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Emile Heskey, Liverpool’s team player

Former Liverpool striker Emile Heskey talks to Lounge about being a team player and the importance of Roberto Firmino

Emile Heskey celebrates after scoring for Liverpool in 2001
Emile Heskey celebrates after scoring for Liverpool in 2001 (Getty Images)

Emile Heskey is such a caricatured figure in the world of football that his autobiography from last year is called, rather self-deprecatingly, Even Heskey Scored. The popular conception of the former Liverpool and Leicester City striker as a man more prone to falling over with the open goal at his mercy is so prevalent that his actual contribution on the pitch is probably due for a relook.

In Delhi last week for fan outreach work for Liverpool, when Heskey sat down for a conversation with journalists from Mint and Hindustan Times, I asked him about this. After all, Heskey, 42, remains one of only 28 players in the history of the Premier League to have scored 100 or more goals (he has scored 110). And, equally importantly, he provided 53 assists. Did he feel underappreciated? “I still scored over 100 goals in the Premier League. But I was a team player, I was more for the team than actually just me as a striker," he says.

Here’s the thing: Heskey has actually scored more goals than Chelsea legend Dider Drogba (104), and is just two assists behind Manchester United’s Paul Scholes (55), who is considered one of the finest midfielders to have played in the Premier League. Scholes also scored 107 goals.

So when it comes down to bare statistics, Heskey’s career is comparable with some of the best in the game. In his five seasons with Liverpool, from 1999 -2004, he struck up a fearsome partnership with Michael Owen, the perfect “big man-little man" combination which saw the latter, a more natural centre forward, rack up 99 goals in all competitions. Heskey was brilliant in bringing others into play, a role that has been mastered by Roberto Firmino in the current Liverpool team. Firmino is rightly toasted for his vision and link-up play, something Heskey missed receiving. “You see a lot of that in Firmino now as well," he says, elaborating on team play. “He scores a lot of goals, to be fair to him, but he’s always thinking about other people around him, and what sort of pass (he) needs to play. Myself, I always thought of the team, I loved that aspect of it. They are my teammates. If I look after them, they are gonna look after me as well."

This was years before the emergence of the “false number 9" position of the withdrawn striker. Firmino is one of the best operators in that position, but Heskey, despite his team play, was a traditional No.9, leading the line and scoring goals. “I scored 22 goals in my first full season for Liverpool, so it was a bit of both," he says. It is also true that he was playing in an era which had some of the finest strikers to have ever played the game. When your career coincides with strikers such as Ronaldo, Owen, Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, Raúl and Filippo Inzaghi, to name just a few, it might be easy to get overlooked; especially at a time when appreciating a striker who is a creator as much as a finisher was still a decade away.

Would he be appreciated more if he were playing now? “Probably appreciated more now. Because, in general, when you talk about forwards, it’s just goals that you are looking at. But if you are not scoring goals, what are you actually doing for the team, and now we are seeing a lot more of that, and people are appreciating that a lot more now," says Heskey.

In his five seasons at Liverpool, Heskey won six major trophies, and was an integral cog in the team that won the historic treble of the FA Cup, the League Cup and the Uefa Cup in 2001. Add to this his two League Cup wins with Leicester before he joined Liverpool. That’s a rich haul for a striker who was apparently only good at falling over.

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