Celebrating Emile Heskey, altruism and the beauty of the ugly assist

Nostalgia
Liverpool FC's Emile Heskey after scoring against Tottenham Hotspur FC in the Premiership. Anfield, Liverpool. 22 April 2001.

You may have read, somewhere on this terrible hellhole of infinite (dis)information that we call the World Wide Web, that Emile Heskey got more Premier League assists than Paul Scholes.

We are here to inform you it’s not true – at least not according to the Premier League’s official records. While Heskey managed to set up an admirable 53 goals in his 516 top-flight games, Scholes just pipped him with 55 in his 499 outings.

Not much in it, to say the least. Heskey’s 0.102 assists per game. Scholes’ 0.110 assists per game. You’d struggle to slip a gnat’s eyelash between them.

But, even if you were dextrous enough to place that gnat’s eyelash in the tiny little gap between Paul and Emile, why would you want to?

Surely there are better things to do. You could practice your arpeggios on that Casio keyboard that’s collecting dust in the attic. You could join a political pressure group and campaign for an end to Third World debt. You could even just wash that massive pile of dishes next to your sink.

Or don’t. Just get back to it, comparing Paul Scholes’ number of assists to Emile Heskey’s. Why? Well, there’s a social media debate that needs ending, isn’t there? Not just any, but perhaps the definitive social media debate, the ultimate distillation of football’s Twitter-age discussions. Paul Scholes: genius or fraud?

It’s still there, if you look hard enough. It still pops up on your feed from time to time. But at its peak, the Scholes-off was unavoidable. Just open the godforsaken bird app and there it was in front of you, a new, entirely fictitious quote about Scholes fantasticalness.

You remember the sort. @ShitFootballFanSite mocked up an image of the little red-haired fella in the famous red shirt. Across it, the words: “‘Scholesy’s right peg could end world hunger if only Sven-Goran Eriksson was brave enough to play a 4-3-3.’ – Pope John Paul II, 2003.”

“Look @BigDaz10999200”, tweeted @GaryUtdTilIDie in the replies, “I told you Scholesy was better than Gerrard and Lampard [eye emoji].”

So frequent and mind-numbing did the Scholes Twitter sycophancy become that an equally hyperbolic reaction became an inevitability. Scholes wasn’t actually all that, was he? Scholes was overrated. Scholes? Nothing more than a hyped-up Steve Sidwell.

Then it came, the ultimate riposte to Pope John Paul’s clearly overblown assertions. Scholes? Great? He didn’t even get as many Premier League assists as Emile Heskey. Emile Heskey! EMILE HESKEY!!1!!1!!! 

There it is. Argument over. The social media equivalent of a Mike Tyson uppercut. The finisher. This supposed Rembrandt of Premier League midfielders has fewer assists than Emile effing Heskey. Gotcha!

But just stop a second and have a little poke around the comparison.

First up, why compare a little passing midfielder to a big, physical attacker? And then, why Heskey? Why not Peter Crouch or Kevin Davies, say, who actually did manage more assists than Scholes?

And, even if we must insist with Heskey, why was allegedly having notched an assist or two fewer than a man who was good enough to play 516 Premier League games for Leicester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Wigan and Aston Villa such a knockout blow, such a mark of shame?

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READ: Remembering Germany 1-5 England, 20 years on: ‘A very, very special night’

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Perhaps, instead, we should turn this around. Paul Scholes? Yes, he was great. Why? Well, he managed two more assists than Emile Heskey.

More assists than one of the finest havoc wreakers of the 90s and early-00s Premier League 4-4-2 era. More than one of the most brilliantly selfless, channel-bursting, full-back-bothering, centre-half-smashing front men in English football’s recent history.

More than a player who won four League Cups, an FA Cup, a UEFA Cup, a Charity Shield and a UEFA Super Cup. More than a man who was called up to the England squad by seven different managers and won 62 caps.

Why can’t we see it like that? Why don’t we frame the Heskey comparisons as a compliment?

First, and most obviously, is that selflessness. The raw numbers don’t look great on reflection, especially for goals. Seven in those 62 England caps. “Five-one and even Heskey scored,” and all that.

But as Heskey said to the Guardian in 2019, when asked about long-running criticism of his numbers, “I play for the team; it wasn’t anything that really bothered me. I know forwards will go out and if [the team] score five and they don’t, they are fuming. I don’t care.”

Second, Heskey may have created, and he may have become increasingly a creator and less a scorer as his career progressed, but he didn’t do it in the right way, did he?

