Forgotten man Heskey provides spark that fires Owen

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The Independent Online

For a player who so often looks more than a little careworn, it's amazing the destressing effect that Emile Heskey has had on the England squad. One glance at his strike partner for the past two games, Michael Owen, confirms that. For all of Owen's protestations that he has a "strong mind to come back better than ever" from his injuries, it has been the return of Heskey that has provided the spark.

After Wednesday evening's uplifting victory over Russia both men were emphatic in their praise of each other. It was the kind of endorsement that shows that partnerships are not simply a case of putting the two best players together. There is chemistry and complementarity too.

After 37 months out of the squad, and with the England coach, Steve McClaren, emphatically ruling out a return just three weeks ago, the rehabilitation of Heskey has been remarkable even if he protests that he always felt there might be an opportunity. "The manager showed that with bringing back David Beckham, and naming Sol Campbell, and bringing back David James as well, there are chances there. So you can never give up," Heskey said. "I never thought my chance had gone. I can't really think like that, I always believed in my ability, so you've just got to wait for the manager when he needs you."

Despite his claim, the 29-year-old has not always appeared as one who has such self-belief and, even after two such strong performances, he remained circumspect about his prospects. "It's just nice to have options for the manager," he said when asked whether he expected to retain his place. "Wayne Rooney coming back, Peter Crouch, and then you've got Andy Johnson, Jermain Defoe. We've got so many different options."

No option, however, appears to suit Owen as perfectly as Heskey which, given the fact the pair have played together since the England Under-18s, as well as at club level for a time at Liverpool, is no great surprise. "We benefit from each other's style," said Heskey who, by way of evidence, need provide little more than Exhibit A: the role he played in Owen's second goal against the Russians.

"With Michael you know he only needs half a chance to score a goal, and he's definitely going to test the goalkeeper," Heskey said. "And that is why he's chasing records, and he's got records, and he's doing it from a very young age, so he's never going to change. For me, I knew I could fit back into the side regardless, but for the team it's been brilliant, because there was pressure on us going into the games."

The six points, and six goals, have lifted that and, for Owen, with three of those strikes, there was confirmation he can continue to be England's leading striker for years to come. "I am hoping my best years are ahead of me at international level," he said. "I am still young. I have a long time to go before I start falling away. I am only 27. I have good times ahead."

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