Bruce hails Heskey's 'terrific performances'

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The Birmingham City manager, Steve Bruce, insists that Emile Heskey remains a vital part of his plans - despite the striker's poor form in front of goal.

Heskey was on target for Blues as they beat Millwall 4-3 on penalties after a 2-2 draw at The Den to move into the quarter-finals of the Carling Cup on Tuesday night, but it was only his third goal this term and his first in 12 matches. And while Bruce accepted that Heskey's record of 14 goals in 51 games since joining the club from Liverpool in May 2004 did not catch the eye, he remains confident that the former England striker's ratio would improve.

"Goalscoring has been his Achilles' heel, but he has played a huge part since he arrived here," said Bruce. "We all know the territory, and you expect players to get stick. But Emile is a very good striker, and he was our player of the year last season. We still expect him to get up to 15 goals a season, and I remain convinced he will do that. He probably needed a two-yard tap-in, and fortunately for us he managed that at Millwall."

Before his goal that put Birmingham 2-1 up in extra-time, however, Heskey had looked very rusty when presented with chances.

He shot well over the bar after being played in 10 yards from goal by Julian Gray, and in the second half he blasted one effort wide and missed an open goal after seizing on a poor Carlos Fangueiro back-pass and rounding Millwall's on-loan goalkeeper Lenny Pidgeley.

Heskey's efforts saw him targeted by sections of the Millwall supporters, and Bruce expressed sympathy with the 27-year-old former Leicester City forward.

"No one likes to be abused, but he has been terrific," Bruce continued. "You have to believe in him. For 14 to 15 months, he has led the line fantastically well. "Even though he has not been a prolific goalscorer, his importance to the team is immense. Perhaps Emile doesn't have the goal return he would like, but his performances have been terrific."

Bruce also revealed that Heskey had sustained a twisted knee at The Den which makes him a "serious doubt" for next Monday's Premiership match against West Ham United at St Andrews.