England's striker crisis may well be at an end courtesy of the most unlikeliest of heroes, and Goal.com's Sulmaan Ahmad argues just why he should keep his place on merit...For the majority of his career, Emile Heskey has only ever been famous for an apparent resemblance to former heavyweight boxer Frank Bruno. On the pitch, the Leicester-born frontman has been branded something of a donkey - leading to the unfortunate nickname of 'Emule' - and far out of his depth in the England set-up.
He made his name in the late 1990s as part of a Leicester City side on the rise, before sealing a high-profile transfer to Liverpool in 2000 for a club record fee of £11 million. He was by and large thought at best to be a foil for strike partner Michael Owen and little more, eventually leaving the Reds for Birmingham City - a significant backwards step - and failing to build on his promising start at St Andrews before switching to Wigan Athletic, where he has rediscovered his confidence and forced his way back into the England set-up.
Latics boss Steve Bruce is convinced that Emile is the best striker of his type that the country has to offer - a claim met with much derision from the majority of England fans - but old Bruno is going some way towards defying his critics, in his own way, with every passing game for both club and country.
England's striker dilemma has haunted them ever since Michael Owen's career became blighted by injury. Though it did not take long for Wayne Rooney to emerge as the new prodical son, the Manchester United ace is far from a striker in the mould of Owen or Alan Shearer before him. England needed something, or someone, new.
Every name under the sun has been banded about in preference to the very thought of Heskey leading the line for the Three Lions, but they have all fallen short. With Wayne Rooney rightfully a fixture in the forward line, it is simply an issue of finding the perfect partner.
The consistent rejection of Michael Owen has been the most contentious selection issue during Fabio Capello's reign so far, but the Newcastle United front-man still hasn't hit top fitness, and the thought of him being stretchered off in an England shirt - again - is probably one Don Fabio is keen to avoid. Furthermore, Owen is one that has always functioned at his best playing alongside a more imposing strike partner (such as Heskey) - something Rooney is not. Dean Ashton remains every idealist's choice, but remains in far too poor a physical state to put himself in contention. Jermain Defoe, much like Owen, has always been at his most effective playing alongside a targetman. The same can be said of the in-form Gabriel Agbonlahor. Darren Bent has shown all the qualities necessary to be the perfect man for the job, but has thus far failed to perform consistently enough to get the nod.
What rapidly became obvious is that many of the best available strikers would not fit into the team setup. While Capello is at least for now persisting with the highly criticised midfield pairing of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, up front, he has learnt his lessons and gone for a far less remarkable player, in Heskey, who has already begun bringing out the best in everyone around him. Peter Crouch was the final option, and of a similar mould to Bruno, but lacking in his strength, positional sense and selflessness.
Against Belarus yesterday evening, Heskey notched up his 50th England cap, and with a measly five goals to his name, it's not hard to see why he has been written off by the vast majority of casual observers. However, one of his greatest achievements as an England international was bringing out the best in Michael Owen, whose goal-scoring record for England alongside Heskey is greater than a goal every other game. Old Bruno made up for his own inability to score by ensuring his strike partner scored twice as many as would usually be expected.
He is now bringing out a similar instinct in Wayne Rooney and proving a formidable outlet up front for Capello's men, even if not the most remarkable or impressive player in possession or in front of goal. In that respect, he is very much comparable with former Real Madrid, Chelsea and France stalwart, Claude Makélélé. While Makélélé sits in front of his own defence, Heskey perches alongside the opposition's, and facilitates the rest of the team's play with a quintessentially English physical approach to forward play.
"I had hardly played for four years so it has been nice to be back," said Heskey after winning his 50th cap, insisting he never gave up hope of reaching the milestone, despite what was almost a complete absence from the national fold for four years. "It's been pleasing the way it has gone and England are going in the right direction now and it has been good to work up a partnership with Wayne [Rooney]."
Though it may only be cosmetic in comparison to the successes of the team, Heskey has admitted he is itching to improve his goal-scoring record for the national team. "I don't think I've changed my approach - although I am a bit more relaxed - and I am keen to improve my goal tally with England," he continued. "I know I played on the left a few times, particularly during Sven [Goran Eriksson]'s spell in charge and I've also moved around a bit when playing club football. But strikers are judged on their goals so I would like to make the record a lot better. I have never been a prolific scorer but I always want to improve on that." True, even when he rose to prominence in the 90s he did not score at a particularly impressive rate, nor is he now at club level with Wigan, though he is - as he does with such ease - bringing the best out of the newly recruited Egyptian goal machine, Amr Zaki.
Though the obvious limitations of such players means they will disappear out of games, targetmen like Heskey, poachers like Filippo Inzaghi or even lightweight wingers Diego Capel will always offer a team a whole new dimension single-handedly, and that cannot be underestimated in the increasingly competitive and pressurised environment of modern football.
Don Fabio has always insisted it is not an individual's talent which concerns him, but their commitment to and synergy with the team. In that respect, Heskey was not such a surprise selection as it may have been under more media-conscious coaches of past England eras. It was nevertheless a brave and justified choice that looks well worth persisting with, certainly up until the World Cup.
"Emile Heskey is very important for us," said Capello following the win in Minsk. "He has good movement, he is strong, he is quick - and Heskey and Wayne Rooney do very well together." The 'Bespectacled One' was keen to add that Heskey had earned his place by improving his performances at the start of this season, following a poor finish to the last, in which he was held back by injuries.
Heskey's inclusion has done such wonders for the fluidity and freedom of the team, not to mention their newfound ability to grind out results by any means necessary. Now, it just remains a matter of time until Capello is forced to make a similarly brave call in midfield...
Sulmaan Ahmad, Goal.com