Emile Heskey

Heskey's Leicester City Story – 'Just A Phenomenal Time'

On the 24th anniversary of Leicester City's 1997 League Cup Final appearance, LCFC.com catches up with a man who played a pivotal role in the Foxes' comeback that day and their success throughout the late 1990s.
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The phrase 'Club legend' is often used in the modern era, but for Emile Heskey, it is richly justified. Few players have enjoyed his fairytale story of coming through the ranks at their boyhood team before helping them to promotion, two cup final wins, European football and consecutive top-10 finishes in the Premier League, while also making his international bow.

The formative years of Heskey's career were spent at the Leicester City Academy and his Saturday afternoons involved fetching stray balls from around the Filbert Street pitch, just enjoying the experience rather than aspiring to emulate his heroes on the turf.

He would also saviour his first taste of the famous old Wembley Stadium atmosphere as a ball boy, but could only watch on as one of the most thrilling First Division Play-Off Finals ended in defeat for the Foxes, with Swindon Town's 4-3 victory earning their place in the second-ever Premier League season.

Rewinding back to the start of a decade in which he made his name as a prolific centre forward with frightening pace, Heskey recalls his remarkable Leicester City career...

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Emile Heskey

A boyhood Leicester fan, Heskey spent five-and-a-half years in the first team after coming through the Club's Academy system.

“Obviously the game didn't go to plan, but it was a wonderful experience for a young kid to be able to go to Wembley.”

"Wow, that's going back a long time," he smiles while recalling his earliest memories of being a ball boy during his formulate years within the Club's Academy. "Alan Parish, Tony James and Walshy (Steve Walsh) were there at the time, which was crazy when you go on to play with him. Players like Ali Mauchlen were there as well.

"But I never had it in my mind that I was going to emulate them at that stage. It wasn't until I got a little bit older, because I was only young, between 10 and 12 years-old. Back then it was just 'wow, I'm at a football match and I'm getting a chance to watch these great, great players'.

"It was a bit surreal, to be honest with you. As a little kid, to be able to ball boy at the old Wembley, it's just so historic. There was so much energy, so much passion when you actually went into that stadium.

"The walk up to the ground, the people outside, the sea of blue, that's all I remember about it. And then, obviously, the game didn't go to plan, but it was a wonderful experience for a young kid to be able to go to Wembley."

By the time Leicester had made their way into England's new premier division for the first time, beating Derby County in their third successive play-off final under the iconic Twin Towers in 1994, after defeats to Blackburn Rovers and Swindon, Heskey was almost ready to make his senior debut for the Club.

Nearing the end of the 1994/95 campaign, the then 17-year-old made his top flight bow against Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on 8 March, 1995. Operating as part of a front three alongside David Lowe and Iwan Roberts, Heskey played 69 minutes before being replaced by Phil Gee.

Leicester lost 2-0, but it would be a day Emile never forgot.

"The lead up was a bit strange because we actually had a few players sick and I knew nothing about that and that I was actually going to be playing," Heskey continues. "The manager (Mark McGhee), probably the best thing he could have done was not to tell me because you don't get the nerves as such.

"What happens usually is that you go in [to the changing room] an hour or so before kick-off and the manager will reveal the actual team and basically he pulled back the paper and my name was at the bottom. I thought 'okay, wow, I better get ready then!'

"I'd just turned 17 and was making my first start and debut in the Premier League. We lost that game but I can remember the difference in the pace of the game, in the strength of the players and I just knew that I had a lot to do."

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Emile Heskey

The forward soon made his mark in the First Division, scoring the only goal of the game against Norwich City in September 1995.

“We had a really good bunch of lads, it was a difficult time at the start, but we got through it and got to the play-off final.”

He had come into a side low on confidence and staring down the barrel of an immediate return to the second tier, but relegation gave Heskey the chance to prove himself as a rising talent and his emergence was a shining light in an otherwise tough few months for the Club.

McGhee, as Brian Little had done to join boyhood side Aston Villa a year earlier, left the Club, to Wolverhampton Wanderers, confident that the Molineux club had a better chance of reaching the top flight. That left the door ajar for Martin O'Neill to arrive, soon after leaving Norwich City in December 1995. It wasn't all plain sailing, but more on that later.

