Gone. But never forgotten?
And so he disappeared into retirement as quietly as he has conducted himself throughout his 15 year professional career.
To say that Emile Heskey’s passing was unlamented would be a gross understatement, as it would ignore the buckets of excrement unceremoniously dumped over him by supporters and the media.
His statistics, under the surgical glare of the spotlight, are damning. In 62 internationals he’s scored a paltry seven goals. As many papers have gleefully pointed out, there are goalkeepers who have scored more at international level.
Such a crude analysis ignores the regular tributes from team-mates about his unselfish work creating space. Ignores the lonely battles against opposing centre backs to hold up the ball or win the knock down. Forgets how he played in England’s best qualification games.
Heskey is a throwback to the battering ram striker. They weren’t expected to score hatfuls of goals. They were there to serve their goal-scoring partner. Admittedly, even by the standards of, say, Mick Harford, Heskey’s goal scoring record is poor, but it fails to take into account the tactical evolution of the game. Increasingly, teams are playing with one upfront, with the striker acting as a fulcrum for team-mates playing between the oppositions defence and midfield. It’s in this context that Heskey should be judged.
Heskey was nowhere near England’s worst performer at the World Cup. Yet he took the blame for the national team’s attacking impotency. He ploughed a lone furrow upfront whilst Rooney, unfit, distracted by a court case and other rumoured off-field complications, misfired his way through the tournament. Had it been Rooney, rather than Heskey, who had been replaced by Jermaine Defoe, England might have gone further.
So why have Heskey’s contributions for England come to be ignored, derided or misunderstood? It’s not simply tactical ignorance amongst football supporters.
I can’t help thinking that it’s because of his demeanour. His placid, unthreatening, soft-faced features rarely express passion. He seemed to move through life with a serene sense of detachment. No matter what the provocation, you can’t imagine Big Emile ever having a word or throwing a punch in anger.
Contrast him with the cold, dead-eyed, stare of Mick Harford. With a face chiselled from stone by a blunt instrument, he conveyed an air of potent malevolence. You didn’t doubt he was there to do anything other than win. You didn’t question what he brought to the team. You simply didn’t dare.
I can’t help thinking that had Heskey spent his career pumping his fist, bellowing at team mates or referees, deliberately leaving his foot and elbow in, or perhaps had the face of Iain Dowie, then he’d be regarded differently.
Unfortunately, Heskey’s genteel personality means he is victim to the ruthless law of the school playground. He is someone who can be bullied without fear of reprisal. In the witch hunt for culprits, he’s an easy place to attribute blame. He won’t react, he won’t answer back and we can all feel better for exorcising our pent up anger.