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Cinderella man

The film ‘Cinderella Man’ is a biopic of James J Braddock, the heavyweight boxer who was reduced from a serious contender to a makeweight journeyman on the breadline during the Great Depression, only to rise again as a 10/1 underdog and take the heavyweight championship of the world away from Max Baer.

If ever anyone wanted to produce a footballing version of Cinderella Man, they could do worse than to focus on the career of Emile Heskey, the heavyweight striker with the heavyweight nickname (‘Bruno’, after Frank Bruno), who was once Michael Owen’s preferred strike partner for both Liverpool and England, was subsequently cast out into the domestic and international wilderness (sold to Birmingham and then to Wigan, and uncapped by his country since Euro 2004), only to make something of a fairytale comeback for England’s Euro 2008 qualifying matches against Israel and Russia (both 3-0 victories).

Heskey has deservedly received warm plaudits over the past week, but it is easy to forget that for a long time he has been something of a laughing stock in the English game. He was the striker who couldn’t score: an international record of only 5 goals in 45 games, and a ratio of less than a goal every four games at club level. In many eyes, he was the scapegoat for England’s 2-1 defeat to France at Euro 2004, coming on as a late sub and conceding the free kick which resulted in France’s equaliser. And since then he has dropped further and further down the England pecking order with the emergence of Wayne Rooney and Peter Crouch, not to mention falling behind Jermain Defoe, Andy Johnson and Theo Walcott at various times over the past three years. His transfer to unfashionable Wigan Athletic, a team who had never previously produced an England international player, at the start of last season looked to be the last nail in the coffin, a final resting place for a good player who had never become great.

So his recall for this month’s qualifying games was certainly unexpected. With Rooney injured, Crouch suspended and Defoe unable to get a start for Tottenham, Heskey suddenly found himself thrust straight back into the starting line-up alongside Owen, the restoration of the classic little-and-large (or, if you prefer, goalscorer and non-scoring assistant) pairing which had been good enough to power England to that memorable 5-1 win in Germany almost exactly six years previously. Many pundits questioned Steve McClaren’s ‘brave’ decision; many fans (myself included) expressed their concerns in more colourful terms.

Heskey ignored the brickbats, and quietly went out and did what Emile Heskey does.

Against Israel on Saturday he squandered a very presentable early chance (same old Heskey!) but otherwise produced exactly what you want from a big striker: an imposing aerial presence, an ability to link up play and bring others into the game, and generally making life difficult for opponents and easier for team-mates. It was a good individual performance which was rightly praised. But last night, against much tougher opponents in Guus Hiddink’s Russia, he was even better. Utterly dominant in the air, you could see the panic in the Russian defence every time a ball was launched towards his head, and his deft nod down to set up Owen’s second goal was just reward for a great night’s effort. It was largely unfussy, unglamorous spade-work, but it was important and highly effective work nonetheless.

Why is it that we have been so quick to accept Emile Heskey back into our hearts? After all, it’s not as if he returned with a huge fanfare and a shower of goals. Possibly, it’s because of the kind of player – the kind of man – he is. He isn’t a diver (although early in his career he did have a tendency to tumble to the ground at the slightest touch, not unlike the real Bruno), he doesn’t commit dangerous tackles, he is generally acknowledged as being a good team-mate and a nice guy, and – unlike many of his contemporaries – he doesn’t have a reputation for being a primadonna. Like Braddock before him, he is a man of the people and – for this week at least – it means he is very much the people’s champion.

Heskey’s story is not as epic as Braddock’s – neither the highs nor the lows of his career are as extreme – but it’s noteworthy nonetheless. He hasn’t suddenly been transformed into a world-beater over the past week, but it’s hard not to feel pleased for one of football’s nice guys. Qualification for Euro 2008 now beckons, and if he can maintain his form and his place in the England side, maybe – just maybe – football’s Cinderella Man shall go to the ball.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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