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Selfless Heskey makes England tick

Emile Heskey is enjoying a grand ending to an up-and-down career

By Chris Whyatt and Andrew McKenzie

Grateful praise from more exotically gifted team-mates and a piranha-like press pack? That's rare for goal-shy strikers.

Yet, as the dust settles on England's perfect start to their 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign under Italian manager Fabio Capello, credit is being showered upon Wigan's 30-year-old forward Emile Heskey like never before in his 50-cap international career.

With a laboured England locked at 0-0 with Andorra in September, Capello made a typically decisive half-time move in bringing Heskey on in place of Jermain Defoe to partner Wayne Rooney in attack.

Four wins, 14 goals, and 12 points amassed... since his introduction in Barcelona Heskey has been a permanent fixture as England have banished the McClaren regime and left fans dreaming of South Africa.

But, with just one goal in every 10 games for his country and an traditionally unfavourable reputation, how has Heskey been able to make such an impact?

BBC Sport spoke to former strikers Alan Shearer, Steve Claridge and Tony Cottee - all of whom played upfront with Heskey during the formative years of his career - to find some answers.

WHY ARE HIS LACK OF GOALS NOT A BIGGER ISSUE?

Heskey has never been prolific for any of his clubs, with a scoring rate of roughly one in every five games for Leicester, Liverpool, Birmingham and now Wigan. For his country, it is even less impressive. But that is only a surface statistic, according to Claridge.

"His scoring record [for England] wouldn't stand up at club level," he says.

"But what he brings internationally - the option to knock it long, competitiveness in the air, his ability to hold it up, his mobility and speed - his shortcomings are compensated for by others.

"He's an absolutely vital cog in the wheel."

ENGLAND'S MOST CAPPED STRIKERS
M Owen - 89 caps, 40 goals
Goal every 2.2 games
G Lineker 80 caps, 48 goals
Goal every 1.7 games
A Shearer 63 caps, 30 goals
Goal every 2.1 games
K Keegan 63 caps, 21 goals
Goal every 3 games
P Beardsley 59 caps, 9 goals
Goal every 6.6 games
J Greaves 57 caps, 44 goals
Goal every 1.3 games
T Francis 52 caps, 12 goals
Goal every 4.3 games
T Sheringham 51 caps, 11 goals
Goal every 4.6 games
E Heskey 50 caps, 5 goals
Goal every 10 games

What Claridge is saying, essentially, is that Heskey does a lot of donkey-work and, because of that, gives others the platform to shine - especially in a team with world-class talent down its spine.

And there are some startling statistics to back that up.

In the 18 competitive games he has started, England have won 12, drawn five and lost only one - when Heskey gave a man-of-the-match performance as Brazil knocked them out of the 2002 World Cup.

"With England you have other players who chip in with goals," asserts Cottee, who made seven starts for England. "As long as he's contributed to the team, that's what matters.

"All the players in the team would tell you what a great asset he is and how good he is as a team player.

"That's important. Over the last few years we have had a lots of individual players... but its all about getting the right team in place. And Heskey has to be in there."

Claridge goes so far as to suggest that it is almost irrelevant whether Heskey scores as long as he plays.

"It sort of doesn't really matter," says Claridge. "And that speaks volumes for how well he is playing and how much he is contributing to the side."

WHAT ARE HIS CORE STRENGTHS THEN?

After England convincingly beat a decent Belarus side 3-1 in chilly Minsk on Wednesday, goalscorer Steven Gerrard beamed: "Emile Heskey deserves a special mention for his performance.

"The players appreciate his work-rate, his presence and his size - what he did for Wayne's first goal was absolutely magic."

That assist for Rooney's goal, coming at a crucial stage just after half-time with the score at 1-1, swung the initiative of the match right in England's favour - and represented Heskey at his bustling best.

Picking up a loose ball wide left, he swiftly muscled past one back-pedalling defender and cut in towards the box before dispatching a perfect cross for Rooney after he had cleverly delayed his pass to allow the Manchester United forward time to get onside.

"I just let Emile do all the hard work and got all the glory tapping the goals in," laughs Cottee, recalling his partnership with Heskey at Leicester.

Steve Claridge and Emile Heskey
Heskey and Claridge (l) formed a dangerous partnership at Leicester

"We had the understanding that when the ball went high down the middle, he would go for it and I would try and read the flick-on.

"When he went wide and crossed the ball it was my job to make sure I was in the right place at the right time. But his all-round game is brilliant. We hit it off really well and I really enjoyed playing with him."

Watch England's second goal in September's 4-1 win over Croatia in Zagreb and you see another side to Heskey.

Acting as a pivot to the evolving move, he kills a razor-sharp Frank Lampard pass with a surprisingly feathery touch before showing keen awareness to lay off for Rooney to provide goalscorer Theo Walcott with the decisive final pass.

But, ultimately, it is his physical presence that will cause the most havoc.

