Hesk of his former self

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In the bigger scheme of things, I’m a Latics fan first, a football fan second and an England fan last. It’s nothing to do with pride in your country or any of that balderdash; it’s just that international football has never grabbed me in the same way as club football did. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll watch it, and in the main pay most interest in England’s games, I just won’t go the extra mile to make sure I watch it.  

So it’s a little strange that, for the first time in a while, outside of a tournament, that I’m fairly excited about Saturday’s against Israel.

You don’t have to be some kind of psychologist to work out why, there’s nothing special about the opposition and although it’s the first competitive game at the new Wembley it’s hardly a massive event. The one and only reason that I’ve got a buzz about the match is the presence of Emile Heskey in the squad.

If you read the press then you’d think that this marks me out as some kind of freak. The number of has beens and never weres lining up to have a pop under the mask of being a pundit is overwhelming. Of course they can all claim that they are laying into Heskey out of a desire to see England do well, but as we all know the real reason is shear laziness.

If you take Heskey in isolation then his record doesn’t appear to be that great, he’s on something like a goal every four games at club level and one in nine at international. Yet if you strip away the layers the picture is much different.

For starters, a good proportion of Heskey’s time for both club and country haven’t been spent playing up front. The tactical geniuses that decided Emile was the answer to both England and Liverpool’s ubiquitous “problems on the left” not only affected his goal scoring rate, but his international chances too.

I can remember only one season at Liverpool where he was used solely as a front man, his first. Playing in a good team, with a good partner, he managed something like 22 goals (I could look it up, but if the pundits can’t be bothered with research why should I?). Heskey might have 46 caps, but only 12 of them were as a strike partner to the same Liverpool colleague, in those 12 games they have managed 14 goals between them.

Even if you discount that game against Germany, the 10 goals in 11 games that remain is still an impressive record.

That partnership leads us naturally onto the reported reason that Emile got his call up. Michael Owen’s endorsement could be seen as a nod to the old boys’ club, but it isn’t. Owen is purely and simply a goal scorer and for me his chat with Steve Maclaren was based on nothing other than selfishness (in a good way I suppose). If he didn’t think that Heskey gave him the best chance of getting in the goals, then it would have been someone else that got the call up last Sunday.

On top of that, I’ve never heard a player who has either played with or against Heskey that has a bad word for him. In fact the only real criticism that does come out is that he’s not selfish enough, that he works too hard for the team. Certainly that’s Alan Shearer’s standpoint, and he knows a thing or two about playing up front.

At the other end of the pitch let’s have a look at the views of John Terry. The England captain rates the Latics’ striker amongst his most difficult opponents to play against, his strength, power and pace giving the Chelsea no end of problems when they’ve been on opposite sides.

He might have the ringing endorsement of two of England’s main men but what of the fans. I’d gone to work on Monday expecting to face a reprise of the “Heskey!?!” chorus that I got when we signed him, but no. The mockers had gone into hiding and anyone who had anything to say was positive, with the general consensus being that Emile had been hard done to back in 2004.

So if his colleagues and the fans are more than willing to give Heskey a go, there will be those out there who have bought the Alan Mullary line but essentially it’s just the media that are setting him up to fail. If England fail to score or Hesk has a bad game then they’ll have a field day, if he has a stormer then watch them change their tune quicker than Judge Jules.

I can’t imagine the look on the faces of the panels all over television in the unlikely eventuality that Heskey has a good game, bags a couple of goals but the team lose. Who would they blame then? One thing you guarantee is that even if they hand out the plaudits after the game, next to none of them will hold their hand up and say “I was wrong”.

Indications are that Emile has done well in training and will start the game. You can expect the pre-match chat to be a duck-shoot but we know the lad just a little bit better. There’s no way that he’ll be going into this with his head down. He’ll be trying to prove his doubters wrong and I’ve no doubt that he will.

Go on Emile – do us proud!

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