Kat Caravella meets Newcastle Jets marquee star Emile Heskey to discover the journey through life that football has taken him and his family...
It didn't surprise Emile Heskey when 90,000 people flocked to the MCG to see Liverpool take on Melbourne Victory. Not only is the former England international acutely aware of the worldwide adoration of the historic EPL club, the fact that he was once part of an FA Cup winning Liverpool side still follows him today - even in the trendy little cafe we meet at on a warm, Newcastle afternoon.
"Mr Heskey," a clearly star struck older gentleman approaches our table and holds out his hand, "I have been following your career for many, many years." Emile smiles kindly and offers his hand in return, thanks him and the man walks out of the cafe, backwards, to ensure he doesn't miss a glimpse of the Newcastle Jets marquee man.
"I was in Beirut once, travelling with a friend, " Emile tells me, "and I was spotted there. Fans of Liverpool came up to me and spoke about the club with great passion - to the point where they were trying to speak with a Scouse accent.
"It's a club with great heritage - it was my favourite club growing up."
The football resume of Emile Heskey is impressive. At the time of signing with Liverpool from Leicester City - where he grew up - at £11 million, Emile was the most expensive transfer in the history of the great club. Most professional footballers would probably tell you it was a dream come true - that football was their first and only aspiration growing up - but not Emile.
"The only time I have ever said 'I am going to be something' was with athletics growing up," he says. "I loved watching the likes of Linford Christie and enjoyed the sprints.
"I liked Ed Moses as well, but 400m hurdles just seemed too long," he laughs.
The football story of Emile Heskey starts at Leicester City, in the East Midlands of England. As the son of a man who played semi-pro football and cricket, sport was always an integral part of growing up.
"Sport was a massive thing in my family. My parents always encouraged me to do what I wanted to do."
By the age of 11, Emile's great dream of becoming a sprinter was interrupted by fate, when a scout representing the previously named Leicester City Centre of Excellence spotted him while playing football for his school team.
"It's a youth programme connected to Leicester City football club," he says.
"They invite you to train with them at first for a couple of days a week, and over the years they whittle it down until they get to 20 players or so."
A few weeks into training with the programme saw Emile get offered an opportunity to play with a local club, but it wasn't until a few games in that he discovered just where he was destined to play on the park.
"When the coach asked me what position I was, I said I didn't know, so funnily enough, they put me as a defender," he says, smiling. "But all I used to do was just get the ball from the back and run it forward, so they put me as a striker and that's how I found my position."
According to Emile, it wasn't until he started progressing through the youth system of Leicester City that he saw football as a potential career and at just 17 years old, he made his unexpected debut for the then Premier League club.
I was in the change room, picking up things right before the game when I saw my name on the board
"It's funny how my debut happened, really," he recalls. "I was one of the young players and we went away to play Queens Park Rangers. Back then, all the young players would help with the kit, make tea, toast.
"Those duties had nothing to do with football but more to do with respect, discipline. It's changed a lot now."
On this significant day, Emile's duties would extend from making toast to making his first appearance on the pitch, in the Premier League.
"I was in the change room, picking up things and making sure I was doing things right before the game when I saw my name on the board," he says.
"A couple of players had come down sick and I thought, 'here we go."
Unfortunately for Emile, his debut season in the Premier League was met with relegation to the Championship - but life in the second tier didn't last long under new manager Martin O'Neil.
"Martin O'Neil was a manager that motivated us to the point where we playing out of our skin," says Emile. "And we probably did better than we should have because of that."
Words fail him when he tries to describe the elation of promotion to the Premier League - but the moment lives with him forever.
"We were in the play-offs to be promoted, and we had to go to Wembley. That in itself was the most amazing experience - playing at Wembley," he says.
"Steve Claridge scored the winner in the last 30 seconds of extra time and it was in front of 60,000 people.
I played my part but we had some excellent players
"It was just meant to be."
The great excitement of what Emile describes as "playing with the big boys" was equally met with the pressure of not being relegated again - something that the bookies would always tip for promoted teams. But for this Leicester City side, of which Heskey was an integral part, not only did they surpass expectations by finishing 10th, but they won the League Cup that year also.
"I played my part," he admits modestly and adds, "but we had some excellent players and we blended quite well with each other.
"So we went on to doing really great things."
