Football: Heskey has whole world at his feet

NEW FACES FOR '97: Leicester City's teenage prodigy likes to keep himself to himself but soon everyone will want a piece of him. Phil Shaw met the striker who is following in Gary Lineker's footsteps at Filbert Street
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As he strides towards the sponsored car which sports his name in fancy script on the door, the pounds 5m- rated striker shoots a sympathetic glance at the trainee who is scrubbing mud off the senior players' boots after their morning practice.

It could be a clip from Trading Places, and in a sense it is, except that this scene is from the life of Emile Heskey rather than Eddie Murphy. Barely 15 months ago he was there with the other Leicester City YT boys, dipping his brush in a bucket of murky water on cold mornings at the training ground.

Now that pounds 42-a-week existence has been exchanged for the rather better paid role of British football's most coveted teenager. So many clubs want to relieve Leicester of Heskey's services that Martin O'Neill, the manager, has persuaded him to sign a contract with the club until 1999.

He does not celebrate his 19th birthday until tomorrow, yet already he is on course to join Gary Lineker, Walker's Crisps and Englebert Humperdinck as the biggest things to come out of Leicester. He has two England Under- 21 caps, is good with both feet (though better on his left), strong in the air and possesses pace, power and skill. So what's the catch? The answer, so far, is that there isn't one. Unlike those contemporaries whose brattish excesses range from tiresome practical jokes to brawling in burger bars, the gently spoken Heskey is a manager's dream. He lives with parents who, like O'Neill, refer to his equable temperament and willingness to oblige. "Emile does what he's told," his father Tyrone said. "He's not the sort you have to pull out of night-clubs at one in the morning."

Moreover, Heskey's progress is being overseen by Jon Holmes, the agent whose handling of Lineker's career has earned a reputation for integrity in a profession not always associated with that quality.

Heskey appears destined to be compared with Lineker, even if his combination of muscularity and deftness is actually more reminiscent of Cyrille Regis. Apart from the Holmes connection, their wholesome images and distinctive middle names (Gary Winston and Emile Ivanhoe), they attended the same school, City of Leicester, and made the breakthrough with their home-town team.

Whereas Lineker was 18 when his debut came, Heskey was only 16. In one of his earliest games, after Mark McGhee had sent him on at Norwich, Heskey obliged with the winner. Later last season, with Leicester struggling after another bout of managerial upheaval, he scored twice to seal a symbolic victory at McGhee's new club, Wolves, which eased the pressure on O'Neill.

He finished with seven goals to help Leicester into the Premiership via the play-offs. Then it was off to play in the European Youth Championships before coming back to score six goals in the first half of the current campaign. "When I was 15 the most I thought I'd be getting at this stage was a run in the reserves," Heskey said. "I realise that young players can do too much too quickly and then burn out, but I'm confident that won't happen to me.

"Now and then, after I've been up against a really hard defender who keeps snapping at your heels like Colin Hendry or Martin Keown, I've felt really tired and wondered if I needed a break. Then again, I think that's pretty normal at this level."

Why not further his education at one of the big clubs? "Well I'm from Leicester and I only lived down the road from this place, even though I supported Liverpool as a boy and hero-worshipped John Barnes. The way I look at it is that I couldn't be playing higher than the Premiership anyway, and by living at home I can keep my feet on the ground with my family and friends around me."

By his own admission he is "a bit of a shy type who keeps himself to himself". All that changes on the pitch - those who saw his duel with Jason McAteer on Boxing Day could testify that Heskey does not lack devil - although he eschews the flamboyant celebrations favoured by the forwards he cites as role models, Ian Wright and Dwight Yorke.

Both would have been proud to claim the goal Heskey scored from long range against Southampton (his personal favourite) or the venomous volley which finished off Manchester United in the Coca-Cola Cup. Neither would be quite as ready, one suspects, to fill in at wing-back or in midfield, as Heskey has done more than once.

His part in Leicester's other goal against United confirmed his class. With a beautifully cushioned back-heeled flick he set up a stunning strike by Steve Claridge. Holmes recalled: "Claridge picked him up and lifted him up to the crowd as if to say: `I scored it, but he made it'."

The watching Lineker described Heskey's display as "awesome". He added: "What impresses me is that he improves every time I watch him. The last time I'd seen him live was in the play-off final, so I wasn't really ready for the improvement in him.

"He's got tremendous talent and potential. The important thing now is that he keeps learning. Leicester are my club, close to my heart, but I do think that he's outstanding. They can't go out and buy an Alan Shearer but they've got one of their own."

Heskey acknowledges that the facts of football economics mean he will almost certainly leave Filbert Street in the long run. His ambitions, apart from helping Leicester to establish themselves in the top flight, are "to play in the full England team and for a top club at home or in Spain or Italy".

Which just happens to be the career path of one G Lineker. Scrubbing the stars' footwear, which Heskey remembers as "hard work", may prove to have been the perfect preparation for following in their footsteps.