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Heskey enjoying England renaissance

October 9, 2008

Kazakhstan have been dubbed, presumably to their displeasure, "Borat's boys". But the 11 players representing the former Soviet republic at Wembley on Saturday won't be the only footballers accustomed to being the butt of the jokes. Built like a boxer, Emile Heskey has spent much of his career providing the punchline to gags.

GettyImagesHeskey is more than just a battering ram up front.
Now there is a growing appreciation of his contributions. It is not often that the Wigan Athletic supporters can be said to sum up the opinions of the footballing public, but they salute their target man with a chant that includes the lyric "he used to be shite, but now he's alright." It is scarcely fulsome praise, but it is still more acclaim than Heskey is accustomed to receiving.

Assuming he stays fit, the 30-year-old will become the 49th England player to win 50 caps next week in Belarus. Once that would have been a source of regret, and Phil Neville's status as the most derided player to reach that landmark would have been endangered. Now, however, Heskey can expect greater tributes. After England's 4-1 victory in Croatia, it did not pass unnoticed that a common denominator in many of the outstanding results of recent years, from the 5-1 win over Germany in Munich to last year's 3-0 demolition of Russia, was Heskey. Now, despite a record in front of goal that suggests he is one of the least dangerous forwards in England's history, he appears indispensable.

For a man whose international days appeared effectively ended by the clumsy foul that preceded Zinedine Zidane's equaliser for France in Euro 2004 and whose club career reached its nadir in 2006 when Birmingham City were demoted to the Championship, it marks a reversal in his fortunes.

His renaissance began, arguably, at Bramall Lane on May 13, 2007. Wigan's 2-1 win saved themselves and relegated Sheffield United. It included the archetypal Heskey performance. He did not score, but his contribution stretched from the Blades' box into his own penalty area where he repelled a series of increasingly desperate attacks. Heskey ended the game as an auxiliary defender; while strikers are encouraged to be selfish, here was evidence that his commitment to the team ethic can be still more beneficial.

An international recall may have been prompted by the players, Michael Owen in particular, but it provided respite for Steve McClaren in the back-to-back victories over Israel and Russia, when he was parachuted into the team after not being a part of the initial squad.

When Fabio Capello selected Heskey, he became the fifth man, including the caretaker Peter Taylor, to pick him for England. Factor in the consistent praise from club managers such as Paul Jewell and Steve Bruce and it is apparent his superiors appreciate Heskey.

So do team-mates. He appears to be Wayne Rooney's preferred partner in attack and is definitely Owen's. Statistics suggest Heskey has eight assists for England - and just five goals - indicating that, in his physical fashion, he is more creator than scorer.

The frequent flick-ons are an important ingredient of Owen's requirements for a partner. The willingness to push defences back, thus creating more room in the hole, suits Rooney's style of play. His habitual prominence suits colleagues who want an outlet in attack and find smaller strikers such as Owen and Jermain Defoe too anonymous. His ability to lead the line alone contrasts with most of his counterparts, who generally favour life as part of a strike duo.

GettyImagesLike Own before him, Zaki has reaped the rewards of playing alongside Heskey.
The paradox of Heskey is that he provides an unrivalled assortment of attributes, if they usually don't include a clinical touch in front of goal. Compared to the other potential target men, Peter Crouch and Dean Ashton, his pace is a plus, enabling him to chase the sort of aimless punts England players often employ and to add another dimension to attacks. Yet Crouch averages a goal every two internationals and Heskey close to one every 10; his last for England was in South Africa in 2003.

The most obvious requirement of striker is that he scores. Only the 2000/01 campaign, when he struck 23 times and Liverpool won a trio of trophies, did he do that regularly. But with his dislike of the limelight and his fondness for selfless graft, Heskey may not have the personality of the usual attacker. That enables him to serve as a foil for others; Owen's best seasons came alongside Heskey and now Amr Zaki is the joint top scorer in the Premier League.

When his partner is prolific, Heskey's lack of goals is less of an issue. When the midfield chip in - as Theo Walcott did with a hat-trick in Zagreb and Joe Cole, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard have the potential to do - it is still less significant. Yet when the team draw a blank, the centre-forward's contribution will inevitably be analysed. When England next fail, it will be interesting to note if Heskey is blamed.

He has only mustered one goal this season and that, in Wigan's 5-0 rout of Hull, had no bearing on the result. Indeed, his record for the Latics is not dissimilar to Paul Scharner's. Yet with his Wigan contract expiring next summer and no sign Heskey will renew it, there is increasing expectation that his revitalisation will prompt a move to a bigger club.

The most obvious vacancies for a fit and effective target man are at Tottenham and Newcastle, but, available on a free transfer in June, it will be instructive who else shows an interest, and what reaction it generates. Because if supporters are happy to see their club sign Emile Heskey, a players' player and a managers' player will have completed his journey to become a fans' player as well.