Heskey keeps eyes on prize

After three years in the international wilderness, the striker has proved to Fabio Capello that he has what it takes to help England reach the World Cup finals. He tells Sam Wallace how he did it
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The Independent Football

"There's only one Emile Heskey/He used to be shite/But now he's all right/Walking in a Heskey wonderland"

England fans in Almaty, 6 June, 2009

It says something for the temperament of Emile Heskey that when the song sung about him by fans of England, Aston Villa and his former club Wigan Athletic comes up in conversation he can shrug, smile and take it in his stride.

"Fans are going to be fans," Heskey said yesterday, at England's Grove hotel outside Watford. "They're going to call you names one week, then not know who you are the next. That song's been around for a long time. Birmingham first made that up when I signed for them. Then it went to Wigan, now to Villa. Now England. I like it. I've had all sorts, haven't I."

The big man who is back in the England team might not be in the starting XI come tomorrow night against Andorra but not because he is being dropped. Rather Heskey might well be left out because another booking would mean he missed the game against Croatia on 9 September. He has become too valuable in Fabio Capello's eyes to miss a big qualification game that could clinch England's path to the 2010 World Cup finals.

In an England career that began more than ten years ago, Heskey, 31, really has – as he says himself – "had all-sorts" including an exile from the England team that began almost five years ago today. When, on 13 June, 2004, Heskey gave away the free-kick from which Zinedine Zidane scored the equaliser in France's 2-1 victory over England at Euro 2004, he could hardly have known what was about to follow.

Sven Goran Eriksson only ever picked him for a squad once again, in March 2005 for World Cup qualifiers against Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan, but Heskey did not play for England for more than three years after the France game. His comeback was when Steve McClaren selected him for the 3-0 win against Israel at Wembley in September 2007, and under Capello he finds himself in vogue once again.

"No, it wasn't explained why I was left out," Heskey said. "It was a bit of a strange one but you take that as it is. If the manager doesn't have time to talk to you, he doesn't have time. I just carried on with my game. You're going to feel harshly treated if the manager doesn't explain to you why you're not playing or why you're not in the squad, or whatever.

"But he's got how many players to choose from in the country? Can he go to every one, I don't know? I gave away the free-kick against France but I went on to the field with instructions, I tried to go with what they said. I was told to play behind the front man, and that's what I tried to do.

"It went to 1-1 at the time. Someone's got to take the blame. It could have been [someone else], but it was me. It could have been dealt with a bit better, but he [Eriksson] did have a lot of players to talk to, so it was difficult to say he was going to speak to 30 or 40 players individually."

About ten minutes after he had said those words, Heskey came back into the room to say that he hoped no one was interpreting that as a criticism of Eriksson. It is the kind of bloke he is off the pitch, very softly-spoken and non-confrontational – a player who always hints that his happiest days were when he played for his home-town team Leicester City as a teenager. Is he an easy target for managers?

"I don't know whether I was an easy target to leave out of the squad," he said. "I don't complain. Complaining? You get on with your game and let that do the talking. I don't think I should have gone to the 2006 World Cup at the time. The lads had established themselves in the qualifying campaign, and they deserved to be there. I never gave up, though. I always wanted to get back into the squad and always knew I would."

The problem with Heskey is the sheer lack of goals. He has scored seven goals in 53 caps for England, a woeful strike rate compared to Peter Crouch (15 in 33) and Wayne Rooney (22 in 51) and his goal against Kazakhstan on Saturday was his first in a competitive game for England in seven years. He said that record never played on his mind and he is so laid-back that you have to believe him.

When he was out of the England squad, he would often come to watch games as a fan and his philosophy on how to behave towards the referee on the pitch is a pretty good one for the whole of his career. "[Not complaining], that's a strength," he said. "Complaining isn't going to get much out of the ref, so you might as well shut up and go again."