For the brief period in which England were in the lead against Germany at Wembley last month, for the short time during which the home fans felt some small measure of optimism, a song raised itself in the voices of the English support. It was intended to mock and belittle the German visitors and it referred to England's famous victory in Munich in September 2001. "5-1," went the song, "Even Heskey scored."
Even Heskey scored. In those three words was the humiliation designed to have an impact on German football fans. They might be immersed in a different football culture, but you just knew that even the Germans would get the joke in that song. Even they would realise the implied point: that a 5-1 defeat to England at home that included a goal from Emile Heskey was worse than just any 5-1 defeat.
England's home support will have to change their tune come Saturday because the big man is back.
Emile William Ivanhoe Heskey is not just back in the England squad but, at 29 years old and with more than three years since his last cap, he is more than likely to start against Israel at Wembley. Steve McClaren has been accused of being backward-looking by reprieving David Beckham, David James and Sol Campbell. Heskey belongs to an even more distant part of the Sven Goran Eriksson era. It begs the question: who next? A 48th cap for Sir Trevor Brooking perhaps?
Heskey is one of those English sportsmen unique to this country. A man who was condemned more for his stoic willingness to accept criticism without a whisper of protest than his propensity to fight it. A giant of a striker whom the nation were desperate to see become the bully his size suggested he could be and who never had the personality required to defend himself. In the end he was far too gentle for that, and when Wayne Rooney appeared on the scene in 2003, Heskey was ushered off the international stage without a murmur.
His return to the England squad has been met with the disbelief that has constantly plagued him but Heskey has always suffered from an image problem: quite simply he was not as bad as some people would have you believe. The season in which his career began its decline, 2003-04, was difficult for so many reasons. As Gérard Houllier's Liverpool went into decline Heskey was switched to midfield, rarely playing a full 90 minutes in attack. For his country he was up against the prodigy Rooney on whom the country had unreasonably pinned all their hopes and expectations for Euro 2004.
As usual, Heskey bore the brunt of it in silence. He had been Eriksson's first-choice in attack alongside Owen virtually since the Swede took over in January 2001, although you never got the impression that Heskey was particularly taken with his status as one of England's two leading strikers. Some England internationals regard their place in the national team as their defining achievement. Heskey occasionally looked like he could do without the hassle, especially those miserable nights like against Slovakia in Bratislava in October 2002 when England's black players were racially abused by the home fans. He was uncomfortable talking about the issue despite encouragement from the Football Association.
If anything, Heskey's perceived failure to fulfil his undoubted potential embodies something wider about the frustrations of English football. Just like Heskey the player, the English look upon their national team and see strength, power and the capacity for great success. Then, on the night, it never quite happens. It was ever thus with Heskey, a real talent whose best goalscoring season remains his first full year at Liverpool in the 2000-2001 season when he scored 22 goals.
When I interviewed Heskey during his first season at Birmingham City after leaving Liverpool he was philosophical about the criticism he had endured from Houllier in his final months at Liverpool, and the occasional derision from England fans.
"I am an easy target because I am not going to say anything back, am I?" he said. And that is McClaren's great advantage, he can bring Heskey back into the Israel game and, when Peter Crouch comes back, move the Wigan striker out against Russia without fear of protest from the man himself.
There is no time for hand-wringing on the state of English football with so much at stake over the next three months. McClaren tried playing two smaller, quick strikers against Israel in Tel Aviv in March – Rooney and Andy Johnson – and it failed. He played a big man, Crouch, alongside Owen against Estonia in June with more positive results and it is that combination that he envisages with Heskey on Saturday. Alan Smith's attempts at filling the target-man role against Brazil and Germany have been an unmitigated failure.
Owen's voice has been heard by McClaren in this debate and for England's blue-eyed boy there is no better partner than Heskey: he works tirelessly, his ego is non-existent and he is never likely to overshadow his more celebrated team-mate. In their 12 starts together for England, Owen has scored 11 goals alongside Heskey – who has scored four in that partnership – which is just the way Owen likes it.
There are those in the game who argue that Heskey's touch is comparable, for instance, with that of Didier Drogba – the real difference being that Drogba plays with such confidence and panache. The other being that Chelsea are on television a lot more often than Wigan Athletic. Whether he likes it or not, Heskey is back in centre-stage again, once more asked to be his country's reluctant hero.Reuse content