Soon established as one of City's first-choice centre forwards in 1995/96, making 30 appearances and scoring seven goals, including his first in a 1-0 win over the Canaries, Heskey signed his first professional contract and helped to fire the Foxes back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.

It wasn't done the easy way, again, as City dashed into the play-offs on the final day by two points, eventually finishing fifth under new manager O'Neill, a man the Foxes supporters had not immediately taken to, due to a difficult period of results early on in his reign.

The Northern Irishman and his often quirky methods were having a lasting impact on Heskey and the rest of the squad, however, as discontent quickly turned into joy and elation on the Filbert Street terraces.

Heskey started the play-off final at Wembley against Crystal Palace, as he had done in the two-legged semi-final versus Stoke City, a tight affair settled by Garry Parker's away goal in the second tie.

Another trip to Wembley followed for the youngster, but this time as a player, with Parker once again on the scoresheet to take the game to extra-time, when Steve Claridge popped up with his famous, shinned effort in the 120th minute.

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Steve Claridge & Emile Heskey

Heskey joined Steve Claridge in writing his name in Leicester City folklore.

“One thing that Martin [O'Neill] knows how to do is encourage you to play the way that you want to play.”

"I knew that I was capable of playing in those games, but you've still got to go out there and do it," Heskey explained. "We had a really good bunch of lads, it was a difficult time at the start, but we got through it and got to the play-off final.

"We had some really, really good players and some really good lads in and around us, which was great.

"It was only a few years after I was a ball boy at Wembley, which is crazy. It was a really special time for us. We went on a massive run towards the end of the season and we had the momentum. 'Stevie' Claridge came up with the decisive goal and we were going up to the Premier League.

"I was only 18 at the time so it was just a wonderful experience for me, getting my family to come to Wembley, parents, grandparents, being able to watch me play football at that iconic stadium in a play-off final."

O'Neill stuck with Heskey as the Club re-entered the Premier League and City's No.11 repaid the faith his manager had instilled in him from their very first meeting, hitting 10 goals from 35 league appearances.

Double figures in goals and a top-half finish meant it was a successful campaign both individually and for the team as the teenager came of age and proved he was good enough to play at the top level and had a big future ahead of him.

The unfancied Leicester City side that O'Neill created were tipped for relegation but defied the odds from their very first season back in the top flight. A highly respectable ninth-place finish was achieved, with Heskey and his bullish style playing a vital role in making the side tick, under a manager that allowed him to play his natural game.

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Emile Heskey

Heskey scored a total of 46 goals for Leicester, with six of them coming in the League Cup.

“We were such a strong unit and that's what we played on, basically. I think that's why we got to where we got to.”

"He was huge," Heskey says of O'Neill's influence on his early senior career in the Premier League. "He was one of the first people who came up to me when he actually signed and basically said I was going to be a big part of what the team was going to be doing going forward. So it puts you at ease and it relieves a lot of pressure off you as well, because one thing that Martin knows how to do, is encourage you to play the way that you want to play.

"He doesn't tell you to do things that you can't do, he tells you to keep doing the things that you're very good at. And that's what he did, to be honest, he used to say to me whenever I passed the ball: 'Why did you pass it? Your game is get it, turn, run and cause havoc, score goals, create chances and put defenders on the back foot'. That's all he kept putting pressure on me to produce and that's what I did.

"I knew the goals would come in a sense, but it wasn't going to be a defining point for me. But I wanted to do more in a team role because we were such a strong unit and that's what we played on, basically. I think that's why we got to where we got to when it comes to cup finals and mid-table finishes.

"It was about being that team player and that's one thing that the gaffer was brilliant at. Everyone had a role to play, everyone played that role and did it well. If you come out of that and you've not done your role, then he'd let you know."

The team spirit emanating within the group helped spur them on in knockout format, too, and onto a memorable League Cup run. Following victories over lower league opposition in round two (Scarborough) and round three (York City), Leicester were underdogs for their fourth round tie against Manchester United, despite having home advantage.

