If Ian Rush is right when he says that the only true measure of a striker is the number of goals he scores, then Emile Heskey should consider himself lucky to be in the Liverpool team, never mind the England one. Ten goals in 40 games so far this season would not normally inspire confidence, but Heskey's two managers, Phil Thompson and Sven Goran Eriksson, must share less obvious selection criteria because the Anfield man remains a regular fixture for both club and country.
Blind faith or wise judgement? Heskey's critics would argue that he has played well only twice while on England duty – on his full debut against Argentina two years ago and in Munich during the 5-1 World Cup qualifying triumph last September.
His supporters, meanwhile, believe Heskey is a selfless player and the ideal foil for Michael Owen. Either way, you suspect that everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief when Heskey found the net three times in two games last week. Thompson insists he never doubted that the striker would rediscover his scoring touch, but it is Eriksson who will be most pleased ahead of Wednesday's friendly in Holland. The Swede is now free to leave the Liverpool man on the bench without it looking like a demotion, or pick him in the starting XI without it appearing like favouritism.
Eriksson has not yet announced his choice, although he has hinted that he will use his key players only sparingly. Should Owen be among the substitutes, Heskey would almost certainly lead the attack with either Robbie Fowler or Andy Cole. Were that to happen, the England front line could have fewer than 10 goals to their name. In contrast, the Dutch No 9 Patrick Kluivert has found the net 30 times in an orange shirt.
Heskey's leanest period of his career does not seem to be worrying those nearest to him. According to the Liverpool caretaker manager, his striker's overall contribution far outweighs the lack of goals. "I keep having to champion the cause of Emile," Thompson says. "But if people knew a little bit more about the game I shouldn't have to. He has been outstanding for us all season, even when he is not scoring. What you have to remember is that Emile never hides."
Thompson adds: "I'm not so daft that I don't know strikers are measured by the number of goals they score, but the fact is that Emile's performances have been fantastic for the team and for the club. People should ask why Michael [Owen] has scored such a lot of goals and look at who is creating the space and taking the weight off him."
Such is the confidence of Heskey's club manager that he would even make him Owen's first-choice partner at this summer's World Cup. "They have played together for a long time for Liverpool," Thompson says. "That's why it will be easier for them to play together for England, because they know each other's game so well. Of course, there will be other contenders, but the fact that they are playing so regularly at club level will tip the balance in their favour."
There has been a similar endorsement from the England camp, with Eriksson continually stressing the importance of Heskey's presence in the team. "It's difficult to play against him," the England manager said recently, "because he worries the opposition."
Apart from his imposing physique, another reason why Heskey has become such a vital squad member is his versatility. "Emile can be a left midfielder or left-sided attacker," Eriksson continued, although the 24-year-old has yet to impress in that position. "Wherever he plays, opponents find it hard." Which explains why the Leicester-born forward has featured in all but one of the last 11 internationals, despite the fact he has found the net only three times in 20 England appearances. Heskey, for his part, just wants to remain in the England fold. "I am a striker, so naturally I would prefer to play up front," he says, "but as long as you are playing you can't complain. When you play out wide you have to adjust to certain things, but I am happy to be anywhere in the first team."
It is perhaps no surprise that Heskey's return to form has coincided with the trumpeted arrival but fast-fading contributions of Nicolas Anelka. Heskey got a fright, lost his place, and has since responded positively. One Anfield legend, who rarely failed to find the target, is in no doubt that the Anelka factor has been the turning point of Heskey's season. "Sometimes you need to be taken out of the firing line," Rush says, "and Anelka's loan move has allowed Emile time to sit back and have a think. I'm convinced it has helped take some of the pressure off him, particularly at Anfield."
Heskey insists that he never listens to outside opinions, whether they are good or bad. Equally, though, he knows how important his recent good form has been with regards to his England future. "My goal against Leicester gave me extra confidence and it was nice to score a couple against Leeds [last Sunday] as well," Heskey says. "But I've been happy with my performances all through the season to be honest. The players and staff have kept on backing me and I have got my rewards over the last few matches."
Those closest to him never doubted he would turn the corner. Pegguy Arphexad, who has been a team-mate at Leicester and now Liverpool, feels that Heskey has demonstrated his mental strength by coming through this barren spell. "I am absolutely delighted that Emile's back on form and banging in the goals again," the French goalkeeper says. "I am saying this not only as a team-mate, but also as a good friend. I don't believe that the criticism Emile has been getting in the newspapers is in any way justified, because even when he hasn't scored goals he has made a major contribution. Fortunately, he is someone who can cope with what's being written. I am not saying it didn't make any impression on him at all because I think every player is sensitive when it comes to criticism, but Emile knew that the best way to answer these people was by scoring goals."
Many will feel uneasy at the prospect of Heskey leading the England attack at the World Cup finals in June, but perhaps the doubters should draw comfort from recent history. Four years ago, Stephane Guivarc'h was the undisputed striker of the French team that swept all before them on their way to victory. He never once found the net.Reuse content