Look on YouTube. There are a lot of compilations of Scholes’ assists and passes. There are not a lot of compilations of Heskey receiving the ball on his chest, holding off two defenders and letting a striker partner nip in; or leaping above a towering centre-half to nod it into the path of a speedy winger; or bursting towards the corner flag to drag a defender out of position.

In the age of philosophies and pass completion rates and progressive carries, the Heskey way is The Ugly Way, a morally inferior football of a bygone era. Oh, how unenlightened we were; just look at this flick on.

But in Heskey’s approach, there was just as much art as in that of a perfectly pinged Scholes pass.

Not in the sense that it was as immediately, elegantly beautiful. But in the sense that it both required true skill and was genuinely stirring. Just think of the thrill of a floated ball, a flash of movement and a bulging net. Something from nothing in seconds, the guttural roar, the eruption of pure joy in one end, the despair in the other.

There’s a time and place for a classical concerto, but there’s more than enough room in anyone’s record collection for a few two-and-a-half-minute soul chart-toppers as well.

One of the finest examples of the Heskey assist genre came in that Germany game on September 1, 2001, the 5-1 of the song. England’s third was Heskey’s doing, even if it was finished by his footballing soulmate Michael Owen.

A Beckham cross, Heskey perfectly placed between the centre-backs, a knockdown like he had a velvet cushion for a forehead, an Owen smash into the corner. Simple, perfect, sumptuous.

It was nothing new, though, that connection. Owen and Heskey had already been working on it as far back as 1996 when they travelled to the European Under-18 Championship as England team-mates.

After Heskey’s move to Liverpool in 2000, their love was rekindled. For a while, they were the Premier League’s perfect little and large strike duo, a pair of players whose weaknesses and strengths complemented each other like a summer day and ice cream.

“Emile was incredibly unselfish,” Owen told the Telegraph in 2020. “It’s very easy to play with someone you know is doing their best for the team…

“If you know your partner in crime is going to make the best decision for the team, you can read that and get yourself in the right place. Fact was, Emile helped me make the right decisions.”

In 2001, the double-act reached its peak. In the first half of the year, Heskey and Owen finished as Liverpool’s two top scorers, with 22 and 24 goals respectively, as the Reds lifted a League Cup, FA Cup, and UEFA Cup treble.

Heskey was at his Heskeyest. In the League Cup final, he set up not Owen but Robbie Fowler for Liverpool’s only goal of the game as they beat Birmingham on penalties.

In the FA Cup final, a bit of work at the other end helped release Owen for Liverpool’s second.

Then came that England performance in September, before, finally, the year was topped off with the finest of all things for a Liverpool fan – a resounding win over Manchester United.

In November, United travelled to Anfield and were swatted away 3-1, one John Arne Riise thunderbastard and two goals from Owen, both assisted by his mate from the Midlands. The second was a deliciously sweet, viscous reduction of jus de Heskey.

A Riise long throw caused Fabien Barthez to come a to flap. Heskey rose above the French goalkeeper’s flailing arms and flicked it right onto the bonce of Owen, who nodded in from six yards.

“That was when we were at our pinnacle as a partnership,” Owen continued to the Telegraph. “That was when everything clicked. We didn’t just hit a purple patch, we had a purple year.”

It was no coincidence that when both men left Liverpool in 2004, both their careers began to meander a little, or that Heskey was re-introduced to the England set-up by Steve McClaren in 2007 at Owen’s behest. Heskey was less without the speedy, shot-hungry Owen. Just as Owen was less without the perfect foil of Heskey.

But Heskey kept going in the Premier League for another decade, still giving opposing defenders that pre-match ‘I’m in for a tough one today’ feeling until he played his final English top-flight game in a Villa shirt in 2012.

And what he was doing in 2001, he was still doing well over a decade later, in the heady days of the A League’s Heskey cam and then at Bolton in the Championship, where he ended his career in 2016.

In only five of his 21 seasons as a professional did Heskey manage to break double figures for league goals. But to judge him purely on scoring stats is as big a folly as comparing Scholes’ assists stats to his.

Heskey was football’s great altruist, a runner and a fighter, someone happier being the best supporting actor than hogging the limelight himself, the bassist in the band.

“That’s just in my nature in general, regardless of what I’m doing,” he told the Independent in 2019. “I’m very much a people’s person. I’ll always sacrifice myself for other people. And it’s done alright for me.”

It certainly has, even if Heskey didn’t get quite as many assists as Paul Scholes.

By Joshua Law


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