Written by: James McHale @jamesmchale2607
Cult hero Emile Heskey made his Liverpool debut 19 years ago today on March 11th and despite never being the prolific forward that Liverpool fans are accustomed to, he had an aura about him that leaves him still adored by fans. Heskey wasn’t a stellar forward and didn’t score goals in abundance, but his willingness to play for the team always seemed to win his critics over and you could never fault his desire to pay the fans back for their support.
Signing for Liverpool in 2000 after a fairly productive spell at boyhood club Leicester City, in which the forward netted 46 goals in 197 games, he would further enhance his reputation during his 4 and a half season stint in Merseyside. Arriving for a club-record £11m on March 10th, the forward only had to wait a day to make his debut, starting in the 1-1 draw at home to Sunderland in the Premier League. His first Liverpool goal came 3 weeks later with the newly capped England international netting in Liverpool’s 3-0 away win against Coventry City, slotting past Steve Ogrizovic in the 78th minute. Liverpool gaffer Gerard Houllier signed the England forward after seeing him previously shine for the England under-18 side and he was so impressed that he decided to recreate his previously prolific strike partnership with club wonderkid Michael Owen, having watched them play together for the England youth side.
His first season at Liverpool yielded only 3 goals in 12 appearances in the league but having arrived late into the season, he wasn’t under a huge amount of pressure to hit the ground running and instantly become a world beater. Getting up to speed with Houllier’s sometimes strange tactics clearly took some time to get used to with Heskey finding himself being used slightly differently to how he had been at Leicester City, acting as an accoutrement to the free scoring Michael Owen whilst still being expected to chip in with some goals from his new unglamorous role. Owen would often play off Heskey’s shoulder with the colossal forward dragging defenders out of space before knocking the ball into space for Owen to run onto and sting the opposition with his immense pace and clinical finishing in front of goal.
Heskey’s first full season in Merseyside was undoubtably his best ever, at any club, with the striker perfectly finding his rhythm in time to play a pivotal role in Liverpool’s infamous 00/01 treble. Heskey bagged 22 goals in 56 appearances that season and was an absolutely integral part of the club’s success that season, solidifying his reputation as an unglamorous but effective forward. The forward stated in each of the club’s finals that season, even starting ahead of club legend Robbie Fowler in the FA Cup final against Arsenal. His heroics that season, and all-round impressive form, saw Liverpool receive a £12m bid for his services from Tottenham Hotspur arrive in the summer of 2001, though the bid was almost instantly rejected. The one thing had Heskey did wrong that season was raise supporters’ expectations unreasonably high, being unable to replicate such form at any point during the rest of his Liverpool career with scoring goals not being his primary objective.
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Heskey’s form for the remainder of his Liverpool career never did live up to his initial goal rush but it was never really going to, with the England forward never being the main man in Merseyside and instead often being used as a ‘second striker’ whose job was to bring his strike partner or the wingers into play. The following season saw the forward net 14 games in 56 games, not a particularly impressive return but respectable enough when you consider the fact that he was still very much second fiddle to the still emerging Michael Owen – who scored 29 goals in all competitions. Heskey’s decline, or lack of criticalness in front of goal, was synonymous with Houllier’s managerial decline and Heskey was unlucky to never be trusted with leading the line, but it is understandable when you consider the calibre of the other forwards at the club.
The following 2 seasons saw the Leicester native struggle with fitness at times and this is evident in his 21 goals in 99 games, a massively disappointing stat no matter how you look at it. It should come as no surprise to read that upon Houllier’s exit from the club, and the arrival of Rafa Benitez, Heskey was one of the first names out of the door with the forward hardly epitomising the Spaniard’s exciting style of play. Liverpool took a huge hit on Heskey, having only being able to recoup £3.5m from Birmingham City, but the forward did spend his peak years in Merseyside and after a less than clinical past couple of seasons Liverpool did well to recoup even that amount from the Midland club. As the forward’s career slowly wound down so did his footballing stock and he never once regained that Liverpool form, although he did remain in the Premier league for another 9 seasons, and even once he made the move to Australia, he only found himself scoring on occasion.
After his playing career was all but over, Heskey did find himself become an online sensation on the internet thanks to YouTuber KSI’s obsession with the colossal forward with him being in integral part in numerous songs and viral videos. Even after a career filled with unfulfilled promise and inconsistent form, Heskey looks back fondly on his time at Liverpool with him telling magazine FourFourTwo: “If I could change one decision in my career it would probably be to stay at Liverpool for longer – they won the Champions League the next season!”
Article by James McHale @jamesmchale2607