Emile Heskey: Happy again

He has been blamed for failures at Liverpool and with England. Now he is contented and scoring freely at Birmingham City

The last time Emile Heskey went to Anfield was 8 December and it will not surprise you to learn that he took his seat in the stand of his former club without fanfare or fuss. He is not, after all, a footballer who has ever sought attention or barged his way into the spotlight. And anyway, that night was serious for Liverpool and anyone who has the remotest feelings for the club: they were fighting for their lives in the Champions' League.

The last time Emile Heskey went to Anfield was 8 December and it will not surprise you to learn that he took his seat in the stand of his former club without fanfare or fuss. He is not, after all, a footballer who has ever sought attention or barged his way into the spotlight. And anyway, that night was serious for Liverpool and anyone who has the remotest feelings for the club: they were fighting for their lives in the Champions' League.

Sitting in a room at Birmingham City's training ground more than a month later, Heskey identifies that Liverpool performance against Olympi- akos, when they fought back from a goal down to win 3-1 and reach the knock-out round, as one of the best since he left Anfield. "There was some atmosphere in the ground and they played some great football," he says. "They passed the ball around and opened them up."

Just like that other classic Anfield European night against Roma almost three years ago when he led the line himself. On Gérard Houllier's return from heart surgery, Heskey scored the second goal in a win that took Liverpool into the next round.

That season, when Liverpool were finally stopped in the quarter-finals by Bayer Leverkusen, had followed the extraordinary success of Heskey's first year at the club. "Brilliant, like a dream," is how Heskey remembers the 10 months that brought Liverpool the FA Cup, the Uefa Cup and the Worthington Cup. He could hardly believe how he kept going to score 23 goals. "So many games," he says. "Every two or three days we were playing. We would get off the coach and go home and come back to training, get on another coach and go somewhere else. Unbelievable."

Heskey had two seasons in the Champions' League and, in England's 5-1 demolition of Germany in September 2001, he was one of the outstanding performers in a miraculous team performance. At the 2002 World Cup he started every one of England's games. Yet Heskey has also been the man who has taken the rap, for many of his national side's disappointments and, increasingly, for those delivered at the end of Houllier's crumbling regime.

In the summer he joined Birmingham, but he there was little immediate sign of improvement, and by December, he was out of the England side and under pressure. The start to his career there had been affected by injury and, even though his new team won at Anfield in November, Heskey had not scored. In fact, by the time he travelled up the M6 to see his old club play in December, he had managed only two goals in 17 games. After the match, he was introduced to Rafael Benitez but did not speak to him at length. The stadium was still gripped with that heady sense of a last-minute victory. Like any other spectator, he left the ground and headed home.

Ten days later, a change came over Emile Heskey. He started scoring goals again.

After a run that began with West Bromwich Albion on 18 December, Heskey faces Fulham today as a centre-forward who has struck five goals in the last seven games. He is one of the Premiership's form strikers again and the pressure brought by his club record £6.5m transfer fee has eased. It is no surprise that the key issue with Heskey is confidence, but he does not discuss it with any reticence. Throughout his career, his goals have always come in gluts, each one born of the confidence its predecessor brought.

"I think if you look at any player they play better with confidence," he says. "Whether it is here or Liverpool or Real Madrid. Everyone plays on confidence. I have dips in confidence and dips in form but its up to me to keep it focused. I'm not just a big guy am I? I do offer a lot more than just having a big guy up front who does simple things. I try to do a little bit more than that. I have got the credit from managers. They know what I can do and that's why they get me in.

"I just want to be played up front in the middle - straight down the middle, and then I work from there. I might go out to the wing and come into the middle. You always get stick if you don't score goals, that's just the way it is. As a striker you are there to score goals, that's how it's seen. It doesn't matter what else you do, if you score that's the only thing."

The partnership Heskey has struck up with Clinton Morrison has been one theory offered for success in front of goal, but his relationship with Steve Bruce has been equally important. The Birmingham manager might have acquired Robbie Blake from Burnley this month but he believes enough in Heskey to transfer-list Dwight Yorke.

Bruce, Heskey says, is a "good man-manager". "You have to be," he adds. "I have worked under a few who are good at certain things."

And what about those who lose their temper?

"It doesn't bother me but I don't think it helps anyone," he says. "You've got to shout a little bit to get your point across but not all the time."

With Heskey it all comes down to understanding why a striker with such prodigious natural talent - strong, fast, tall, a good finisher - has stalled on 43 caps for England and a mystifying five international goals. Since Wayne Rooney's emergence, Heskey has simply slipped into the shadows. He last started against Portugal in a friendly in Faro 11 months ago and his last appearance was as a substitute against France at Euro 2004. Since that tournament, he has not been in an England squad.

