Heskey: Coaching helps you look at football differently
Emile Heskey represented England at four major tournaments
The former Liverpool striker is now coaching Leicester City's women
He tells FIFA.com about that job and gives his take on England's Class of 2021
Emile Heskey is one of Leicester’s favourite football sons. A local lad made good, he lifted two League Cups for his hometown team before becoming a treble-winner at Liverpool and earning 62 caps for his country.
In a ‘golden generation’ of dazzling individual English talent, he was the unflashy personification of humility and hard work. Michael Owen, for whom he acted as a tireless and selfless foil, still names him – without hesitation – as his best strike partner.
Now 43, Heskey finds himself back at Leicester City, beginning his coaching career where he started out as a player. But he is not, as might have been expected, taking those early steps with Brendan Rodgers’ UEFA Champions League-chasing men’s team.
His expertise is instead being utilised with the club’s women, who this season earned promotion to the increasingly star-studded WSL 1, topping the second tier with two games to spare.
Jonathan Morgan, the side’s manager, had spent his youth idolising Heskey. "We still joke about it now,” he said recently, “but I remember when I was a young lad at the park literally saying Emile's name when I was scoring goals.” Now Morgan says he is discovering and benefiting from the same humble honesty that made the former England striker such a favourite of team-mates and managers.
Heskey is relishing the coaching experience, too, and explained why in an interview in which he took time to reflect on his England career and assess the Three Lions’ current generation.
FIFA.com: Emile, can you tell us how the job with Leicester City Women came about and how you’ve been enjoying it so far?
I’ve been loving it to be honest. I’d been a Leicester club ambassador for a while and I’m on a UEFA course which requires you to undertake some work experience inside the football club, so I asked about helping out somewhere. Susan Whelan (Leicester’s chief executive) said that the club was just about to acquire Leicester's women’s side (previously independent of Leicester City FC), and suggested I get involved and become an ambassador for them. In the end that’s morphed into coaching the team too, and I’ve really enjoyed the experience. The only downside is that the staff played a tournament recently with the girls and they beat us eight games out of nine! (laughs)
Was the coaching element of it a surprise to you, and something that just evolved?
It was. I'd been quite happy with the ambassadorial role, doing bits and pieces off the pitch, but when Jonathan came and asked if I fancied doing some coaching, I thought ‘Why not?’ And once I was out on the grass, I enjoyed it. I’d done a bit of coaching towards the end of my playing career, working with the U-21s at Bolton, but here I have the opportunity to get involved a lot more, working with individual players and looking at different tactics. And it does help you look at football differently. After 20-plus years of looking purely from an individual’s point of view as a player, now I have to look at it from a coach’s perspective, getting into players’ heads, delivering my message in the right way so that what I'm telling them ends up getting translated out on the pitch.
It must be an exciting time to be involved at Leicester, with the women’s team going up to WSL 1 for the first time and the men flying high in the Premier League.
It really is. When you look at the progression of Leicester as a club, it’s massive. We're cemented as a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League, obviously winning it under Claudio [Ranieri] but also consistently pushing for Champions League spots in the last couple of years too. That ambition and feelgood factor is there with the women’s team too, having been at the top of the table all season and getting up to WSL 1 at such a critical time, with so much more sponsorship and TV coverage coming in there. It’s an exciting time to be going up into what is already a very good league.
As you say, even without the latest cash injection, the WSL already boasts many of the world’s top players. Is testing Leicester’s players against those stars something that excites you?
In football, that’s what it’s all about: pitting yourself against the best. I loved doing it as a player and, yeah, I can’t wait for our players to challenge themselves against the Man Citys, Arsenals, Chelseas – with all the stars they have – and see how they measure up. As a club, we definitely want to be competitive in that league – we don’t want to just be part of it. There are big ambitions for women’s football at Leicester; it’s not just a little side project.
Do you see yourself being part of that journey for Leicester City Women, or is there another direction you see your career going in over the coming years?
Quite honestly, I’d love to stay part of it. I don’t know what the future will bring but it would be nice to play a part in continuing the team’s progression. I know how ambitious the club is about the women’s team, and the thought of being part of their first season in WSL 1, seeing them play games in the King Power, definitely excites me. It’s also nice to be part of the wider progression of women’s football, and hopefully getting it to a level that it should have been at years ago.
This has been your first experience coaching female players. How have you enjoyed that, and has there been any adjustment required?
I enjoy it until I get beaten by them in training matches, or I need to join in the running! (laughs) Honestly, they’ve been great. They’ve taken to me really well, and I wasn’t sure if that would be the case, with me coming in from the men’s game and trying to implement certain things. But they’ve been very receptive and I can see some real development as a result of the things we’ve been trying to teach them.
In the men’s game, we’ve had World Cup qualifying starting up recently in Europe and some early wins for England. What do you make of the current squad?
In my opinion, Gareth Southgate has one of the toughest jobs in football just selecting a squad because there’s so much English talent there to choose from right now. I think it looks great for England at the moment. There will always be discussion about why this player or that player isn’t being picked, but that comes with the territory. It’s Gareth’s job to win games and he’ll do that by finding the right blend. And I think he will.
As a former centre-forward yourself, how highly do you rate Harry Kane?
Very highly. When I look at him, I see a natural goalscorer – someone you can always rely on. Looking at it from a coaching perspective, I appreciate all the more that those players – the ones who’ll get you goals week in, week out, year in, year out – are worth their weight in gold. Harry’s been fantastic for England, a great captain, and that’s saying something because I’ve always said that forwards shouldn’t be captains because they’re too selfish. But he’s taken that role on, made it his own, and for me whatever frontline Gareth plays, Kane is the one player who has to be there.
You played and scored in England’s most famous World Cup qualifier: the 5-1 win in Germany. Was that the highlight of your time with the national team?
Yeah. Nothing could measure up to that. You’ve got to remember that we’d lost the last game at the old Wembley to that Germany team not long before. They hadn’t been beaten at home for 50-plus matches and, to make things even tougher, we went 1-0 down after seven or eight minutes. For us to win in those circumstances, and win the way we did, was just phenomenal. Sven [Goran Eriksson, England’s then coach] was very clever and tactically astute in the way he prepared for that game and, even when we went a goal down so early, we never panicked. We hit them at certain key times, and it was just a very special night.
Was it even better than playing at the World Cup itself?
It’s hard to compare the two. Growing up, playing in a World Cup, scoring in a World Cup, is what you dream about. The 1994 tournament in America made such a big impression on me because Romario was one of my all-time favourite players, and I can still remember his goals and the way he combined with Bebeto – it was just flawless. So when I got the chance to go to the World Cup, it did bring back all those great memories I’d had as a kid.
When you look at the team that beat Germany and went on to Korea and Japan, you can see why people thought England could, and maybe should, win that World Cup. Was that your feeling too at the time?
One hundred per cent. We eventually lost in the quarters to the Brazil team who went on to win it, but I even felt we should have beaten them. We went 1-0 up through Michael [Owen] and, looking back, our tactics weren’t the best after that. We sat back too much and invited probably the best attacking force in football at that time – Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho – to come on to us. Those three were phenomenal that day, but I do think our tactics worked against us. Brazil obviously had a bit of luck too. It was a shame because I would have loved to have won something with that England team because there was so much incredible talent in that generation.