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'Against Brazil we were in business' - Heskey on England's golden generation, Liverpool and being underappreciated

Emile Heskey has a confession to make. “I always preferred athletics to football,” says the former England striker. “When I was younger, that was what I cared about. Football was secondary.”

He was good as well. He represented his district as a sprinter, and shone as a long jumper too. At junior school, his teachers felt he had what it took to pursue a career in track and field. Football, though, won the argument.

Heskey was nine years old when he was spotted playing for his school, and invited for a trial at Leicester’s Centre of Excellence. The die had been cast.

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“Football gradually took over,” he tells Goal. “Athletics is more seasonal, isn’t it? With football, I could play all day, every day. It was easier to go down that path.”

How glad he is that he did. When he retired as a player in 2016, Heskey’s career had spanned 22 years and almost 800 senior club games. He scored more than 150 goals, won eight major honours and picked up 62 caps for his country.

“Yeah, I did OK I suppose!” he says, with trademark modesty. He is remembered fondly; by home-town club Leicester, where he won two League Cups and became the Foxes’ youngest Premier League debutant as a 17-year-old, by Liverpool, where he was part of Gerard Houllier’s treble-winning side of 2000-01, and in his subsequent career, which took in stints at Birmingham, Wigan, Aston Villa and Bolton, as well as two years in Australia with Newcastle Jets.

He is remembered as a selfless player, a striker willing to do the dirty work so that others could steal the limelight. Heskey scored goals – he is a member of the Premier League ‘100 club’ – but he was always more a facilitator. Ask Michael Owen to name his favourite ever partner, for example, and only one name will come back. For club and country, he and Heskey shone together.

“It was natural,” Heskey says. “I played with Michael with the England Under-18 team, and we just struck up an understanding. We’d never met before, never played with each other before, but we clicked on the pitch. I understood what he wanted, he knew what I would do. It was the perfect match.”

Emile Heskey vs LeedsGetty Images

Heskey had cost Liverpool £11million ($13.5m) when joining in March 2000. He had learned his trade at Leicester, where the tough love of Martin O’Neill and some ferocious Friday training sessions had helped turn him from a quiet winger into a rounded centre-forward, one who could make the most of his impressive physical attributes.

“Those Fridays at Leicester, oh mate!” he laughs. “We’d play young versus old every week, and it was the most competitive game you could ever imagine!

“They’d have Matt Elliott, Steve Walsh, Gerry Taggart, big, tough, old-school defenders, and all they do is throw them all up front and then launch the ball into the box! So I’m 18 or 19, and we’ve got to try and defend against these big monsters coming at you. They’d batter us from pillar to post.

“We used to have the yellow jersey which was given to the worst player in training, the lads would vote for it. You didn’t want that yellow jersey! It got so competitive, trust me. You’d be pumped going into training because you knew it was on. It taught me a lot.”

Liverpool was different. Heskey arrived for big money and found, in Houllier, a manager with a different philosophy entirely to O’Neill.

“Gerard wanted us to know football inside and out,” he says.

“Martin would make us focus on ourselves, and on our strengths, but Houllier was different. We’d do whole training sessions at Liverpool where we wouldn’t even see a football! We’d do shadow play, where to be on the pitch when the ball is in a certain area, where to move, all that. Then we’d go inside and spend 45 minutes or an hour going through video analysis!

“It was a rude awakening when I first got there, but looking back it made such a difference to me as a player.”

Heskey’s first full season on Merseyside could hardly have gone better. Liverpool won the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup, and qualified for the Champions League by securing third place on the final day of the Premier League season. The Reds played 63 games in that campaign, and Heskey featured in 56 of them. Only Owen scored more goals.

“It was amazing, the run we went on,” Heskey says. “I just remember playing every three days, and every game was massive. It’d be hotel, travel, play, go home and pack, travel again, play again.

