WHEN recalling that glorious treble year of 2001 under Gerard Houllier, few voices will celebrate the contribution of Emile Heskey, who signed for the Reds from Leicester City for a record £11 million 17 years ago this week.
Instead, the successive League, FA and UEFA Cup triumphs – and the small matter of Champions League qualification on the final day of the season – bring to mind a coltish Steven Gerrard, the nous in front of goal of Michael Owen; the guile and guidance of Gary McAllister.
Heskey’s role during that campaign was to act as an unselfish foil to Owen and his legacy perhaps suffers for that. Supporters’ enduring affection for Robbie Fowler and desire to see more of the mercurial Jari Litmanen added to Heskey’s woes in fully winning over the Liverpool crowd.
Heskey deserves to be remembered more fondly. My personal recollection is of him taking a thousand long balls on his chest and killing them all stone dead. If Houllier’s tactics were occasionally crude, Heskey on his best days, as the focal point of the attack, was absolutely unplayable. His 22 goals in 56 games during the treble year are testament to the level he was at during that historic season.
Let’s put that achievement in context. Heskey started in all three cup finals; preferred to Owen against Birmingham in the League Cup and picked over Fowler against Arsenal and Alaves. Liverpool FC has won one trophy in 11 years; Heskey won three medals in three months in 2001, and another League Cup in 2003.
His Anfield career is hardly the definition of unfulfilled promise but Heskey barely gets a mention in the pantheon of Liverpool strikers. It is a shame he is more synonymous with Houllier’s gradual decline during his final two seasons in a moribund Liverpool team, than for his earlier swashbuckling efforts when Gerard was at the peak of his almost messianic powers.
The way Heskey was perceived from the outset was founded in his outstanding physique. Such was his muscularity; the football fraternity clumsily nicknamed him “Bruno”, after the black British heavyweight boxer, Frank. On his home debut against Sunderland in March 2000, The Kop, without malice, serenaded him with this before being put straight by Heskey. He preferred, not unreasonably, to go by the name of Emile.
The narrative was that Heskey, with all this physical power and natural brute strength, could and should always be doing more. He developed a reputation among supporters for being wrestled to the ground too easily, always content to take a free-kick rather than use his pace and strength to carry on and run at goal. Not much thought was given to his skill at giving his defence a breather and breaking up play. Seldom was Heskey lauded for his game intelligence.
Heskey is a classic case of a player appreciated more in the dressing room than on the terraces. His partnership with Owen, an old fashioned big man-little man combination, worked a treat. Houllier is to be credited with this, having spotted the pair playing together for England under-16s and under-18s years before Heskey arrived at Anfield.
Not only was Heskey the master of fielding balls fired at him from every conceivable angle and holding off the attentions of bruising centre-halves before spreading play, he was also the master of the flick-on and the quicksilver Owen profited on countless occasions. Emile did much of the dirty work while Michael, before his star fell among Liverpool fans, lapped up the adulation.
As much as Heskey’s role was to play the unselfish part in a front two, when he found the net it was often in spectacular fashion. An opening day goal against Bradford at Anfield in August 2000, giving Liverpool a 1-0 win, was typical of his attributes; turning and spinning 25 yards from goal, holding off defenders on his way into the box and firing decisively, spectacularly into the roof of the net. As a side note, Heskey’s goal was the first ever at Anfield acknowledged verbally by stadium announcer, George Sephton.
The Reds were set fair for the one of the longest seasons in their history and Heskey would lead the line throughout.
Whenever Heskey scored in such fashion, rather than celebrate his quality, there was always regret he couldn’t do it more regularly. A career ratio of one goal in every four games was a lasting blight on his reputation.
Even Houllier thought the shy striker could offer more of a goal threat. At the height of his scoring prowess, the manager said, “What can Emile do to improve? Well at times he should probably have more self-belief and confidence in front of goal. Yes he has scored 20 goals for us…this season. But he has missed a lot of chances as well – it should be more.”