"There are a lot of good strikers out there, especially the young ones," he says. "It's a hard decision for the manager. It's good to have a few players to choose from. There are a lot of options for him. Shola Ameobi is doing really well too and, you never know, he might deserve a chance. Especially as it's a friendly [against the Netherlands next month]. You never know what is going through the manager's mind.

"I am an international striker but I still have to wait for the manager to pick the side. You can say what you want when you are not in there. You can say 'Why am I not in it?' But what you should do is wait and bide your time.

"Before the Ukraine game he [Sven Goran Eriksson] phoned me up and said I wasn't going to be in the squad and that was good of him. I was in and out with injury so it was a hard time for me anyway. But it was nice of him to call. No, I don't think the door will ever be closed - especially with him. He's good like that.

"England trips are hard because with the friendlies you get two days and that's not really enough time to adapt to the different players coming from different places. You are probably together three days and the day before the game you don't do much. Then you have only two days training together. Obviously with tournaments you are there for a long time. You are training together and you get closer.

"It was different in the World Cup when I was involved in all the games. The training is based around the first XI so for the lads who aren't in the first XI it is a little bit hard because you are basically there to help the others. But you still have to be mentally right because you don't know when you are going to be put in. You have to deal with it."

It is easy to forget that, up until the summer, Heskey had played in the key games of Eriksson's reign. Not least the Swede's first match in charge against Spain in February 2001, when Heskey scored. Then there was that important performance against Germany in 2001 and the goal against Denmark in the 2002 World Cup. He was there amid the terrace abuse and hostility of the vital Euro 2004 qualifiers away in Slovakia and Turkey. But still he seems doomed to be judged on being the striker who only scored five goals for England. Why only five?

"I don't know. There were a lot of substitute's performances, left wing appearances, right wing appearances," he says. "There were different formations we were playing in. I would have looked to score a lot more goals than that."

Heskey has come to Birmingham, less than 50 miles away from Leicester where his career began as a 17-year-old after seven years as a junior at the club, but he does not accept that his departure from Liverpool is a retreat from the spotlight. His time at Liverpool, he says, had "come to an end". "We both decided that it was best if I left," he adds. Towards the end of Houllier's last season in charge, Heskey was often moved into the Liverpool midfield and rarely given 90 minutes in the forward line. Did he feel like he was singled out for the blame?

"I think so. I am an easy target because I am not going to say anything back and it came across like that towards the end," Heskey says. "It was from him [Houllier] sometimes. But you can't knock what he did there. Yes, he spent a little bit of money but the amount of trophies he won. He did do well. It came to an end. He obviously tried to hang on but you could never knock what he achieved. The only things he didn't win were the League and the Champions' League, they were the two big things. But he won everything else.

"I have played in the Champions' League and the Uefa Cup. It's great travelling all over Europe and playing against the best players out there. But, you know, this is another test for me to really do well and help push Birmingham even further. It's a challenge."

Heskey is happy at Birmingham. In fact, he can see similarities between his new club and Leicester - "the way everything is handled, it's like a family". His fondness for the team that gave him his first break, and to whom he donated a six-figure sum when they were in financial difficulty in 2002, is easy to detect. Leicester discovered him when he was playing for Ratby and Groby, a youth team in the city, and gave him a debut at 17.

"I do care about the club. I have been there since I was nine and they did help me come through," he says. "I enjoyed my time there, I really did. There were a few bids for me before I actually left but I just didn't want to go, I didn't think it was the right time.

"In my career I've won four League cups, an FA Cup and a Uefa Cup. I think you are in the game to try to win what you can. Even when Leicester won the play-off final [1996] I thought that was a great achievement. I was 18 at the time and it was brilliant going to Wembley. It didn't matter that it was a play-off final, you got your little trophy. We won the Coca-Cola Cup the next year [1997] and the next season we were playing Atletico Madrid in the Uefa Cup - with Leicester."

With a four-year contract at Birmingham, the aim for Heskey is to establish his new side as a club that is capable of surviving at the top end of the Premiership. In the meantime he will watch the squad that Eriksson names for the England friendly against the Netherlands on 9 February with interest. Displacing Rooney in the England team is a Herculean task but Heskey is philosophical. "There are certain games that may not be going our way or he might be injured. There are different scenarios," he says. "Every game is different."

The key, you suspect, will be making Eriksson's squad for next year's World Cup when the generation of players that have served him over the past four years get their last chance at a major tournament. Heskey has done as much as any other for England's manager, but don't expect him to shout about it. "I'll just keep going. I'd like to go to the World Cup, but if it comes to me not going at least I can say I've already played in one," he observes. "I scored a goal at a World Cup as well. It was good."

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