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An Unpopular Position: The Defense of Emile Heskey

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Today is deadline day for 30-man provisional rosters for the 32 teams heading to the World Cup in South Africa. Fabio Capello's roster caused a twitter-storm of criticism, with many football fans questioning the inclusion of Jamie Carragher and Joe Cole while wondering why Phil Jagielka and Ashley Young failed to get the nod.

England's 30-man Provisional World Cup Squad:

Goalkeepers: Joe Hart, David James, Robert Green.

Defenders: Leighton Baines, Jamie Carragher, Ashley Cole, Michael Dawson, Rio Ferdinand, Glen Johnson, Ledley King, John Terry, Matthew Upson, Stephen Warnock.

Midfielders: Gareth Barry, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Steven Gerrard, Tom Huddlestone, Adam Johnson, Frank Lampard, Aaron Lennon, James Milner, Scott Parker, Theo Walcott, Shaun Wright-Phillips.

Forwards: Darren Bent, Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe, Emile Heskey, Wayne Rooney.


But what has caused the most stir, at least in the circles I frequent, is the inclusion of Emile Heskey in the 30 players named. It's hardly a surprise, given that he's been included in the national squad for 11 years and involved in much of the 2010 qualification process. Capello loves him...but the fans do not.

Even fans of Aston Villa question Heskey's inclusion. He's certainly not a fan favorite, with 'oaf' being one of the kinder words used to describe our large forward. His detractors whine about his lack of grace, his knack for picking up knocks and bruises, and his often lumbering pace. But what appalls people the most seems to be his inability to score.

It's true that Heskey is not a prolific goal scorer: he had 3 league goals and 2 cup goals for a grand total of 5 goals this season (40 appearances, 19 as a sub). He's only had 8 goals in 57 appearances as an England international. In comparison, Wayne Rooney has 25 goals in 58 appearances.

But what if...I know this is crazy...what if scoring goals is not the only way to define a forward? Emile Heskey is not tasked with scoring goals. His role is as a targetman, allowing other members of the team to pass up to him and then holding the ball in position. When Heskey holds the ball, defenders are drawn forward, allowing another striker (such as Rooney) room to maneuver. Get it? I'd draw you a picture but my stickman skills aren't that great.

There are certainly negative aspects to Heskey. He's as fragile as spun sugar, seemingly able to be injured by a rogue blade of grass. He doesn't fit with Villa's style and current squad, which is why Capello had to bend his own rules of using only players consistently fielded by their club. But his contribution to England's success is not out of the question. He's a proven partner to Rooney, while we haven't seen much of the possible partnership of Rooney/Defoe or Rooney/Bent. Rooney scores from within the box and he needs balls to be won and then balls to be sent to him. Who knows if those guys would form a good second with Rooney?

Yes, I would've loved to see Gabby go to the World Cup. But he has many of the same qualities as Defoe, Bent and even Crouch. Heskey brings a different presence to the fields, something that, frustratingly enough, cannot be quantified through stats. If brought in as a substitute, he changes the pace and flow of the game, getting in the way of the other team and winning back possession.

It might be fun to pick apart Emile Heskey and make him the butt of many England jokes. But Capello knows that a healthy Heskey brings skills that many other England forwards don't have.