After five solid seasons at Leicester City, a 22 year old Emile Heskey found himself the subject of a record breaking transfer bid by Liverpool FC and in March 2000 officially joined the club he had long tagged as his favourite growing up.
"It was definitely huge for me, signing for Liverpool, but the magnitude of it all doesn't sink in when you are young and naive," he admits.
"People asked me about the pressure of signing for such a large transfer and truthfully I didn't think of it like that. I wasn't the one that put in that bid," he says, adding: "All I ever thought about was playing football.
"The naivety when you are young helps a lot."
The season following his arrival was immense for both Emile and Liverpool FC, with the club winning the FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup and the big striker contributing 22 goals.
"It was definitely an amazing time," he recalls. "We had some great players, with the likes of Stevie G coming through and Michael Owen."
You literally play, train, rest, recover. Repeat.
But playing high-level football took its own toll. Emile is honest and frank: "When you are playing at that level, you don't really have a life outside of football.
"The seasons are massive over there - you play over 60 games and you go into auto pilot. You often play three games a week.
"You literally play, train, rest, recover. Repeat."
A well-publicised transfer to one of the world's biggest clubs was life changing for Emile and he admits the exposure and notoriety was one of the most challenging aspects of the job.
"And that's just it," he says, "it's a job."
"Of course players are ambassadors and role models and you have to try to be that at all times," Emile says, adding, "but people often forget you are a human being too. You have your bad days."
Quiet by nature, the English forward says the fact that he was never a "wild child" coupled with having good people around him meant he managed to stay level headed amongst it all - but admits the same cannot be said for others he has known in the past.
"You give them notoriety, you give them loads of money and exposure... People go crazy," he says.
"I know players that have really struggled with depression because of it - they don't want to go out"
Still, Emile acknowledges that even he looks back on some of the decisions he made as a young player and wonders if they were the right ones.
"I was 18 when I bought a house with my family - it was my first big contract," he adds.
Think about life after football. Go do a course, finish your schooling
"And only now, at 35, I look back and think, 'what if I had gone on to break my leg?' My career could have ended any time and I would have been 18 and stuck with a mortgage."
With top-level football in England being a life that can suck you in quickly - whether it's through keeping up appearances, or getting caught up in the fame and fortune - Emile is not short of advice for young players coming through the ranks.
"Think about life after football. Go do a course, finish your schooling," he advises. "Get good financial advice, good management. It's about education - you don't have to get sucked in."
While Emile admits to making some lavish purchases in his time as a footballer, there was one large sum of money he doesn't regret parting with - as it was for a cause close to his heart.
"Leicester City was going through some financial problems and Gary Lineker - probably Leicester's biggest star - was leading a consortium to try find a suitable buyer.
"I wanted to donate to the cause because if it wasn't for them - where would I be?" he says.
"It started for me there - I am from Leicester. I grew up living close to the stadium. The club was part of my childhood."
After nearly four years at Liverpool FC, the club accepted a bid from Birmingham for the hero hitman, which Emile admits was a strange transition at first.
"I didn't have to go of course - but when a club accepts a bid you feel as though your time is up there," he says.
"You want to go to a club that wants you. There's no point hanging around to see whether you are going to play or not.
"And I just wanted to enjoy my football and play."
Despite Emile's first season at Birmingham being huge - he won Player's Player of the Year, Fans' Player of the Year and the Golden Boot - he confesses that it did take time to adjust.
Just knowing that pass a few seconds earlier. That small difference can make a big difference...
"I played with Gerry Macallister, Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Steven Gerrard - all exceptional players, probably up there with the best ever," he says.
"It wasn't a huge difference in standard - the small difference of just knowing that pass a few seconds earlier. That small difference can make a big difference, if you know what I am saying."
Two seasons at Birmingham was followed by moves to Wigan Athletic and Aston Villa - both clubs he admits had their ups and downs.
"Wigan was great - we had some real camaraderie amongst the players and I really enjoyed my football there," he reveals.
"Aston Villa - it's a huge club because of its heritage and they probably aren't in the position they should be."
Heskey's remarkable club record not only landed him in the top 10 for most appearances ever in the Premier League - boasting over 500 - but ensured he was a fixture in the English national team for much of the last decade Barca shirt.
"I was involved in the national team for every age group and I absolutely loved it - it is the greatest honour," he says, beaming.
