Gerard Houllier loved him; so too Steve Bruce, at Birmingham and Wigan. Even Fabio Capello, normally insistent that an England player must be a regular for his club, is willing in his case to make an exception. Yet the first manager won over by his qualities is no longer convinced.
Martin O'Neill could never praise Emile Heskey enough during their five years together at Leicester. The bullish young striker scored 10 goals in each of his first two Premier League seasons for O'Neill and, even when he scored only six in 1998-99, O'Neill insisted that, but for the goals Heskey made for Tony Cottee, Leicester would have been relegated.
Now, though, as manager of Aston Villa, O'Neill takes a different view. Heskey, for whom he paid Wigan £3.5m in January, has started only three Premier League matches this season and O'Neill made no bones about why, even after his 86th-minute header – his first goal of the season, after coming off the bench with 10 minutes left – salvaged Villa a point.
"Emile has the reputation of being a provider and that's fine," O'Neill said. "Capello likes him. He sees him setting up goals for Wayne Rooney. But my belief is that a centre-forward has to score goals himself."
To do that, O'Neill feels, Heskey must be more prepared to attack the ball, to put himself in positions to score. "And I think he is capable of doing that," O'Neill said.
He may be right. Then again, Heskey will be 32 in January, an age at which most footballers are set in their ways. He has not been a goalscorer who could be described, even generously, as prolific – not since his first season at Liverpool, almost a decade ago. At Birmingham and Wigan, his return was a goal every five games; at Villa, so far, it is one every eight. Old dogs and new tricks are the words that come to mind.
Maybe the return on the wing of Stewart Downing, who had his first 20 minutes of senior action since May, will help Heskey's cause. At least he earned his keep on Saturday. When Brian Jensen's punched clearance, four minutes from time, proved inadequate, James Milner thumped it back and Heskey seized his chance.
To Burnley, who had opportunities to add to Steven Caldwell's ninth-minute header, again sparked by the evergreen excellence of 33-year-old Robbie Blake, and repelled twice, superbly, by Brad Friedel, it felt like a defeat. But their manager's summing-up offered perspective. "To be disappointed only to draw with a team of Aston Villa's quality shows how far we have come," Owen Coyle said.
Burnley (4-2-3-1): Jensen; Mears, Caldwell, Carlisle, Jordan; Alexander, Bikey; Eagles (McDonald, 69), Elliott, Blake (Gudjonsson, 79); Fletcher (Nugent, 74). Substitutes not used: Penny (gk), Duff, Thompson, Guerrero.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; L Young (Heskey, 80), Cuellar, Dunne, Warnock; Milner, Sidwell (Downing, 69), Petrov, A Young; Agbonlahor, Carew. Substitutes not used: Delph, Reo-Coker, Shorey, Guzan (gk), Beye.
Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).
Booked: Aston Villa Dunne, Sidwell, Cuellar.
Man of the match: Blake.
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