Emile Heskey on England's new Golden Generation
The former England international discusses the Three Lions' chances at the World Cup and the difference between his England team and the current one.
What did you make of England’s performance against Iran?
It was a good performance. You can only beat what’s in front of you and they did that in a stellar fashion.
I thought the lads controlled large portions of the game well. First half, we could probably have moved it a little bit quicker, but then again you have to consider the temperature, what the opposition are doing and so on.
Overall, it was a very, very good start for us.
Which individuals particularly stood out for you?
The first two goalscorers, Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka.
Saka I thought was fantastic. He just surprises me again and again, at such a young age. To come from an Arsenal team, where he’s the best player and a major influence on results, and then to reproduce it at a major tournament is so impressive.
Jude’s stock is rising and rising, too. He’s a phenomenal player and I don’t know what the limit is for him because he’s got everything.
It’s so impressive that these young players go out there and express themselves how they do. It’s all you want at a tournament, really, the opportunity to show your best. But it’s easier said than done.
They play with no fear, with a smile on their face and genuinely seem to love what they do. They have that will to win and that passion to win, but embrace it rather than fear it.
Is that one of Gareth Southgate’s biggest successes in the job, the ability to keep his players relaxed at tournaments?
Definitely. The toughest thing for a manager is to take the burden off the players and to allow them to express themselves.
If you asked Michael Owen why he was able to flourish at the 1998 World Cup he would say that he felt no fear. He had the total backing of the manager and his teammates. You suddenly want to make the opposition fear you rather than the other way round.
Having a manager who makes you feel like you can be the best player on the pitch is so crucial and I think Gareth does that really well. He looks after them, he shelters them from the noise and allows them to just be them.
Do you think the fear factor was something that wasn’t dealt with well enough during your England career?
I think it’s just the eras we played in.
When I played, it wasn’t done for managers to look after you in that way. It was just: “no, you have to go out there and be the best.”
Nowadays, managers understand the person as much as the player. They give the players the protection that they need to perform. So much more thought goes into what makes a player tick and what they need away from the pitch.
We were just expected to be the best, no excuses, go and do it. But it’s not that simple and there are a lot of other small touches that can help you perform.
We hear stories that the chemistry in the England squad in your time wasn’t quite right. Do you agree?
Yeah, when you have rivalries outside of the national team and then you come together once every month or two, it can be difficult at times.
There were some strong rivalries at that time, if you think back to Manchester United v Arsenal, Chelsea v Liverpool and those kinds of games.
There were issues in other national teams, too. Spain suffered from the Barcelona and Real Madrid rivalry, and had to put a lot of work into getting that dynamic right.
I think this is a different generation. Firstly, as I said before, there is much more of an emphasis on looking after people and making sure everybody’s happy. That’s as important as ability and tactics.
I also think the new generation are much better connected via social media. They’re always talking, congratulating each other and giving each other banter, so there’s less distance between them all.
This group has just been able to knit together better than we did, it’s as simple as that.
Did you look forward to playing for England?
Oh yeah, I loved it.
You’ve been selected as the best of the best from your country, so if you don’t get up for that then you shouldn’t really be playing.
I remember playing for the under-16s and I thought it was amazing. I played every minute of that like it was going to be my last representing the national team and I tried to keep that attitude throughout my senior career as well.
How do you think England’s new generation compares to the heralded ‘Golden Generation’?
It’s difficult to say.
At the end of the day, they’ve reached a semi-final and a final, and we never managed that.
Tournaments are played on such fine margins, though. Do you look back and wonder what could have been, particularly in 2002?
100 per cent.
That was the closest we ever got, and if you look at that Brazil team we played, with Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, they weren’t bad.
It’s the timing. If we’d been drawn into another group, maybe we’d have avoided Brazil until the semi-final or final, and then things are remembered very differently.
Maybe if David Seaman hadn’t been beaten by that Ronaldinho wondergoal…
Was it a wondergoal?
I’ve watched it back a few times now and I do think he meant to shoot, but I think he was actually aiming for David’s near post rather than the far one.
Seaman comes way out of his goal, so the gap is there, and I think he tried to whip it into the near post, overhit it, and it’s drifted in.
It’s one of those freak moments that decides tournaments and probably decides our legacy.
What do you remember of the 2010 World Cup, the build-up to the USA game and then the match itself?
We were going into a major tournament, there was always going to be hype, but I do remember it being a relief to actually get started.