Heskey and Claridge were both on the scoresheet during a famous Filbert Street night against the league champions that set up a quarter-final with Ipswich Town at Portman Road, where Mark Robins found the only goal of the game.

The two-legged semi-final against Wimbledon was goalless after the first tie, but Marcus Gayle's strike had the Dons on course for the final with 45 minutes to play, until Simon Grayson found the net to send the Foxes through on away goals.

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Emile Heskey

The Foxes were seconds away from losing the final at Wembley before Heskey's intervention.

“It was just a weight off our shoulders that we were still in the game. It was that euphoria of scoring at Wembley as well.”

"Granted they didn't play their full strength team, but they were still Man United at the end of the day," the former England international adds. "We were very confident in actually going all the way and the lads were focused on doing that as well.

"It was a lot of games because you had to play home and away (in some rounds), but we were so focused on winning something and having that day out at Wembley that we pushed ourselves to the limit.

"The semi-final second leg was at Selhurst Park and Simon Grayson scored a header. Those big stages, they don't come that often so you've got to embrace it and express yourself and I think that's what we did."

The final saw O'Neill's men come up against Bryan Robson's continental Boro outfit, skippered by future Leicester manager Nigel Pearson, whose side also boasted a Brazilian trio of Emerson, Juninho and Branco, as well as Italian duo Gianluca Festa and Fabrizio Ravanelli.

With the experience of beating Palace on the biggest stage behind them, as well as O'Neill's know-how of managing at Wembley, making his fifth visit in six seasons, Leicester were well equipped for the challenge ahead.

And with the game locked at 0-0 after 90 minutes, a scenario the Foxes had become accustomed to during their cup run, it was the North East side who grabbed the advantage after 95 minutes at Wembley.

The cup looked to be heading Boro's way but with two minutes of extra-time to play, Heskey managed to bundle the ball over the line to spark jubilant celebrations in front of the Foxes faithful and take the contest to a replay.

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Emile Heskey

Heskey wheels away in celebration after that crucial Wembley equaliser.

"That's what you go into football for and the fact that we were able to do it, it was amazing.”

"Leading up to that cup final, we played against Middlesbrough and got beat quite heavily," Heskey remembers. "Juninho was a wizard, he absolutely battered us, but the gaffer came up with a strategy to put Pontus Kåmark on him and it worked, it worked really well. It took him out of the game.

"Ravanelli scored earlier on (in extra-time), but I think we really limited them in what they could do, because when you look at the team they had, they had some phenomenal players. We never gave up, we never ever gave up and that's the thing with the lads that we were playing with. We knew we always played to the 90-plus minute or whatever it was and we always felt we had a chance of winning a game, even if we were 2-0 down.

"That was one of those days as well where we were lucky, I managed to prod one home after it came down off the crossbar. It was just a weight off our shoulders that we were still in the game.

"It was that euphoria of scoring at Wembley as well. It's a major achievement to actually get a goal at Wembley and in a cup final, which is where everyone wants to be and everyone dreams of that.

"I remember playing in games like the Arsenal game at Filbert Street. We were 2-1 down with two minutes to go and the game ended up 3-3, so we never knew when we were beaten."

Heskey resumed his partnership with Claridge for the replay at Hillsborough and it was his strike partner who once again found the winning goal after another 100 gruelling minutes in south Yorkshire. Steve Walsh flicked the ball on and Claridge volleyed into the bottom corner, with Heskey first on the scene to celebrate with the Leicester No.9.

The Foxes had secured the Club's first piece of domestic cup silverware since 1971 and got their hands on the League Cup for the first time in 33 years. For Heskey, it was a proud moment to help secure his first major trophy at Leicester and the reward was a spot in the 1997/98 UEFA Cup.

A first round meeting with Spanish giants Atlético Madrid followed, creating an experience which Heskey savoured, despite losing 4-1 on aggregate over two legs in Leicester's first foray into European football since the 1961/62 season.

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Emile Heskey, Martin O'Neill & Tony Cottee

Heskey and Tony Cottee congratulate Martin O'Neill after the Northern Irishman picked up the Manager of the Month award in October 1998.

"I had a back injury, took a couple of injections, but they never worked. I believe if I was fully fit, we would have had a really good chance against Spurs.”

