want to play against him. And now he might be heading back to the place where it all began. Is Emile Heskey returning to Leicester City?
Of course, he is now seen, broadly speaking, as a bit of a joke. And yes, he may have been awful against Algeria, a lump at Liverpool and very, very poor at Villa, but he is also a Leicester legend – and he has reportedly been offered a one-year contract with the option of a second year by his first club.
We could run through facts – the teenage debut at Loftus Road in the Premier League; the international caps at all levels; the three-figure haul of top flight goals; the trophies; the major tournaments with England – but that would read like a blue-tinted biography. Instead, this is a celebration of Heskey’s glorious beginnings in anticipation of a fond farewell.
Heskey was the spearhead of the Martin O’Neill era, a bustling youngster who took on entire opposition defences single-handedly. Don’t take it from me – take it from someone smaller and angrier than me. Gordon Strachan, then manager of Coventry City, once said that he had “waged a one-man war against our back four” after Heskey’s brilliant solo strike sealed a 1-0 win at Highfield Road.
It didn’t happen every week, but it was regular enough to win adoration from the Filbert Street faithful. On one occasion when Arsenal came to visit, he ran half the length of the pitch before drilling the ball low under David Seaman. He wasn’t biased when it came to the north London neighbours either, regularly tormenting Tottenham Hotspur to the point where some even began to speculate that Stuart Nethercott and Ramon Vega weren’t world-class defenders.
While at Leicester, a succession of strike partners benefited from the hold-up play that would later bewitch Gerard Houllier, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello. The names were less glamorous: Iwan Roberts; Steve Claridge; Tony Cottee. But the tantalisingly brief pinnacle came when Stanley Victor Collymore rolled into town. After forming an awkward triumvirate alongside Cottee at Watford, Heskey and Collymore’s one and only game playing together in a front two took place in a home game against Sunderland. Before long, this happened:
Collymore went on to net a hat-trick with Heskey also on the scoresheet in a 5-2 victory. It was a teasing taster; a tasty teaser of what could now be possible for Leicester City with two destructive centre-forwards working in combination. At the other end of the pitch, another deadly duo of the day – Mackems strikers Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips – watched on in admiration.
But before Heskey and Collymore could add to the four goals they had already produced, the former was sold to Liverpool for £11million. In fairness, this was not a surprise – a move to Anfield had long been in the offing and Collymore was essentially signed as his replacement. It was still a major disappointment, even allowing for the gigantic transfer fee. Especially when that fee was subsequently squandered by Peter Taylor on poor players, contributing to Leicester ending their spell as a top ten Premier League club and heading for financial ruin.
If those millions had been better spent, there would have been no need for the period of administration that blighted the club in the 2002/03 season. There were several other factors that led to this situation but things came full circle to a certain extent when Heskey contributed a six-figure sum towards the rescue plan headed by another Belvoir Drive graduate, Gary Lineker.
Names such as O’Neill and Lineker roll off the tongue in connection with Leicester City, but Heskey deserves his place alongside them. In fact, the O’Neill era ran almost in complete parallel with Heskey’s time in the first team.
“I have very fond memories of playing for him”, said Heskey when faced with the prospect of a reunion with his former manager at Aston Villa. “I played for four seasons with him at Leicester and they were four great seasons – we were always finishing in the top half of the Premier League table.”
This seems a long time ago now, but there was always a flicker of hope that Heskey wouldn’t leave it at those four years; that he would return to sign off with his hometown club. He is a very different player now. The startling pace is no longer there and his career trajectory is now spiralling downward rather than rising higher. But even if his mooted return is not a successful one, Emile Heskey is in no danger of spoiling his Leicester City legacy.