If you believe Alan Shearer's dictum that the only way to judge a striker is by the quantity of goals he scores, then you will weigh Emile Heskey in the balance and find him wanting.
Fifteen Premiership goals in two seasons, only one of which - a brutally powerful header against Arsenal - has come against a club currently in the Champions' League, is a tally that does not sit easily on those big, sloping shoulders. Although his manager, Gérard Houllier, who as French technical director, first noted his talents when watching England Under-18 matches, has defended Heskey exhaustively, pointing out he is a tireless worker, especially when employed on the flanks, and often creates opportunities for others, the statistics stare back, blankly and unforgivingly. They are the chief reason Liverpool put out feelers to Lyon to take Heskey on a season-long loan, a move the French champions were prepared to consider until they became aware of his wages.
"Strikers are judged on their goals, that's a fact but with some strikers it goes deeper than that," Heskey said. "I do work hard in other areas but I suppose I'll end up being judged by the tally I've managed at the end of the year. Let's hope there's an explosion."
It is not entirely a vain one. There have been rumbles of form in a pre-season that has brought five goals, although Liverpool's desultory, leaden displays in the Amsterdam Tournament, against Ajax and Galatasaray, are not ideal preparation for a Chelsea side which has suddenly become the Real Madrid of the domestic game. Heskey's colleagues, Steven Gerrard and Vladmir Smicer, argue that if there is a time to play Chelsea it is now, before Claudio Ranieri has the chance to mould the floodtide of talent lured by Roman Abramovich's wealth into something irresistible.
Tomorrow, Anfield might well stage a contest between the two sides most likely to upset Manchester United's hold on the title. Sir Alex Ferguson believes that Liverpool, freed from the constraints of the Champions' League, are a live danger. Had Abramovich not swapped his bleak Siberian throne for the executive boxes of Stamford Bridge, their summer spending on Harry Kewell and Steve Finnan would have garnered wider applause, although Heskey concedes that for him and for Liverpool time may be running out.
"We can be challenging this year. I know that we say that every season but, hopefully, we really will and Harry Kewell's arrival will help that. He gives us something different; he can play in a lot of positions, in behind the strikers or on both flanks, so he'll be hard for opponents to tie down."
Kewell will give Liverpool the one element which virtually every observer at Anfield has claimed has been missing from Houllier's sides. Width. Not all managers believe in wingers; Ruud Gullit did not at Newcastle, where Shearer, deprived of his crosses, became an animal without oxygen. Heskey, too, has often found breathing difficult.
"People go on about width. At Leicester I played with Steve Guppy and I think in one season he made the most crosses in a campaign in the Premiership and Andy Impey and Frank Sinclair were on the other flank. So there were crosses coming in all the time. People like H [Kewell] and Steve Finnan will provide that for us.
"This could be a very, very special season for Liverpool and I want to be part of that. I was here when we won the treble and it was fantastic; more of that wouldn't go down too badly. This is the time to do it. Time is moving on and we can't keep saying: 'This is going to be our year'. You've got to go out there and prove it, but I think we are very close."
Even with the support of Guppy and Impey, Heskey was not prolific at Leicester, although he could be devastating. His former manager, Martin O'Neill, recalled his final match at Filbert Street, a 5-2 thrashing of Sunderland, before he became the first Englishman bought by Houllier. "It was the only game in which Stan Collymore and Emile played together and the one occasion that I thought to myself: 'Yes, here is a team that could go to Old Trafford, go to Anfield, go to Highbury and win football matches'."
Last season, Liverpool were one of only two sides that failed to beat Sunderland, part of a catastrophic two-month winless sequence which wrecked their chances of a first title since Kenny Dalglish's final full year at Anfield. The manner in which they blew up seems even now inexplicable. "I've never had anything like it, not even when I was at Leicester," Heskey said. "It was mentally very hard for a lot of the players. We were a young side and probably needed an older head in there to help settle the players down. But whereas we had Gary McAllister the year before, we didn't have anyone like that this time round.
"The game in Basle, going out of the Champions' League, really finished us mentally. Confidence plummeted after that and it was hard to get ourselves back on course. In the end, we did and we played some good football towards the end of the season." Good enough to win the League Cup in Cardiff with a victory over Manchester United but not, crucially, good enough to beat Chelsea on the final day of the league season and ensure qualification for the Champions' League. Gerrard admitted that he was so frustrated by this failure at the death that he virtually got himself sent off and will be consequently suspended from tomorrow's rematch.
Heskey, refreshed by holidays in America and Mauritius and a pre-season that has taken him from Thailand to the Netherlands, is fit, hungry and available, determined to stake his place as a centre-forward rather than someone pushed out to the margins of a game. "I'd like to play in the middle, the manager knows that, everybody knows that." And, if he does, maybe those mocking statistics might begin to reflect the player they stand alongside.Reuse content