During the recent period of inaction on the pitch, we asked several former European stars to look back on their careers. Next, England's Emile Heskey shares his story...
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When I started playing football as a kid, it was just fun, laughter and jokes whatever the weather.
Fast-forward and it’s incredible to think that that became a career, scoring goals at Wembley, winning the UEFA Cup with Liverpool and helping England beat Germany 5-1!
It’s an amazing sport, football. I’ve been lucky enough to play it all over the world and see how it brings a whole crowd, thousands of people, even entire nations together.
And even now I’ve finished playing, football is still giving me opportunities – to work, to learn and to focus on new things. Recently I signed up to the UEFA Executive Master for International Players (MIP) course, alongside other former players like Kaka, Didier Drogba and Julio Cesar. We could make a pretty strong team, even now!
So, I have a lot to be thankful to this game for, but I’d like to share a bit more about how my story unfolded.
I actually preferred athletics to football when I was a kid. I loved sprinting and long jump, so while other kids might have been idolising footballers or pop stars, my heroes were British athletes like Linford Christie, Ed Moses and Dalton Grant, as well as America’s Carl Lewis.
But the beauty of football is that you can play it anywhere. We started to play at the local school – they had the best grass – where you could just climb over the fence and suddenly there could be a massive game going on with all your friends.
It’s a cliché but you could just play with jumpers or coats for goalposts for hours, coming back home with muddy knees or worse, holes in your trousers, and your parents would be cursing you.
Most kids my age were playing Sunday morning league football by the age of 11, but coming from a Caribbean background, Sundays in the Heskey household were for church. I was in the school team, but I was quite late joining anything outside that, and especially the academy at Leicester City.
I was 15 when I played my first proper youth team game, I was a regular by 16 and at 17 I had made my official first-team debut – it all happened very fast!
But that doesn’t mean I found it easy. In my first full-time pre-season, I received a rude awakening. There was a lot of running and to begin with I was at the back of the group every time. I had to mentally strengthen myself to get to the front, but by the end of the summer I had managed it and was ready to go. It was later that season that I made my debut.
People often ask what it’s like to make your debut, when effectively you’re still a boy surrounded by a group of men.
I have to say the manager, Mark McGhee, really helped me. I was training with the first team a little bit, and sometimes went on the trips and helped out just to get used to the surroundings. One night, a bug hit our two strikers before a match at Queens Park Rangers. And I was the only other striker left in the squad.
Mark didn’t tell me until about an hour and 10 minutes before the game, so there was no time for me to worry, no sleepless night, I just had to react and go out there. It wasn’t the best of games and I was still nervous going into it. But I was a 17-year-old playing in the Premier League, the best league in the world.
Medals and Merseyside
Leicester were relegated that season, but in a way, it worked out well for me, because I was able to play regularly the next season and we returned to the Premier League in a stronger position a year later, having won in the Play-Off final at the old Wembley Stadium.
That first season back in the top flight, we also lifted the League Cup after a replay. I scored our equaliser against Middlesbrough in the first game, also at Wembley. What an amazing feeling!
When you’re starting out, you dream of those sorts of things: to win cups, to score in cup finals, and I had my family there too, so that was even better and it’s still up there as one of my best memories in football.
If you asked me for my top one, it would have to be either making my debut for England or scoring the fifth goal in the 5-1 win against Germany in Munich. I recently wrote my autobiography, which is titled Even Heskey Scored, referring to that night. Everyone in England knows where they were on that evening in 2001.
By this time in my career, I had left Leicester for Liverpool.
I was at Leicester for a long time, and we upset the odds season after season, doing well in the league and winning the League Cup twice. After these achievements, I was at a position in my career where I thought it was time for a new challenge.
Joining Liverpool didn’t feel scary to me, it felt like an adventure, and when I arrived, I quickly realised why it’s such a huge club. There is so much attention on everything you do.
In my first full season, we had an incredible team, and won the FA Cup, the League Cup and the UEFA Cup, then the Community Shield and the UEFA Super Cup. What a start!
It was crazy to hit the ground running like that, and I scored a lot of goals that season too. My former team-mate Dietmar Hamann recently said that team was better than the Liverpool team which lifted the UEFA Champions League in 2005, which is a really nice thing to say, and he might just be right.
What’s to come
Looking back, one of my only regrets is how I left Liverpool. I had a year left on my contract, but was told they had accepted an offer from Birmingham City, and that I was welcome to leave because I wasn’t going to play. I wish now that I had stayed and fought for my place because I think I still had enough to offer.
I stayed in the Premier League until 2012, first with Birmingham, and then Wigan Athletic and Aston Villa, and earned a recall to the England squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. My career also took me to Australia for nearly two years with the Newcastle Jets, which was a wonderful experience in an amazing place.
But after more than 800 club and international matches, I finished playing in 2016, 22 years after I made by debut. I have to admit it has taken some adjusting to not playing.
Like many players, I never really planned for the next stage of life., but the UEFA MIP course, which I started in late 2019, has provided a fascinating new focus alongside some of the other work I do, such as radio commentary.
As a footballer, you think you know everything about the game. But really, you only know about one aspect, being on the pitch, and not everything that happens around it – that’s where the course is so interesting, and you learn so much about all areas of the game.
Once I graduate, I’d like to find a job in football administration that will allow me to utilise what I have learned.
Professional athletes have a common trait that we are all good at focusing ourselves for success. As a player, I learned to work my way up, from a 15-year-old at Leicester’s youth team right through to the England team.
Now there is a different challenge, but the focus now is on this next step in my career, and I can’t wait to get going.
Emile Heskey played 62 times for England, scoring seven goals. He represented his country at UEFA EURO 2004 and in two FIFA World Cups. Heskey also lifted the UEFA Cup and UEFA Super Cup with Liverpool, as well as winning the FA Cup once and English League Cup three times.