Goodbye Emile Heskey. What to make of his 11 years and 62 games
of service for England?
Let's start with the positives.
In an age when footballers are derided as self-obsessed
prima donnas who wield too much power, Heskey was a refreshing exception.
That rare beast, a player who performs better for his
country than his club, Heskey just put his head down and got on with it.
He remained willing and uncomplaining, even in the face of
some pretty unpleasant criticism from his own fans.
His finest moment in an England shirt became the subject of
mockery in song: "Five-one, even Heskey scored!" And the groans when
he came on against Germany
last month were so loud they momentarily drowned out the vuvuzelas.
Opposition fans subjected him to far worse treatment on
occasion; Croatia were fined
after a section of the crowd in Zagreb
directed monkey chants at him.
Throughout it all, Heskey maintained his dignity and
composure; a rare level head in a squad full of competing egos; an Indian in a
team of Chiefs.
Six managers picked him for England (including caretakers
Howard Wilkinson and Peter Taylor), handing him 62 caps over 11 years.
When you consider his hard work and his selflessness, it is
not hard to see why he was a favourite of so many bosses.
It's just a shame he wasn't better at football. Seven goals
in 60-plus caps is a dismal return, even for a striker whose main job is not to
Goalkeepers Rene Higuita and Jose Luis Chilavert finished
with more international goals, and played with a good deal more flair.
Heskey did one thing better than anyone - holding the ball
up - and did everything else worse. His touch was ragged, his passing erratic
and his finishing hesitant.
The latter point was summed up in England's
opening World Cup game against the United States, when
Heskey was played clean through and had a great chance to restore England's
Nobody but nobody thought he was going to hit the
back of the net - Heskey included. And he duly shot straight at Tim Howard. You
simply can't succeed when your striker isn't even a threat to score.
The defence of Heskey was that he helped get the best out of
his team-mates. He supposedly brought Wayne Rooney into play and gave the star
man support up front.
Well, OK. Maybe he did at times. But only when England were playing football of
the most prehistoric nature.
Rooney doesn't need a big fella at Manchester United, and you
don't see top international teams employing such an inadequate target man
That is because they pass the ball around instead of pinging
it 60 yards into the vague vicinity of the strikers at the first opportunity.
Heskey was a sort of malign safety blanket for England. He
gave jumpy centre-backs an easy out ball whenever they felt nervous, and he
reduced the impulse to build moves properly. Instead we could just knock it
long and feed off whatever scraps he left.
Without him, we will have to try to play proper football.
The obvious limitations of Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe,
Darren Bent and company mean Capello may be forced to abandon his beloved 4-4-2
and play Rooney as a lone striker.
I don't believe a mere switch to 4-2-3-1 would have
salvaged England's doomed World Cup, but
if the team is now required to play with a bit more skill, a bit more movement
and a lot more intelligence, that has to be a good thing.
Say what you want about Heskey, but at least his international
retirement is relevant.
He is no Andy Cole or Chris Sutton, players who 'quit' the England scene
when they had no chance whatsoever of selection.
Heskey played in every England
game at the World Cup, and though the critics might not like to admit it, may
well have been in the squad to face Bulgaria in Euro 2012 qualifying in
And he deserves tremendous credit for his longevity. Anyone
who still has the option to retire of their own volition after a decade in the England team
has obviously done something right.
- Emile Heskey