"Of course there is massive pressure, but you don't feel it as much as you do when you are older and used to being in the set-up. That's when media and fans can really get on your back.
"And it's understandable - the media are fans as well. They want what's best for the team."
Playing for the national team also presented challenges outside of the football match itself, where Emile was the target of racial abuse from fans in Slovakia and Croatia. Both incidents were investigated and offending countries were issued punishments by UEFA.
"The Slovakia game was weird," he recalls. "We kicked off, the ball went back to Beckham and then to me, and then I just heard what I thought was 'boooo'.
"Then I played a ball to someone else and it stopped.
"Then it went to Ashley Cole and it went 'booo'. It wasn't until further into the game that we noticed they were monkey chants."
It's casual racism - it's supposed to be laughed off as a joke but it's not OK
As a result of UEFA findings, Slovakia was forced to have their next home game behind closed fans where not a single fan was permitted to attend.
"It's good that FIFA and UEFA are clamping down on it now to show that racism not okay - and it won't be tolerated.
"They could probably be a bit stronger, but it's a start."
Emile also raises the recent incident involving Cricket Australia and a tweet sent out by its official Twitter account. The tweet itself included a picture of four bearded men, dressed like Teletubbies and wearing turbans, accompanied by the slogan "Will the real Monty Panesar please stand up?"
"It's casual racism," says Emile about an issue close to his heart. "It's supposed to be laughed off as a joke - but in England these comments would not be OK."
While he is aware that racism continues to be a worldwide problem, Emile says there are more options for dealing with it nowadays compared to when he was growing up.
"Back then, you either dealt with it physically, or took your pride home with you," he says. "Now I know if my kids are racially abused I can report it, and it will be dealt with accordingly.
"It's all about education."
When it was announced that Emile Heskey was coming to Australia to ply his trade for the Newcastle Jets, the whole Australian football world was aflutter. He had great company in his debut season- joining Italian star Alessandro Del Piero at Sydney FC and Shinji Ono at Western Sydney Wanderers. For Emile, it was an unexpected, but welcome, change of scenery.
"Bridgey (Michael Bridges) - who I had known since I was 16 playing in the England set-up - had called me about it first," he reveals.
"He told me it was an amazing place and to get online and have a read about it."
A visit from Hunter Sports Group Chairman Troy Palmer and Jets CEO Robbie Middleby followed that phone call and it wasn't long before all parties agreed to terms making Emile Heskey an official Newcastle Jet. And he hasn't looked back.
"It really is a beautiful place," he says, adding, "and it was refreshing to get out of that system (in England) and have a little change."
As for relocating Down Under full-time, Emile explains it would be hard on his five children and fiancé, Chantelle. "My kids play football and go to school back home," he says. "It would be really difficult to make that transition.
"I went home for four or five months in the off-season and after two months I was pulling my hair out - knowing there would still be another four before we even start playing again.
"In England there is six weeks pre-season and you're straight back into it."
The long off-season of the A-League is a common complaint of both players and fans alike but, according to Emile, there's little you can do about it.
"You just don't have the teams," he says, but suggests an alternative to help make the off-season shorter. "Perhaps you could have an A-League tournament in Asia for a month or so you can play more football through the year.
"Might be an idea."
Like many foreigners plying their trade in Australia for the first time, Emile was impressed by the standard of the A-League.
"I thought the standard was good - you are encouraged to play football," he says.
"You don't have the pressures of relegation and such huge amounts of money (upwards of £30m if relegated from Premier League) at stake so results are number one - even if it's not pretty.
"I look back now and realise just how much pressure it actually was to be over there."
Now in his second season playing for the Jets, Emile admits he's enjoying life as a Novocastrian enough to continue his stay beyond this season - but like he has his whole life, is taking every day as it comes.
"You have to, in this industry," he says. "If you set goals for yourself and they don't come into fruition then you are just setting yourself up for disappointment.
"It's worked for me, so far."
And 'worked' it sure has. Emile Heskey has lived a footballer's dream. He's played for some of the biggest clubs in the world and he's played in the biggest European championships.
He's won cups and he's played with and against legends of the game.
And he's represented his country - once even given the Captain's armband when England played in Leicester - which he cites as his ultimate career moment.
But for now, Emile is calling Australia home - and he's loving every minute of it.