Houllier’s words at the end of the treble season damned Heskey’s efforts with the faintest praise, but he hit the right note in terms of his belief and conviction. The player’s greatest failing was that he never quite realised how good he was.
When the confidence flowed, goals flew in from all angles; an outrageous lob over Chris Kirkland against Coventry, a blast into the top corner to crown a hat-trick at Derby; and a pile-driver from distance at The Kop end in an Anfield derby.
After that match against Everton, during which Heskey had led the Blues rearguard a merry dance throughout an explosive second half, one press report concluded, “Heskey was leading (Liverpool’s) improvement with yet another monumental performance. His touch, movement and ability to hurt opponents have advanced his game beyond recognition.” His willingness to put his body on the line; often described as a human battering ram, did Heskey the disservice of underplaying his talent – in particular an unerring first touch with his back to goal.
Heskey ploughed on in much the same fashion all season. Two key goals, one riotously celebrated by a barmy away end at Leeds in the FA Cup fifth round and another against Wycombe Wanderers in the semi-final at Villa Park smoothed the Reds’ path to Cardiff.
When it came to the three cup finals though, Fowler and Owen managed to leave indelible images on Liverpool’s history, while Heskey failed to get on the scoresheet. In Dortmund in the UEFA Final, Fowler replaced an exhausted Heskey and stole most of the glory. Nevertheless, it had been a record-breaking season for Liverpool and Heskey had been integral.
The following year, with the Reds now returned to the Champions League, brought drama all of its own and possibly Heskey’s finest moment in a Red shirt. Houllier cheated death to recover from a dissected aorta in October, leaving assistant boss, Phil Thompson in charge.
When the manager – a gaunt, pale shadow of his former self – made a dramatic, hushed-up return to the dugout against AS Roma (managed by Fabio Capello), Anfield was in ferment. With the passage of time, it’s occasionally worth remembering that the bond, at least for a while, between Houllier and The Kop was as strong as anything since the days of Bill Shankly. Once the Frenchman’s presence was recognised on the touchline, supporters reacted as though welcoming a parent back from the dead.
Liverpool needed to win this final game (of a second group phase) by two clear goals to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 1985. Deprived of both Owen and Fowler, Heskey was paired with Litmanen up front. The Finn, always an assured presence, put the Reds ahead from the penalty spot after just seven minutes to set up a nail-biting finale.
Throughout the second half, with the Reds striving for a second, crucial goal, Heskey ran Roma ragged. His aerial presence constantly unsettled the Italian backline and several surging runs down the flanks whipped the crowd into frenzy. Just past the hour mark, Danny Murphy clipped a free-kick from the left towards the penalty spot. Heskey towered above whole Roma defence to glance a majestic downward header into The Kop net for the winner.
It was the one of the great Anfield moments and the high point of Heskey’s Anfield career.
Houllier then famously declared Liverpool “10 games from greatness” but lost out to Bayer Leverkusen in the next round and succumbed to a relentless Arsenal in pursuit of the league title. Eventually, the manager’s growing insecurity and paranoia, in the wake of his major heart trauma, affected his decision making and signalled the beginning of the end.
Heskey, in turn, never scaled the same heights during his final two seasons as the Houllier era descended into acrimony. The manager was regularly accused by fans of “losing the plot” and became increasingly cautious in his approach. Any style or swagger in Liverpool’s football had all but disappeared and Heskey, severely lacking in confidence, endured numerous droughts in front of goal.
That he accepted his lot when regularly shifted out to play on the left wing said much of the shy, retiring facet to his personality. He registered just 13 league goals in 67 games over his last two years at Anfield, signalling that time in red was up.
Heskey’s eventual departure coincided with the spent Houllier’s inevitable exit but while Gerard will always be synonymous with the trophies and memories of 2001, sadly his main man throughout that season isn’t so readily associated with the same glories.