What’s so funny? Remembering an underrated striker.

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By @DanielFieldsend

The man in question has been capped 62 times for England (that’s more than Gazza, Trevor Brooking, Glenn Hoddle & Ray Clemence). He played for his country in 3 different decades, won 8 major honours and featured in 2 World Cups. His name is more likely to spark choruses of sarcastic laughter nowadays, but Emile Heskey has had the sort of career that many strikers can only dream of.

If you’re the type of person to chortle at his mention, then you’re probably also the sort of football fan who draws guidance from LAD Bibles and gains insight from tabloids. Heskey in his heyday possessed all the qualities that would make a contemporary football club part with millions for his services.

He was good in the air, excellent at both playing the ‘9’ role and breaking the defensive line. His work rate was good and ten years ago he had pace in abundance. His downfall came when the pace of the Premier League increased, his declined. Many players would have resigned to obscure leagues and cashed in on their legacies, yet Emile was too proud for his own good, he aged in the public eye and allowed for his reputation to become depressingly comic.

Coming through the ranks at Leicester City, Heskey flourishing under Martin O’Neill’s tutelage, scoring ten goals in his first full season in the top flight and receiving a senior England call up from Glenn Hoddle. In 1999, Leeds United had a £10m bid rejected for Emile’s services, as O’Neill was desperate to keep hold of his promising striker. Goals were deemed a problem for Heskey considering his position, yet far-sighted managers recognised how his role was beneficial for the team. With his back to goal, Heskey was part of an insurgent band of strikers who were allowing their teams to retain possession: Flo, Quinn and Julio Cruz to name a few.

After helping Leicester to win the League Cup in both ’97 and 2000, Heskey persuaded Gerard Houllier that he was the man to take Liverpool up a level. Ian Rush stated at the time that Heskey would give Liverpool a “different dimension” and he was right. His partnership with Owen was Liverpool’s latest telepathic, little and large duo, comparable to the successful Keegan and Toshack strikerforce of the 1970′s. Heskey complimented Owen’s game so much so that it eventually forced out club legend Robbie Fowler in 2001. Michael Owen scored 99 goals in all competitions for the Reds whilst playing alongside Heskey, over a four year stretch.

Emile was tasked with providing a plentiful of goals for Liverpool’s two young wonders – Owen and Gerrard – and was a major contributor to Owen’s 2001 Ballon d’Or triumph. This followed Liverpool’s famous treble in which Emile scored twenty-two goals along the way. In the FA Cup final, Liverpool adopted a counter-attacking style of play, with Heskey attempting to pull out Tony Adams, leaving Owen with the straightforward task of outpacing Martin Keown. En route to the UEFA Cup final (which was to be Liverpool’s first post-Heysel European trophy) Heskey bestowed three goals as Liverpool out-muscled Liberec, Olympiacos, Roma, Porto, Barcelona and finally Alaves. He proved a handful for soon-to-be legendary defenders such as Cafu, Walter Samuel, Frank de Boer, Carles Puyol & Jorge Andrade (God knows I hate to name drop). The not-so hilarious Emile also scored in England’s famous 5-1 thrashing of Germany in 2001. Later, Liverpool beat European champions Bayern Munich in the 2002 Super Cup, with Heskey scoring the Reds second.

His star had never been higher, unfortunately at the preceding 2002 World Cup his only headline was to be the racial abuse that he and team-mate Ashley Cole suffered against Slovakia.

Heskey’s career started to decline following his release from Liverpool at the start of the 2004/05 season. Nobody told him this though, and at Birmingham City he won their ‘Player of the Season’ award in his first year, finishing as the clubs top scorer. After their relegation the following season, Heskey signed for Wigan Athletic for £5.5m. Here he reached the celebrated Premier League landmark of 500 appearances (the 6th player to do so following Giggs, David James, Speed, Sol Campbell & Carragher). A move to Aston Villa followed for £3.5m – making his total costs to date £20m. Against all odds Emile forced his way back into the England squad under Fabio Capello, who eventually picked him for the 2010 World Cup. His penultimate adieu came at the tournament as he put in a quality performance against the United States, answering a growing batch of critics.

With all this in mind, the next time you’re down the local and hear a snigger at Heskey’s expense, please ask the jester ‘what’s so funny?’