The big interview: Emile Heskey – “I wouldn’t say England was toxic, but it could be very intimidating”
Portrait image: Paul Cooper
As far as boyhood ambitions go, Emile Heskey hasn’t done too badly at all. And we’re not even talking about the striker’s 22-year professional career that gave him success with his local club, major trophies at Liverpool and three tournaments with England.
Nope, FFT is wide-eyed at Heskey’s man cave, resplendent with pool table, air hockey, glistening bar, and adorned with the shirts of famous foes.
“Most of these aren’t even mine,” he chuckles. But the one that immediately attracts our attention is: Heskey’s very own top from England’s 5-1 trouncing of Germany in September 2001, where he rounded off the scoring on a historic night for English football. “I haven’t popped down here to play or have a drink in God knows how long, maybe just once since I moved in,” he sighs, having kindly invited us round to his Cheshire pad for a chinwag about an eventful career.
Heskey turned 40 in January, though there’s little time to put his feet up with four young kids to ferry around. Two of them, Reigan and Jaden, are currently on the books of Manchester City, while his youngest, Mendez, arrived in 2017.
Sadly, FFT is denied the chance to pick up a cue and rack up a frame before the school run, but Heskey is perfectly happy to whir away on some imaginary decks for our snapper before grabbing a stool to answer your posers…
You’ve got a younger brother named after Rivellino, so why didn’t you get the Brazil 1970 treatment?
Gareth Ruddier, Norfolk
I don’t know, to be honest. It would’ve been better to go the other way around, wouldn’t it? He likes his name, though, of course. It’s different, and there’s only one of him with that spelling! [Revelino]
You made your Leicester bow against QPR aged just 17. How did you break through so young? You must’ve been absolutely bricking it!
Rob Stead, Coventry
I was the lad who travelled with the first team as a youngster, helping out with the kit. I was training with them at the time. That day, a load of players were ill and I was the only option. The gaffer, Mark McGhee, didn’t say anything until we got in the dressing room. He pinned the team up and I was like, ‘My name’s on there!’ That meant I didn’t have long enough to get nervous. It was far from my best game, but it was the beginning.
When did you get the Bruno nickname and what did you think of it?
Patrick Wills, Merseyside
It is what it is – the fans gave it to me. I was a big lad at 17, 18 – maybe 13 or 14 stone, but fast. It kind of just fitted.
How much can you remember about the last moments of the 1996 Division One Play-off Final?
Colin Lewis, via Facebook
Not much! I remember running around the pitch after Steve Claridge shinned in the winner. It was an amazing event to go to the old Wembley: the atmosphere and everything about the day. I played at the old and new grounds, and for me the old one just had a bit more magic. It gave me that feeling of heritage and love. The crowd felt louder there, too.
What was Leicester’s off-pitch culture like those days? Muzzy Izzet’s book mentions legendary Tuesday nights…
Michael Harper, via Twitter
We never really saw the gaffer [Martin O’Neill] during the week – he’d turn up on Tuesdays to get us doing some hard running, then we’d have Wednesdays off. So people could have a drink on the Tuesday night. We were self-disciplined in the sense that we knew we had our drinking nights, and wouldn’t push the boundaries on those. But looking back, maybe one or two lads had their minds on those nights too much.
A lot of the players often went to this Italian restaurant called Baffone in the city centre. They’d eat there after games but end up having a lock-in. I was only a kid so never really got involved in that stuff. I’d have some food and leave, so didn’t see half of the stuff that went on. I hear the stories and think, ‘Where was I?’ and the answer was usually, ‘In bed’.
When you’re doing well, managers will let more things slide. Leicester reached four Wembley finals in five seasons and had four top-10 finishes in that era – it’s hard to argue with what the players are doing if they’re getting results like that. I look back now and wonder how we did it – football’s just different now.
Did you have any chances to move on before joining Liverpool in 2000?
Tasha May, Warrington
Blackburn came in for me when I was 16, although I was never going to go at that point. I was comfortable, living at home, and hadn’t played any first-team games yet. I knew I’d play at Leicester. I played for England Under-18s at the 1996 European Championship in France, upfront with Michael Owen. France had an amazing side – William Gallas, Mikael Silvestre, Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka – and won the title.
Their manager was Gerard Houllier and he followed us both closely after that. I was a Liverpool fan, so it was a no-brainer. It was a massive step up. I’d been at Leicester since the age of nine and in their first team since 17, so that’s all I’d ever known.
At Leicester it was, let’s say, pretty relaxed, while at Liverpool it was ultra-organised. You knew what you’d be doing every minute of every day. You’d be in meetings all the time and learn why some people and clubs are a step above, and why some players can play at a certain level consistently. It gives you a good idea of the work you have to do.
How much of a factor was linking up with Michael Owen in your decision to join Liverpool? Did you spend a lot of time together off the pitch?
Donald Cross, via Facebook
It was great that he was there because we’d done really well for England U18s, developed a good understanding, and were beginning to take that through to the senior national team. To be able to do it on a regular basis at club level was obviously good for both of us.
[FFT: Why do you think you worked so well together?] Honesty, I don’t know – we just clicked as a partnership. It was back in the day when the big man-little man front two was in fashion. We were both very quick, I was physical, and he was prolific, so it just worked. We didn’t spend much time together away from the pitch, though.
Your goal record was used as a stick to beat you with during your career – did the critics affect you?
Lloyd Richardson, via Facebook
I never considered myself to be a prolific scorer, but I knew what else I brought to the table: I created a lot, could hold the ball up and understood my roles. Other players loved playing with me. You just have to take the good with the bad, but I admit it got to me after a while, simply because it was the only thing they had. It was all I ever heard.
Eventually you do get over it. I’ve told younger lads not to worry about criticism if it’s one person’s opinion, as you’ll have 10 who love you just around the corner.