Emile Heskey interview: Former England striker on loneliness at Liverpool, Leicester's underdogs and that spat between Michael Owen and Alan Shearer
Emile Heskey was the young England striker who seemed to have it all - but, behind the headlines of his £11 million move to Liverpool, the forward didn’t know how to cope. On the eve of his book launch, he tells Lee Marlow his story
It seems almost fitting that in the week Emile Heskey’s biography is released all the talk, all the social media chatter, all back page headlines are about Michael Owen and his book.
From the football pitch to the bookshops, art imitating life. The footballing bride and his perpetual bridesmaid.
“I hadn’t even thought of that, but yeah, typical eh?” says Emile Heskey when he’s asked about this. “I don’t mind, though.”
And he doesn’t. He genuinely doesn’t mind. Good luck to Michael, he says. And he means it, too. These are not platitudes. This is the man he is - on the pitch and off it. “I’m happy with my book and what I’ve said. I wish Michael all the best with his.”
Today, upstairs at a plush jewellers in Leicester which is doubling, strangely, as a venue for his book launch, Emile William Ivanhoe Heskey remains a shy and unassuming man but he’s comfortable answering questions and dealing with attention.
“You get used to it. I used to hate it,” he says. “As soon as someone put a mic in front of me, I’d freeze. My old Leicester boss, Martin O’Neill, always tried to protect me from it, which I was grateful for - but really, what he should have done, perhaps, was give me a bit of media training. I had none of that.”
Heskey had four years at Leicester City - good years, too; promotion, three League Cup finals, four top-10 finishes - before leaving for Liverpool in an £11 million switch in March, 2000.
It was the start of an exiting new chapter for Heskey - but the beginning of the end for O’Neill’s team of over-performing underdogs.
“He still blames me for that. ‘Ah, you left - and then the whole thing fell apart,’ he used to say to me, overlooking the obvious point that he left for Celtic just a couple of months after me,” Heskey says.
“That Leicester side was a proper team of tough, working class men ... I’d go out with them - but I’d slope off after a while. I couldn’t keep up. There was quality there - players like Neil Lennon, Muzzy Izzet, Steve Guppy and then Steve Walsh and Matt Elliott at the back. We were a good side.”
He often wonders what they could have been, that Martin O’Neill side of the late 1990s, if only they had taken it all a bit more seriously.
“You hear people talk about football and fine margins … if, as a team, we’d drunk a bit less, gone to bed early … I don’t know … I wonder what we could have achieved.”
Leicester were Heskey’s home town club. The ninth biggest city in England with a diverse and largely harmonious cultural heritage, racism wasn’t usually a problem at Leicester - but there were still moments, he says.
“I remember being told as a young lad, by a Leicester fan at Filbert Street, that "my kind" weren’t welcome here.
“I played for City youth team against Stoke once. Their two centre halves were at me and Craig Hallam, who was also black, all game. They called me all sorts of racist insults. Craig laid them both out.”
In his pomp, the City fans nicknamed Heskey "Bruno", after former heavyweight boxer Frank Bruno. “I didn’t mind, I suppose - and you can’t pick your nickname can you,” he laughs. “But I just wanted to be known for me, not someone else. The old Leicester players - they still call me that. And I remember, that first League Cup final, what did the club do? They had me in bloody boxing gloves, the whole Frank Bruno thing.” He shakes his head and sighs. “I didn’t mind. It was a different era. But I don’t think it would happen now.”
Racism is still in football. “You still see it and hear it. I know England were talking about what they should do if their players receive racist abuse against Bulgaria - should they walk off? I don’t think that’s the answer. Just beat them. Play on and win. That’s the best response.”
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Heskey was just 22 when he joined Liverpool. He loved the football, the club, manager Gerrard Houliier - but it took him a long time to settle on Merseyside.
“This is what amazes me about football. Clubs spend millions on players, young lads, and they don’t check on them or know how they are settling in,” he says.
He bought a nice pad in a scenic part of the city - but he was lonely. “All I’d ever known was Leicester. I lived round the corer from my mum. She did my washing, my cooking.
“And then suddenly, I’m in this new city and I don’t know anyone. I didn’t even know where the shop was.”
He remembers lying on the floor, looking blankly at the ceiling for hours at a time.
Did you cry?
“Yes. Yes I did.”
Were you depressed, do you think?
“I don’t know. I don’t think I was. I was anxious. I was lonely. I was sad. I didn’t like it. I was lucky in that I always had training. Training was a like a daily anti-depressant. It kept me sane.”
He stopped reading the sports pages. “I didn’t always get a fair press, and I could see, in dressing rooms, how some players obsessed about it. So I stopped. I thought it was for the best.”
The fans, generally, loved his unselfish work ethic, a trait he learned at Leicester. “Martin O’Neill wanted me to chase down every ball, and the fans, wherever you went, they liked that - but the critics only focussed on my scoring record.”
You were criticised for going down too easily, too. How did you respond to that?
“I always tried to stay on my feet. But if you’re running, at speed, and someone clips your ankles, you’ll go down.”
And these ankles he says, rubbing at his calves. “They’re gone, mate. I’ve got ankles like an old lady. If I kick a ball now, I can’t walk for two days.” That’s the legacy of too many late tackles, he says.
And this Owen and Alan Shearer spat?
“Aw man - I don’t know about that. They were good friends, you know. Same agent. Same boot sponsor They were close. It’s a shame.”
How did you get on with them?
“Well I played a lot with Michael Owen. We had a great understanding. We got on well.”
“Well… [pause]… I played with him, too.”
Even Heskey Scored by Emile Heskey and Dean Eldredge is published by Pitch Publishing priced £19.99 (Dh92).
Updated: September 14, 2019 01:55 PM