One of fourteen players who has scored more than 100 Premier League goals and provided more than fifty assists, Emile Heskey proved himself throughout his football career. Dean Eldredge, who has previously ghostwritten the autobiographies of Neil Back and Darius Vasell, sat down with the former Leicester marksman to ghostwrite his autobiography.
Congratulations on being involved in Even Heskey Scored, which has been nominated for The Telegraph Sports Book Awards Autobiography of the Year, in your role as ghostwriter, can you tell us how you came to be involved as ghostwriter on the book?
Thank you. We’re delighted and humbled to have made the shortlist alongside such prominent names and excellent books. I was actively looking for the next project and I met with Emile’s media guy, Ade Danes, to discuss the possibility of doing something. He introduced me to Emile and then I spoke to Paul and Jane at Pitch Publishing, who I’d worked with before, and we’re grateful to them for their support. It all seemed to come together quite quickly.
How closely had you followed Emile’s career before you began the project? Did you have any preconceptions before you started on the book and were there any particular stories or issues you really wanted to address?
I would say very closely, without wanting to sound like a stalker. We went to the same primary school, Linden, in Evington, Leicester, although he was five years or so older than me. I had a season-ticket at Leicester City from an early age, and watched him burst in to the side and then tear teams apart. He was so crucial to the way Martin O’Neill’s team played, and I think people forget that he was just a kid, having to lead the line against experienced Premier League defenders.
I tried to go in to the project open-minded, wanting Emile to tell his story and get things off his chest, but I was fascinated by the way he’d been portrayed in the media, almost as a scapegoat within the England side, and how that had affected him.
Can you tell us a bit about the actual process of working with Emile to get the material for the book?
We would meet every week or so, at his home, near to Manchester Airport, and spend two or three hours discussing a particular time in his career. I’d outline this over email in advance, and Emile would look back at that period in his life. We’d watch videos of his games and interviews on YouTube, and the memories would come flooding back. I think Emile would admit that he’s not someone who looks back on his career without being prompted, and he’s not your typical after-dinner speaker, but we both enjoyed the process. I’d drive home and transcribe the recordings, send a draft over for his approval, and then after amends, I’d add that to the master copy for final review before publication.
Was there anything unexpected that you learnt about Emile or any particular stories that surprised you or that you really connected with?
He opened up on being homesick and lonely when he first moved to Liverpool. At that time, people felt less comfortable talking about personal issues like that. Why would a famous, rich, young footballer feel down in any way? It was interesting to listen to Emile talk through that period in his life, and analyse whether he felt he was suffering from depression or not. I think the process was cathartic, and I think we can all relate to that kind of emotion at some time in our lives.
Emile’s chapter on racism, the impact of Brexit, the power that footballers are regaining through having their own, undiluted voice heard through social media, was inspiring too. He spoke from the heart and that chapter wasn’t in the original plan. We met once in Leicester as he had a meeting at the football club and over lunch after a chapter interview, we got chatting about the issue of racism in football and society. He spoke with such authenticity and eloquence. It wasn’t an interview, more like two people chatting in the pub, but at the end of the conversation I asked him if he’d be willing to go on record with this. He didn’t hesitate and he should be proud for speaking out.
Can you tell us a little about the title of the book and who came up with it?
I guess you can credit the England fans with that one, initially. We had a list of potential titles, but it was always going to be this one. In my opinion, the chant is meant in a jokey sense and Emile has a sound sense of humour and he decided to own it. His cheeky look up to the title on the cover is the great work of the photographer, Stuart Thomas and the designer, Duncan Olner. We wanted something that fit with Emile’s personality. He doesn’t take himself too seriously and he has a thick skin to have put up with the stick over the years. I couldn’t imagine the title being anything else, and it gives me great pride to see it on the shelves.
In many ways, Emile has often been something of an unsung hero, yet he is just one of fourteen players who has scored more than 100 Premier League goals and provided more than fifty assists, sharing the rostrum with icons of the Premier League era including Didier Drogba, Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard and Thierry Henry, why do you think he’s perhaps less acknowledged than some of the other greats of the Premier League?
His perceived lack of goals for England and the press targeting him is the most likely cause for this. The tabloids were brutal back then, and they went after anyone and anything. Ask any of his teammates though, from Leicester to Liverpool, to England, right through his career, he did the underappreciated work; holding up the ball, bringing others in to play, occupying defenders, winning free-kicks, and assisting goals. Michael Owen was a lethal finisher, but he is the first to point out just how important Emile was for him.