“People talk to me about the Alaves game [the UEFA Cup final, which Liverpool won 5-4 after extra-time] but I always tell them I can’t remember it! I was so tired, I was running on adrenaline by that point!”

Emile Heskey Liverpool 2003

Heskey has fond memories of his time at Anfield. He remembers the training sessions with Owen and Steven Gerrard and Gary McAllister – though it was two other players who stood out above all others at Melwood.

“Paddy and Vladi, the Czech boys!” he says, referring to Patrik Berger and Vladimir Smicer. “They were an absolute joke, I swear. You couldn’t put those two on the same side in training. Nobody could get near them.”

He recalls Liverpool’s famous victory over Everton at Goodison Park on Easter Monday, 2001, when McAllister’s stoppage-time free kick secured a 3-2 win.

“Only Gary Mac could have done that,” he says. “When he first kicked it we were all thinking ‘what are you doing?!’ Everybody was at the far post waiting for it to be hung up, and instead he whips it in near post. Ridiculous. I’ll never forget the emotions from that day.”

The Premier League, of course, eluded Heskey and Liverpool. They finished third in 2001 and second behind Arsenal a year later, before tailing off. By the time Heskey left for Birmingham in the summer of 2004, the Reds were well off the pace.

“The bottom line is we weren’t quite as good as Arsenal and Manchester United,” he says, matter-of-factly. “We didn’t have that consistency when it really mattered. We’d beat those teams on our day, but we’d go and lose against a side we should have beaten the next week. You can’t win leagues that way.”

Heskey’s departure was a swift one. He was informed by Liverpool that Djibril Cisse was arriving from Auxerre, and that opportunities would be limited.

“What do you do?” he asks. “Sit and do nothing or carry on with your career? I chose to move on, but when I look back I think I would have played games if I had stayed. Cisse got a bad injury and there weren’t many other strikers there at the time. They won the Champions League at the end of that season.”

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At Birmingham, he admits it took him time to adapt.

“I went from playing with Michael, Stevie G, Gary Mac,” he says. “All I had to do was make a run! Then I’m at Birmingham, and no disrespect to the players there but I was making runs and nobody was even looking at me. It was a totally different calibre of player.

“Mentally that was tough at first, but I got my head around it. You learn to play in a different way, you work hard and find a way to fit in with the team.”

Heskey’s England career lasted longer than his Liverpool one. Handed his senior debut by Kevin Keegan in 1999, he was a favourite of Sven-Goran Eriksson alongside Owen, and made his final international appearance under Fabio Capello at the 2010 World Cup.

He was part of a group of players dubbed ‘The Golden Generation’ – alongside the likes of Gerrard, Owen, David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard – but ask him why England failed to win a major trophy in his time and he provides an interesting answer.

“Everyone talks about the golden generation, but look at France,” he says. “That was the real golden generation wasn’t it?

“Even if you just look at my age group; we had me, Carra [Jamie Carragher], Rio, Lamps, Jody Morris. They had [Nicolas] Anelka, [David] Trezeguet, [Thierry] Henry, [Ousmane] Dabo, [William] Gallas, [Mikael] Silvestre, [Willy] Sagnol. And that was just from one group!

"Then add in [Zinedine] Zidane and [Marcel] Desailly and [Robert] Pires and the rest and tell me who has the golden era?!”

He adds: “The 2002 World Cup was the one I look back and think we had a chance. When we went 1-0 up against Brazil in the quarter-final I thought we were in business. But it wasn’t to be. We lost 2-1, but we had a chance there.”

Nowadays Heskey, 42, is active in the media, and recently enrolled on a UEFA's Master’s programme, which aims to give ex-players the chance to pursue alternative careers within the game, be it coaching or administrative.

He laughs when Goal asks if he feels he was underappreciated during his playing career.

“By who?” he asks. “Not by my team-mates or my managers, and not by the fans of the clubs I played for. If I go back to Liverpool, the fans are always amazing with me. That’s what matters to me. The rest, who cares? I enjoyed every minute of my career.”