Jude Bellingham reminds me of Michael Owen, a wunderkind who can take England to glory - Emile Heskey
Emile Heskey couldn’t help but raise a smile. The former Liverpool and 62-cap England striker certainly did make a good player but as he found on a visit to Oakwell last week as part of the EFL’s week of action, the good folk of Yorkshire know how to bring you down a peg or two, sarcastically or otherwise.
Heskey was on duty in his role as an EFL ambassador, helping spread the word by promoting SkyBet’s new Building Foundations Fund in which the league’s title sponsor is giving each club £10,000 to put into community projects as part of a six-year, £6m investment.
“It’s a good occasion and nice to see football bringing people together,” he told The Yorkshire Post after a 20-minute session with a few of the locals. “It was a good fun, tough though having played for so long and then you’ve got to walk. You’re going against your instincts.”
It is hard to believe seven years have passed since Heskey hung up his boots, so long was he involved in English football.
He never played for a Yorkshire club, but the big man from Leicester roughed up a fair few defenders in these parts for Leicester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Wigan and Bolton.
He also won his first trophy at Hillsborough, helping his hometown Foxes to a League Cup final replay win over Middlesbrough in 1997.
His England career spanned 12 years, and five managers – Kevin Keegan, Peter Taylor briefly, Sven Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello. That he was liked by some, not trusted by others is exemplified in his World Cup history; a key member of Sven’s 2002 squad, left out in 2006, but resurrected for 2010 under Capello.
“You really don’t look back on your career until you make a book,” he says, “and then you look back on it with pride. I played over 500 games in the Premier League, won quite a few trophies, been to two World Cups and two Euros…it’s not bad.”
It is that wide arc of an England career that draws a parallel to the present day. For Heskey played with two English wunderkinds in his time, firstly Michael Owen in the 2002 World Cup, and secondly, Wayne Rooney, two years later at the Euros. It puts him in a good position to assess the latest player to be given what ultimately would prove a burdensome label for the other two – Jude Bellingham.
“I see everything in him, not just the qualities on the pitch but off it as well,” enthuses Heskey.
“Jude is similar to Michael. Michael was very grown-up, very mature for his age, even at 18.
“When everyone was wanting to do other stuff, he was focused on football, knew what he wanted to achieve and what he needed to do.
“You look at Jude and he’s exactly the same. You look who he’s hanging around with and it’s the senior pros because he wants to soak up as much information as possible to take into the next level.
“Whereas others are around their peers and what you’re getting from that is not much that’s going to take you to that next level.
“Jude has done fantastic so far and hats off to him because it’s not easy moving from Birmingham to Germany and taking it by storm at Dortmund as he did.
“I’ve seen so many players come to England at a young age and it’s the mental side of it, not the football, being away from home affects you. And he’s coped with that so well.”
And as a team-mate, playing with these special players can give you a lift, just as it did to him.
“You know you can rely on them, and that’s the key thing,” says Heskey. “When Michael was on the pitch you knew you could rely on him; when Becks was on the pitch you knew you could rely on him, same with Wayne.
“He’s definitely got that X-factor and he’s showing it at Real Madrid. Not many go to Real Madrid and immediately take it by storm like he has the biggest team in the world. He’s got it all to take it to the next level.”
Heskey already liked the England under Gareth Southgate long before Bellingham’s arrival.
He remembers playing with Southgate at opposite ends of their international careers, with the senior figure who would become manager even back then, “looking out for us younger players”.
After everything England have been through under Southgate, next summer in Germany could be a glorious finale to this chapter.
“I like everything. I think the blend is great. They have the ability to adapt a bit better than what we did,” says Heskey, who stopped short of calling them a ‘golden generation’ as too many of his teams were labelled. “They play so many different formations now and they can do it fluently, whereas we were basically 4-4-2, maybe sometimes a 4-4-1-1. That’s going to be vital for this England team next year.”