It ended in a blaze of anonymity. When the final whistle went in Bloemfontein to signal England's embarrassed exit from the World Cup finals, the No 21, in his long-sleeved red shirt, bowed his head and pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose as if seeking to relieve a nagging pain. He had been on the pitch at the Free State Stadium for 19 minutes and had made next to no impact; Emile Heskey's last hurrah.
Yesterday's announcement by Heskey that he was calling time on his international career may have plunged a nation into mourning, but Scotland have had enough laughs at their neighbour's expense over the last few weeks to get over it. The decision ends an England career that began 11 years ago on a spring evening in Budapest and has meandered through 62 caps, two World Cup finals, two European Championship finals, six managers and seven goals.
It is that last figure that will be held against him. It is one fewer than Jose Luis Chilavert of Paraguay managed and he kept goal. There were moments in Bloemfontein when a familiar defiant song arose from the massed ranks in red and white: "5-1 and even Heskey scored."
It was nine years ago in Munich that Heskey scored the first of his three competitive goals for his country on England's night of nights (and false dawn of false dawns as it turned out). In the 2002 World Cup finals he scored against Denmark and in the qualifiers for South Africa against Kazakhstan. The others came in friendlies; against Malta, Spain, South Africa and, after six years without an international goal, against Slovakia. There will be those who hold Heskey up as all that was flawed with the ill-named "golden generation"; a striker who couldn't score goals.
Yesterday also saw a true striking force of a true golden generation call it a day, with Thierry Henry ending his French career after 51 goals in 123 games. Henry won the World Cup and European Championship with France, but there have been fewer highlights recently. His handball against Ireland that assisted France's passage to South Africa and their subsequent implosion made for an ignominious finale for Les Bleus' most prolific goalscorer.
"It's not only about individuals," said Henry yesterday as he spoke about the problems that have beset the French squad of late. It is a line that Heskey's protectors would cite in his defence.
While his international goalscoring record is poor in the extreme – Peter Crouch, who has been consistently left on the bench by Fabio Capello, has already scored three times as many – there was definitely something about Emile William Ivanhoe Heskey beyond a memorable name and impressive physique, something that prompted six successive England managers to pick him and the likes of Gérard Houllier, Martin O'Neill and Steve Bruce to pay millions of pounds to secure his talents. He has a combined transfer fee of more than £26m.
Apart from one season at Liverpool when he collected 23 goals – 2000-01 – Heskey has never been a reliable scorer. Houllier is among his biggest fans, citing the number of goals he is involved in as the true measure of his worth. In Rustenburg, it was Heskey's cute touch that set up Steven Gerrard to open the scoring against the United States.
For club and country his best performances have come when in partnership with Michael Owen, the classic little and large pairing. From the moment they first took the field together in an England shirt for the Under-18s the pair thrived, and when Heskey moved to Anfield to play his club football alongside Owen it sparked the best form of the big man's career. He has never, though, managed to perform consistently alongside Wayne Rooney.
His place in the England side has seemingly always invited debate. After Euro 2004 he was banished for three years before Steve McClaren recalled him and Capello has surprised many by dogmatically sticking with Heskey almost to the bitter end. He was one of the better players against the US but was finally dropped after a dire outing against Algeria. When his large, athletic frame appeared on the touchline against Germany with England 4-1 down, you could almost hear the collective groan around the country.
"He's a tremendous lad, great with the rest of the players and a very hard-working individual," said Brad Friedel, his Aston Villa team-mate yesterday. And that would seem to sum up the Pacific-sized gap in opinion over the 32-year-old. To his team-mates, and manager, he does an unglamorous job efficiently, allowing others to play.
"I have enjoyed every moment of my England career," he said yesterday. Unfortunately, it is a sentiment he is probably alone in holding.
6 After scoring six goals in 16 games for England Under-21s, Heskey was given his debut by Kevin Keegan in the 1-1 draw with Hungary in April 1999, aged 21
7 He scored his first goal for England in his seventh appearance – the 2-1 friendly win against Malta in June 2000
4 Heskey has represented England in four major tournaments: the 2000 and 2004 European Championships and the 2002 and 2010 World Cups
3 After Euro 2004, Heskey was out of the national team for three years before being called up by Steve McClaren
10 Heskey has only completed the full 90 minutes for England on 10 occasions
2 Two goalkeepers have scored more goals at international level than Heskey: the Colombian Rene Higuita and Jose Luis Chilavert, of Paraguay, have both scored eight
England's lowest-scoring forwards
1. Emile Heskey (7 goals in 62) 0.11*
2. Peter Beardsley (9 in 59) 0.15
3. Teddy Sheringham (11 in 51) 0.22
4. Trevor Francis (12 in 52) 0.23
5. Ian Wright (9 in 33) 0.27
6. Robbie Fowler (7 in 26) 0.27
7. Darius Vassell (6 in 22) 0.27
8. Jermain Defoe (12 in 43) 0.28
9. Mark Hateley (9 in 32) 0.28
10. Francis Lee (10 in 27) 0.37
* goals per game; qualification 20 caps
France's highest-scoring players
1. Just Fontaine (30 in 21) 1.42
2. Jean Nicolas (21 in 25) 0.84
3. Michel Platini (41 in 72) 0.57
4. Jean-Pierre Papin (30 in 54) 0.55
5. David Trezeguet (34 in 71) 0.47
6. Jean Vincent (22 in 46) 0.47
7. Thierry Henry (51 in 123) 0.42
8. Youri Djorkaeff (28 in 82) 0.34
9. Zinedine Zidane (31 in 108) 0.28
10. Sylvain Wiltord (26 in 92) 0.28Reuse content