"He's a threat, extremely difficult to play against for defenders," says Claridge. "He's got pace, power and strength, he can jump, he can run. Physically, he's almost perfect."

WHAT IS HESKEY LIKE AS A CHARACTER?

Traipsing off the pitch on Wednesday, Heskey allowed himself a tiny smile of satisfaction as he overtook 1966-World Cup winning hat-trick hero Sir Geoff Hurst's record of 49 caps.

But the man who has only scored as many goals (five) as right-back Phil Neal did in the same number of games for England rarely reveals his emotions.

"He's the nicest man in the world," insists Claridge instantly when asked about Heskey as a man.

Apart from scoring enough goals, there's not a lot more you can ask from him. His type of player sometimes goes under the radar a little bit

Steve Claridge

"He's quiet, he's never going to be the life and soul of the party, but he's entirely reliable and a really nice bloke."

But don't nice guys come last? Claridge has a different viewpoint.

"It helps Heskey actually because it buys latitude with the fans and other players as well."

While Claridge explains the positives for England in introverted Heskey's steely character, Cottee says that sometimes he needs a positive word in his ear.

"He was a very quiet character though I'm sure he's matured and developed over the years," says Cottee.

"I don't think he always believes how good he is. That was something that Martin O'Neill always tried to instil into him at Leicester, that sort of confidence and the ability to go out and believe you are one of the best players on the pitch."

HAS HESKEY EVOLVED OVER THE YEARS?

The resounding and unanimous answer is no - which bucks the trend of the vast majority of players who, despite experiencing peaks and troughs, generally find an upward curve in terms of development and improvement of their game over the course of a career.

"I don't think he has changed over the years," says England legend Alan Shearer.

"You know what you are going to get from him - he's big, strong, good in the air and he brings other players into the game. He's a great team player."

Over the years Heskey has received abuse from fans and frequent public bashings from a critical media, but Claridge thinks he has remained completely unaffected.

606: DEBATE
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"You do become conditioned to it over a period of time," says Claridge.

"But he's not doing anything different than he was one or two years ago. It's just that the conditions surrounding him have changed."

The environment he now finds himself in is one in which his international coach wants a more rounded contribution from a striker than merely goals - hence Michael Owen's exclusion from Capello's recent squads - and Heskey is revelling in it.

"Apart from scoring enough goals, there's not a lot more you can ask from him," says Claridge.

"He does what he does and that's the way he's always been. He's never been prolific and one thing you can say is that's he's not scored enough scruffy goals.

"But, at club level, he'll always get you 12-14 goals - most of them really good - and he's also had a part in many others. That type of player sometimes goes under the radar a little bit."

True to form, Heskey has not received any real plaudits for his club form with unfashionable Wigan at the moment - but a look at the top of the Premier League scorers tells a significant story.

His Egyptian strike partner Amr Zaki is joint top with five goals and could be said to be the most in-form striker in the country right now, along with a certain Wayne Rooney. Coincidence?

WHAT NEXT FOR HESKEY?

Heskey has enjoyed an up-and-down career.

Costing nearly 23m in transfer fees across three moves, his star perhaps shone brightest when he helped England to a triumphant 5-1 win in Germany under Sven-Goran Eriksson's regime in 2001.

Around that time he was also winning silverware with the biggest club he has played for, Liverpool, but has also experienced his fair share of disappointment - Birmingham's relegation from the Premier League in 2006 when he scored just four goals.

Emile Heskey and Wayne Rooney
Heskey has helped Rooney (r) find his best form since Euro 2004

What the future holds for Heskey on the club scene, which is not always entirely indicative of his popularity with England coaches, seems to be down to the man himself.

"I hope a few managers will be taking notice," Heskey, who has yet to begin talks about a new contract at Wigan, said on Thursday, with that deal set to run out at the end of the season. "It's a nice situation that I'm in.

"I'm still a Wigan player and I want to do my best for them. But everyone wants to be playing on these stages and for their club in the Champions League. I'm no different."

The message seems pretty clear and with the January transfer window only a couple of months away, some of England's top clubs could be circling the Wigan forward.

"He's not a great goalscorer, you know that before you play him," Shearer tells BBC Sport.

"But if you want a centre-forward to score goals Emile is not the man, but if you want a centre-forward to bring other players into the game, work their socks off for the team and get the best out of the other centre-forward then Emile is the man. He's proven that."

A ringing endorsement from the best England goalscorer of his generation just a day after fans had his name tumbling down the Minsk terraces as they chanted in admiration. The quiet man from Leicester has never had it so good.

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see also
Rooney enjoys 'career-best form'
16 Oct 08 |  Internationals
Belarus 1-3 England
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Rooney comes of age
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World Cup qualifiers as they happened
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England pre-Capello was 'circus'
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International football photos
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From bullets in Baghdad to Belarus
14 Oct 08 |  Internationals
England 5-1 Kazakhstan
11 Oct 08 |  Internationals
Pick your England XI
31 Aug 07 |  Internationals


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