We went 1-0 up, were doing OK, and then obviously it was a mistake by Rob Green to let them back in.
We had one or two half chances but I remember it being a difficult game.
USA were probably similar to what they’ll be like against England this week. Very athletic, very energetic and capable of being disruptive. I thought they were probably overly aggressive against Wales on Monday, they were kicking them all over the place.
So yeah, a competitive team that you have to be on it to beat.
You played with Gareth Southgate for England. Did you think he could make a successful manager?
I did actually, yeah. There were two players in that squad who I thought always helped the younger players and seemed like they had leadership qualities, Martin Keown and Gareth.
They both really took time out to help me as a young player, educating me and talking to me.
Do you agree with the criticism he’s faced as England manager in the last few months?
For me, he’s done a stellar job. He’s brought the country back together, galvanised the players and created a superb atmosphere inside the camp.
Players feel like they’re part of the squad now, which is massive, and he’s been rewarded with the best tournament performances for decades.
Criticism comes when there’s a downturn, that’s the reality, but you’d hope that he’s earned the time to ride a bit of a blip. The style of play has, at times, been very, very good.
I just think he deserves a bit of a break. You hear people claiming he’s brilliant after the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020 and then not long later he’s rubbish and everything’s miserable again. It’s like: ‘hang on, two weeks ago you said this.’
If he did step away after this World Cup, who do you think would be next?
That’s a fascinating question, because you really need somebody who prioritises that chemistry, that feeling of everybody being in it together that he’s created.
You can’t hire somebody who doesn’t value that as it’s clearly vital to our success.
I can’t see Eddie Howe or Graham Potter taking the job given their club situations, so I’m not sure how many English candidates there are.
You played for Sven Goran-Eriksson and Fabio Capello – what do you think of turning to another foreign manager?
I like it being an English manager, but if somebody else is the right person for the job then I don’t think it really matters where they’re from.
But again, there aren’t loads of good options out there.
How crucial is Harry Kane to England’s chances at this World Cup?
He’s such an impressive player, a world-class forward.
You don’t get many forwards who score and assist to the extent that he does. He’s got that selfish streak while being a real team player.
He’s also captain, which is tough as a striker because you really want to be thinking about yourself and the goals that you’re going to score. He does brilliantly to combine those two elements.
He’s changed his game a lot, too. The way he drops deep reminds me of someone like Bobby Firmino, who links the play and doesn’t worry too much about goals. But then he’s also about to become England’s all-time leading goalscorer.
There’s a bit of Wayne Rooney about him, I suppose. Wayne wanted the ball, he created space for forwards to run in behind, took the ball on the half-turn and drove at teams.
Wayne did that in a 4-4-2 system a lot of the time, but the end result is similar. They are both all-round forwards who help their teammates so much.
I think that’s why Callum Wilson was selected in this squad, too, because he gives you that alternative option of running in behind.
It’s interesting now, though, with front twos going out of the game. I’ve noticed that when attackers get chucked on to chase a goal, they don’t know how to play together.
It’s something you saw in Argentina against Saudi Arabia and I’ve spotted it a lot over the last few years. That instinctive combination play, one dropping short and one going in behind, doesn’t seem to exist. Players are running into the same spaces and getting in each other’s way, because they’re used to playing by themselves up there.
Were you surprised by how Argentina fell apart against Saudi Arabia?
Yeah, it’ll be so frustrating for them. The thing with Argentina is that they have such an obvious best player, they’ll always look for him and he’ll always take the blame when it goes wrong.
I’ve seen quite a lot of criticism of Messi this week, people asking what happened and why he didn’t save them. It must be so hard being that player. When it goes well you’ve got to be humble with it, and when it goes badly it’s all your fault.
I don’t think that’s a great situation to be in when you’re not playing well in a match, it gives other players an easy option. ‘Just give it to Messi and he’ll get us out of it’ – well it doesn’t work like that.
It’s a tick in England’s box that they don’t have one player they’ll always turn to. Kane, Saka, Bellingham, Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden and others could all be the man in certain moments.
Are you expecting any changes to the England team against USA?
Not unless there are any injuries. I think continuity is a fantastic thing.
It’s going to be a tough game. There will be a lot of tough battles, with a lot of physicality. USA have got a few decent players playing in the Premier League and across Europe.
Do you think England will get over the line?
Oh yeah, I’m saying 2-1.
And finally, who’s going to win the World Cup?
It’s very early days, but France and England have been the best two teams so far.