BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03: Emile Heskey of Aston Villa runs with the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Manchester United at Villa Park on December 3, 2011 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Emile Heskey came to Aston Villa during the January 2009 transfer window. He scored twice the rest of the season. In three and a half seasons, he scored nine league goals in 92 appearances. It's pretty easy to understand why big Emile was never the most popular Villa player; on a team that was so often in need of a bit more firepower, he became a symbol of the fans' collective frustrations. That he did so while pulling down somewhere in the neighborhood of £65,000 per week made him all the more popular of a target for derision, especially over the past few years, when it's become apparent that Villa's wage bill was monumentally out of control.
To be sure, Ivanhoe didn't deserve all of the criticism of which he was on the receiving end. The pace and quickness that had once made him a genuinely dangerous scoring threat had long since left him but he was still an imposing physical presence blessed with touch and vision that were quite incongruous with his size (not to mention his tendency to get things horribly wrong in front of goal.) Despite what some of his critics might have to say, he was far from worthless. It wasn't much of an accident that Villa often looked a great deal more dangerous after he entered games; he was a true target forward in a way that John Carew and Darren Bent never were, winning balls, holding up play, finding outlets and clearing out the penalty area. None of these things are especially sexy, but there were a lot of times that the same could be said for the most effective method of play Aston Villa could employ.
Still, it's clearly time to move on. Heskey's durability has followed quickly on the heels of his athleticism over the past couple of seasons in particular, and there are plenty of younger, healthier players that can bring similar things to the table at a far lower cost; for similar wages, you might even be able to find a few that can finish or get past a defender. I've been as staunch a supporter of Emile's as one is likely to find, but I will happily admit that the club is better off with him gone. £65,000 is just far, far too much to pay for a 34-year-old striker that scores once every ten appearances and misses nearly as many games due to injury a he starts. That's money that could be used to upgrade the central midfield and replace the big man's utility-striker role, making the team significantly better in the process.
But there's still a part of me that's sad to see him go. Part of it's because he's become something of a personal favorite, in an at least partially un-ironic sense, but part of it is because I wish more Villa fans could have been convinced to come around to at least seeing the positives. That's not especially rational, because it wasn't ever going to happen as he gets older, slower, and more fragile, but it's still disappointing that it had to end this way, with an entire fanbase sighing in relief when the news of his release came through.
So long, Emile. Here's hoping you can find some of that old form wherever you end up next, and the last few years of your career can be spent playing for fans that enjoy watching you play as much as I did.
This is the first in a series of farewells to those that won't be with Aston Villa for the 2012-13 season. Up next: Ebby Nelson-Addy.