Emile was in many ways the ideal strike partner, but in recent times football has somewhat moved away from traditional two up top, how do you think Emile would have fit into a modern team and who do you think would be his ideal strike partner now?
His unselfish nature and versatility to play out wide, as a lone striker, or in a front two, would be valued by managers and players alike in today’s game. As a Leicester fan, I would have loved to have seen him link up with Jamie Vardy. The pace and power of them, and Emile’s natural inclination to help provide for others would have suited Jamie perfectly. They would have been a real handful for defenders. At his prime, which was probably towards the end of his time at Leicester and his first couple of seasons at Liverpool, no defender wanted to face him.
Emile speaks with great perception and wisdom on some of the issues footballers face, touching on isolation for overseas players and boredom with youngsters, do you think there’s enough understanding or empathy for the difficulties footballers face as human beings?
I don’t, and I never have, but it is getting better, slowly over time. It’s easy to peddle the line, ‘what have they got to be upset about? On that money, I’d never be depressed.’ Break it down, and behind all the money, the fame, the status, they are just young lads, often from working-class backgrounds, thrown in to a surreal world that the vast majority of us never see. It’s a lot to take on board and that is going to eat away at your emotions. Once that happens, it can affect the way you live, what you eat, where you go, your mood around friends and family, and ultimately, your performance on the pitch. Clubs offer much more support than in Emile’s day, as players are seen as key assets now, so their well-being is valued much higher than in the past.
I had a small taste, indirectly, of the experience of fame and attention recently. I accompanied our client, Nigel Pearson, for an appearance he made on the BBC for a live FA Cup tie before the lockdown. He was returning to Hillsborough, to watch his former club Sheffield Wednesday take on Manchester City. He’d just led Watford to a 3-0 win over Liverpool, and he is adored on the blue side of Sheffield. As he got out of the car, he was mobbed by people for autographs and photos. One after the other, it was relentless. Obviously, he had no problem with that, and posed for as many as he could, chatting to people along the way, but we needed to get him in to the stadium to avoid being late for his appearance. Imagine turning up to work, and being greeted by people, one after the other like that. I’m not saying it’s unpleasant, it’s flattering, but it’s just one of many alien concepts that footballers have to adapt to.
We can’t ignore the fact that we all had to get used to a world without sport, what have you particularly missed and are there any particular sporting events you are looking forward to?
I’ve missed football. I’ve missed attending Leicester City games with my Dad and my friends, Gin, Kevin, Paul and David, and I’ve been enjoying attending Watford games to offer my support to Nigel (Pearson) and Craig Shakespeare, as they have worked wonders at Vicarage Road. It will be nerve-wracking watching those games on television. I also had tickets for the Edgbaston test match between England and West Indies with my brother, Phil and my friends. I try to get to a test match every summer, so it’s a shame to miss that. I’m glad sport is returning, but sorry that supporters aren’t. Let’s hope the return is safe.
What are you most proud of with this book?
That people have read it, that judges have shortlisted it, that the reviews have been positive are all things to be proud of. Most of all though, that Emile is happy with it. It’s his book, not mine, and as a ghostwriter, it’s crucial to remember that. You are telling their story, not the version of their story that you want to write.
Imagine if you will a world where we can all have dinner parties, which four sporting greats past or present would be invited?
I’ve been obsessed with the role of the football manager from a very young age and I’m fortunate enough to work with managers in my role as an agent and publicist. I’ll go with that theme and select the following bosses: Bobby Robson, Brian Clough, Terry Venables and Martin O’Neill. Robson seemed like such a gentleman and I’d be fascinated by his stories from his time in charge of England, and how close he came to winning the World Cup in Italia ’90. Clough was surely the most talented manager of his generation, and his personality was unique to say the least. Venables was in charge for Euro ’96, my favourite ever tournament and like Robson, managed abroad, namely with Barcelona. How we didn’t win the Euros under him, I’ll never know, and O’Neill, I’m fortunate enough to have met, as he kindly wrote the foreword for Emile’s book. He is highly intelligent, articulate and I was captivated by him in the hour or so we spent together. He transformed Leicester City in the 1990s and as those who know me will confirm, I never get bored of talking about that team and that era.
And finally, what three words would you use to sum up Emile Heskey?
Authentic, humble, thoughtful.