In the summer of 2016, Emile William Ivanhoe Heskey retired from top class football after over two decades of rampaging forward play, that took in seven clubs and 62 appearances for his country. Here, the widely respected striker discusses the varying fortunes of three of his former employers starting with Liverpool’s faltering title aspirations and a Brazilian schemer who is only set to make matters worse.
Liverpool are drifting
When the Reds paid out a then club record £11m for Leicester’s Emile Heskey back in 2000 the move was a bittersweet one for a player born and raised in the Midlands city. With this in mind the 39 year old is worth listening to on the topic of Philippe Coutinho’s proposed big-money move to La Liga knowing as he does the personal dilemma between emotion and ambition.
“When the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid – and even Liverpool themselves – are linked to players then players seriously think about it. So I’m not surprised that Coutinho is considering it. He is close to some who play there and a number of Brazilians have represented the club over the years so that’s where he’s thinking of plying his trade next. There is always that chance that he might go in January because if they come back with another offer his head will be turned again.”
Until then Jurgen Klopp’s men have bigger concerns namely at the other end of the pitch having already conceded 12 goals from their opening eight games. What does Heskey put this costly and persistent weakness down to?
“It goes without saying that defensively they’re not as sound as they could be. I don’t know if it’s personnel or if it’s not fully understanding the shape of their defending. When you look at the old Arsenal sides they would devote whole training sessions to their defensive shape. Everyone says it is personnel but only time will tell when they get someone else in and if it stays the same.”
If the Merseysiders are vulnerable at the back they are at least compensated by a front three who almost guarantee goals. Salah, Mane and Firmino have torn into bamboozled opponents this term with such relish they have brought to mind another frightening trio from recent years at Anfield. How do they compare?
“Wow, that is tough. It’s a difficult question because obviously they are so different. If you look at Sturridge, Sterling and Suarez in their prime that was a forward line that was feared by everybody in the league. Everybody wanted to be like that front three. Suarez has gone on to do some phenomenal stuff for Barcelona and I have to say they’re the better ones out of the two. But it’s close.”
Speaking of Daniel Sturridge the prolific frontman has found himself cast to the margins since Klopp’s arrival two years ago with some questioning his ability to fit into the German’s exacting style of play. Does the England international need to look elsewhere to get his career back on track?
“He needs more games and any player would say the same. That’s when you get the best out of yourself and enjoy your football. He needs that right now but Liverpool are obviously not giving it to him so it’s a difficult time for him. With the system footballers are very adaptable so I don’t see why it should be a problem for Sturridge.”
What is unquestionably a problem at present however is Liverpool’s inconsistency that has seen them slip down to eighth in the Premier League. Is the title now beyond them?
“It’s a difficult one because they’re really falling adrift of the leaders and they’re now nine points behind Manchester City. The top four is a must but whether they can do it is another thing.”
This weekend will certainly have a serious bearing on that with Liverpool facing an intimidating trip to the capital to face Spurs. Or at least it would have been intimidating last season.
“Tottenham haven’t really been blowing people away at Wembley have they so it’s a case of Liverpool going there very confident and getting something out of it.”
Foxes need to believe again
Moving away from Anfield the conversation switches to Heskey’s first love and hometown club of Leicester City. Having shocked the footballing world to its core with their 5000-1 title success in 2016 the Foxes have endured a bumpy return back to reality since and currently reside in the bottom three. Does a relegation fight beckon?
“It has been a tough start for them but it was never going to be easy. You’re in the Premier League at the end of the day so all games are going to be tough. They need to start taking opportunities when they come and when you’re got players like Slimani, Mahrez, and Vardy then Leicester will create chances. After that it’s about believing in themselves and taking them. It was a tough start last season too but they kicked on and I think they’ll do the same again.”
A significant factor in Craig Shakespeare’s side struggling to replicate their incredible impact from two years ago has been the declining fortunes of their talisman Jamie Vardy. Heskey believes this is not down to the striker himself but rather a heightened awareness of his strengths by opponents.
“They’ve cottoned on to how to defend against Vardy but he’s still got a lot to offer. His game isn’t just about running in from behind and he can still get it into his feet, turn and run at teams and just cause all sorts of problems. Which is great.”
If Vardy is somewhat excused the diminishing returns from Riyad Mahrez gets shorter shrift from the big man, especially after the Algerian’s disruptive desire to move on this summer.
“It’s time that he got the best out of himself because at the end of the day it’s about him isn’t it. Whether he wants a move or not he’s still got to produce and go out there and perform. He’s done that reasonably well but there’s a lot of onus put on his shoulders because of the performances he has put in in previous years.”
From his debut as a raw teenager in the mid-nineties to the start of this century Heskey played a prominent role in a vintage Leicester side that twice won the League Cup under Martin O’Neill. Perhaps it is understandable then that when the amiable striker looks back on that period he finds it hard to pick out one player from a terrific bunch.
“It’s difficult to say who was the best but I’d probably say Muzzy Izzet had the most impact. Coming from Chelsea’s reserves when nobody knew who he was and then becoming one of the best players in our history is phenomenal. I’d say Muzzy for that achievement but we all gave something special.”
Villa are afraid to express themselves
Steve Bruce was evidently a fan of Emile Heskey’s attributes having signed the forward on two different occasions, for Birmingham City then Wigan. Now in situ at Villa Park the veteran coach faces the unenviable task of hauling a sleeping giant back into the top flight and having played for the Villans himself with distinction for three years Heskey is in the perfect position to assess his chances. Firstly, is the admiration reciprocated?
“I think Steve Bruce is great. He’s a wonderful man who knows what he wants. He understands the physicality of the Championship but one thing I would say is that Villa need a bit of time. When I’ve watched them play they don’t look too confident. When you look at when I was playing for them we had Ashley Young, James Milner, Gabby Agbonlahor and John Carew; Gareth Barry and Stiliyan Petrov: these are all confident players who went out and expressed themselves. Now they’re not and it’s going to take a bit of time for the manager to install that.”
Bruce’s efforts are aided considerably by the presence in the dressing room of an England legend in the form of John Terry. Having represented their country together on numerous occasions what does Heskey think the 36 year old can contribute to the promotion battle ahead.
“His experience can help not only the lads who are there now but the young lads who are looking to get into the squad in the future. They will see what it takes to get to that next level. He’s done it and worn all of the jerseys so it’s great. He’s not the same John Terry who won the Champions League but he’s still got a lot to offer and when you get older you might not be as quick and sharp but you’re mentally wiser and know where to be at the right times.”
A defeat away to Wolves last weekend knocked Aston Villa temporarily out of the play-off places and with a trigger-happy owner in charge the pressure is beginning to mount. Does Heskey believe its boom or bust for the Clarets in 2017/18?
“I don’t think so but if they don’t reach the playoffs they’ll probably be looking at that, yeah.”