E mile Heskey, resident of a town called Newcastle that is more than 10,000 miles away from home, was waiting in line at his local bank the other day when approached by an Englishman wearing a Stoke City shirt. ‘This guy comes up to me, and he says, “I just want to thank you for the 5-1 against Germany”. It was nice he remembered, that is certainly one of my best memories in football,’ reflected Heskey of the famous night in Munich in 2001 when the old enemy were dismantled.
In fact, since he moved to Newcastle Jets of Australia’s A-League at the end of the British summer, Heskey has received plenty of gratitude, which was not always the way during a long career in his own country.
‘The reception for all the “marquee” players in this league seems to be exceptional,’ he said. ‘It’s been amazing because the main thing that people say is thank you for coming here. It seems a bit crazy that they think like that, it’s a bit of a privilege to be playing here in that respect.’ He nods — with a smile, it must be said — ‘It’s not something I have always experienced.’
Here in one of this vast country’s less fashionable but more important towns, 100 miles north of Sydney, Heskey is certainly appreciated. His arrival was marked by the club shifting 1,000 shirts with his name on in the first week.
So far he has scored eight goals for the Jets as they try to push towards the upper echelons of the A-League, one more than he managed in 62 appearances for England — the figure that made him one of the more maligned players of the past 20 years.
Heskey, now 35, is following a trail blazed most noticeably by his former Liverpool team-mate Robbie Fowler to a league where each team are allowed one ‘marquee’ player to be paid outside their salary cap.
The path from the UK to this part of the New South Wales coast is well-trod.
Two hundred years ago men from the North East flocked here to work in the coal and steel industries and Newcastle now has the world’s busiest docks for the export of coal, with China the principal destination. How did Heskey, a native of Leicester whose Antiguan parents originally harboured hopes that he would be a top-class cricketer, end up here?
‘I think Robbie suggested me to them and I spoke to him, Dwight Yorke and Michael Bridges (his current team-mate) and they didn’t have a bad word to say about playing here,’ he said. ‘The CEO came to England and sold it to me. Michael has been here a long time and we’ve known each other since playing for England at Under 17 level. I’ve enjoyed it. I always wanted to play abroad, but I’ll admit I didn’t think it would be Australia.’
Heskey does seem happy and relaxed, and he does not mind reflecting on the fact that in England he was often valued far more by team-mates and managers — many astute judges bought him or picked him for England — than by some fans and commentators.
‘You’ve got to grow a thick skin and not feel sorry for yourself. I know how the game works and it’s not a problem for me.
‘I always just got on with life, but you do wonder how some people deal with it. For some players, I think criticism stops them going as far as they should do in the game. It’s easy to underestimate how much scrutiny players are under in England. Look at someone like Wayne Rooney — having to deal with it since he was 16.’
‘I’ve seen players who’ve had just the odd game for England and the scrutiny has really affected them. Maybe one bad game and it makes them go backwards because they are unable to deal with the pressure. Clubs have to think hard about this side of things. ‘My thinking was that as long as your peers are happy with you that’s all that matters. I’ve had players like Michael Owen, Rooney and Tony Cottee with whom I’ve forged good partnerships. Cottee’s probably nice about me because I did a lot of his running for him at Leicester!
Football is about the team winning the game, it doesn’t matter who scores, it’s who has won after 90 minutes, it’s 11 against 11. Players understand that.’ He treasures the time he spent playing alongside Owen. ‘We knew how each other worked — with Michael we just had this idea of where the other was. It helped that we started playing together when he was 16 at England level. It was his anticipation, he knew when I was going to win the ball and where it was going. It was weird, we had a sense of each other.
‘Steve Claridge was one of the great characters I played with. We’d start training at half past 10 and he’d screech up at 10.25 fully kitted and run on to join us. The moment it finished he would run off and get into his car in his kit. ‘He was probably the worst trainer I’ve seen but I’ve never seen a runner like him. When you did the football drills it was like he was messing about but when you did the running he’d put on his serious face and he’d be off — leave everyone standing.’
Aside from the 5-1 in Munich, he recalls a Leicester play-off win early in his career against Crystal Palace as his favourite match because it was the last big one his grandmother saw him in before she passed away.
The football life is different in Australia and although the Jets can pull five-figure crowds they are only the second biggest attraction in Newcastle behind rugby league side the Knights. ‘I would say soccer is steadily growing here but it’s not the biggest sport,’ said Heskey.‘It did surprise me how big the Premier League is here, people are into that. ‘There are some decent players in our league, there’s some good experience around and some of the younger players are promising. The stadiums have impressed me and you obviously need to be able to cope with the heat, but then the weather here is one of the great things about the country.’
Heskey started off at a gallop with five goals in his first five games. While the slightly paunchy, 38-year-old Alessandro Del Piero grabs the most attention, the English centre forward made a big impact early in the season when he became the subject of the ‘Heskeycam’.
This followed him around the pitch for 90 minutes against Melbourne and he obliged with two goals. ‘I knew beforehand they were going to do it but once the game was under way I forgot all about it. I haven’t looked at a recording, but I did see the goals.’ His children joined him for Christmas and New Year but have not moved out.
‘It’s difficult with the kids at schools in England. You don’t want to disrupt them. Skype and Facetime help. I set the alarm to get up and speak to them. I don’t want to get up in the middle of the night to watch English football so I record that. From a distance the Premier League can look a bit crazy, there doesn’t seem to be much stability at a lot of clubs.’
One day he plans to get his coaching badges and spent time studying the methods of Roberto Martinez at Wigan.
Heskey is trawling some of the game’s most southerly outposts, such as the New Zealand capital’s Wellington Phoenix, where he scored two weeks ago. Retirement is at least two years off — for now he is happy to go to the ends of the earth to play football.