BY LAURA BURNIP
It is early days, but I can sense a change in fortune for Aston Villa striker Emile Heskey.
The much maligned player has long been a favourite target for fans, summed up by typing “Heskey” into google and the first suggestion being “Heskey jokes”.
But teammates and managers, at club and international level, have continued to support the forward, describing him as a “player’s player” whose contribution is misunderstood and heavily underappreciated.
This judgement is something that I’ve always been unconvinced of – nothing beats a good old-fashioned poacher. There’s no point in having a whole team of playmakers and nobody to actually get the ball in the back of the net.
Imagine my distress on Wednesday night when, losing 1-0 to Blackburn in Gerard Houllier’s first game as manager, he decides to bring on our man Emile in place of big man John Carew. Villa were giving probably the worst performance I have ever seen them give, and a drastic change was needed, something I did not think Heskey would provide.
Imagine my surprise when, seconds after taking to the field, Heskey found himself on the end of a perfect through ball from Ashley Young and confidently struck the ball into bottom right.
With just over half an hour to play, the atmosphere was transformed and Villa finally started to perform. The resurgent Heskey was instrumental in setting up the second goal and later put in a beautiful assist to make it 3-1, resulting in a deserved man-of-the-match award. It literally was a game of two halves, with Heskey’s substitution undoubtedly marking the change.
Heskey scored again in Villa’s game at Stoke on Saturday, with a late minute winner securing three points for the club who currently rest at fifth in the league.
At 32 years old, it is high time that Heskey started living up to his early potential. Signed for Liverpool by Houllier in 2000, he became the record transfer for the club as they handed over £11m to his home team Leicester City, managed at the time of course by Martin O’Neill.
His earlier strike partnership with Tony Cottee was hailed by O’Neill as having kept the club in the Premiership, but it seemed to have a negative effect on Heskey as a goalscorer. He went from being their top scorer to taking a back seat, and his goalscoring record went downhill throughout spells with Liverpool, Birmingham City and Wigan. At Wigan, Heskey scored just 15 times in 88 appearances, and last season at Villa he managed five goals in 42 games.
It seems too coincidental that this newfound confidence is nothing to do with Houllier, who said last week: “I don’t know whether he believes in me but I believe in him. That is more important.”
However Houllier’s appointment may not be such welcome news to certain members of the squad. Both Stephen Warnock and Brad Friedel are allegedly on bad terms with Houllier after playing under him at Liverpool.
Warnock, a youth player, was not given his chance in the first team until Rafael Benitez took over as manager in 2004. Friedel left the club with Houllier’s appointment, which has been put down to difficulties in gaining a work permit. John Carew was also released by Houllier from Lyon in a swap-deal for Milan Baros which saw him move to the midlands club.
Only time will tell whether Houllier’s appointment will help Villa make a real challenge to the top-four. While talk of these rifts with former players is probably just conjecture, Heskey definitely seems to have been inspired by the return of his former boss.
Surely if Houllier can get Emile Heskey to start scoring goals, who knows what magic he can work on the rest of the team.