"We showed that we were more than capable of beating Boro and that's what we aimed to do in the replay," he says. "We went into it with the same mindset that we could. That's what you go into football for and the fact that we were able to do it, it was amazing.

"Steve Claridge put his name in folklore in the play-off final and then again the League Cup the following year. It's something that the fans deserved and we gave it to them.

"It was just great to be in that tournament (UEFA Cup) and with those prestigious names and to be playing Atlético Madrid. We went over there and Marshy (Ian Marshall) scored the opener, but they were phenomenal players and a phenomenal team.

"It was short-lived but it was great to have that experience and for the fans to have that experience of us going into Europe."

Back in the league, two successive 10th-placed finishes, the first of which also included Heskey hitting double figures once more and being named the Club's top goalscorer, were followed by an even more fruitful 1999/00, finishing eighth and securing another League Cup triumph, after the disappointment of losing the 1998/99 final to Tottenham Hotspur.

A year on from Allan Nielsen's heart-breaking 90th-minute winner for the Lilywhites, Heskey and the Foxes were back at Wembley and toasting success in one of his final games in a Leicester City shirt, thanks to Matt Elliott's double against Tranmere Rovers.

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Emile Heskey & Matt Elliott

Heskey celebrates with Matt Elliott after the defender's second goal ensured they would be another League Cup triumph for the Foxes.

"To get the opportunity to play up front with Stan [Collymore], look dangerous and score goals with him, it was great.”

"A setback is sometimes a springboard to have a comeback and that's what we showed," Heskey mused. "We were a little bit disappointed the season before that we didn't actually get past the first round of games that we played, losing to Grimsby.

"But then to go all the way to the final, we were unlucky against Spurs. I was injured in that game, even though I played. I had a back injury, had a couple of injections, but they never worked. I believe if I hadn't been injured, if I was fully fit, we would have had a really good chance of winning that game. But you've got to take your hat off to Spurs, they won that.

"And then we came again and played Tranmere and I remember that was just a phenomenally great day. Matty [Elliott] got his two headers and we finished in the top half of the table as well. It was an aim that the manager had really drilled into us and we achieved that as well."

The latter part of his City career involved spells in partnership with Tony Cottee, Leicester's top scorer two seasons running at the end of the decade, and then Stan Collymore, who hit a hat-trick in a 5-2 victory over Sunderland on a day when Heskey was also on the scoresheet. It proved to be his last game for the Foxes.

"I loved it," Heskey added. "I was the one that really loved the running aspect and getting in behind, creating havoc and taking players on. TC (Tony Cottee) was more intricate around the box, sniffing out chances and we would always create chances, so he loved it.

"I would do the other side of it and he would get the opportunity to finish off those chances. Coming in at the time that he came in, it was great for him because we won a trophy as well right towards the end of his career.

"It's funny because I'd watched Stan [Collymore] when he was at Nottingham Forest. Mark McGhee told me to keep an eye on him at the time because he was a really good player. I watched him and he was phenomenal.

"People forget some of the stuff he did when he was at Forest, he was unstoppable there. So then to get the opportunity to play up front with him and look dangerous and score goals with him, it was great, but obviously it came to an end."

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Emile Heskey & Stan Collymore

Stan Collymore was involved in a memorable final Leicester City game for Heskey.

"It was just a phenomenal time to be involved at Leicester City.”

A raw talent who soon emerged into the complete striker with considerable football intelligence, Leicester City arguably saw the very best of Emile Heskey across his five years in the first team.

He looks back on his time at the Club with immense fondness: "I was a young lad, playing for my hometown team, enjoying my football, playing with some great players and some fantastic individuals, getting better and better, getting stronger, getting wiser, getting quicker, playing international football at this stage as well. It was just great, everything was good and this is what football brings to you.

"If you'd have told me as a kid that I was going to do this, this, this and this with my hometown Club, I would have probably said you were lying! But everything ran so smoothly and it was just great.

"We were riding a wave, we had a great manager and we had a great bunch of lads that worked really hard to win the trophies that we did and to be consistent as we were, not just in the Premier League, but in the cups as well. It was just a phenomenal time to be involved at Leicester City."

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