“You can see the hate,” says Emile Heskey with a smile as he recounts the experience of derby day on Merseyside.
As a Liverpool player, Heskey scored home and away against Everton in 2000-01, and the emotions such an occasion engenders remain fresh in the former England striker’s mind all these years on.
“It means a hell of a lot,” he tells The Sportsman’s Chris Sutton ahead of Wednesday’s latest meeting between the two clubs. “The significance of the game, being a derby and the fans being able to walk around this city and gloat, you become an instant hero.
“If there is one game that you have to score in, that is the game. It feels like you have arrived, you are on cloud nine scoring against your closest rivals.”
Having netted in the 3-1 win at Anfield earlier in the season, Heskey’s effort in a memorable 3-2 success at Goodison on Easter Monday 2001 helped to quieten a hostile crowd which he can still recall vividly.
“You are going into the lions’ den. You are driving to the stadium and you can see the hate. I would describe it as hate,” he explains in the latest instalment of the ‘Sutton’s Big Games’ series.
“But it is weird because once you get back into the rest of the season, there is no hate there. It is just for that one tense game, and you feel it.
“We knew the importance of it and that it was not going to be an easy game, it never was.”
Heskey scored 22 goals in his first full season at Liverpool, but the two he scored in the derbies stand out because of the sheer intensity involved in Merseyside’s big day.
“The whole city is abuzz here, you tend to stay away from the city a little bit because you don’t want to get drawn into it,” he continues. “On that pitch, you can feel the tension from the fans wanting us to do well, but you feed off the energy, I loved it to be honest with you.
“It’s fight or flight in those situations. They are trying to puff their chests out and make themselves feel better, but we knew that, with respect, we had the better players and if we could put in a performance that we would win. They’re possessed. They step their game up 10-fold. It was just a great game to be in.”
Heskey’s goal at Goodison was left in the shadow somewhat as a result of Gary McAllister’s dramatic last-minute free-kick which settled the contest. And the former Leicester City front man, like everyone else in the ground, wasn’t quite expecting it:
“I was at the back post and expecting him to put it on my head, like everyone else was expecting,” says Heskey.
“Even when I look back now I think ‘How did he even think of this?’ We had a free-kick just before and he has floated it and then he’s seen the goalie just move across a little bit to try and claim it and have a quick break. Macca’s seen that and gone for the quick one, bang!
“Even now I’m thinking: ‘Why? What are you doing?’ It was crazy. It is a huge game. It is tough, they are battles, but to win it in that manner was amazing.”
Heskey says that he cannot thank Liverpool’s fans enough for the love they showed him during his four-year spell on Merseyside, with supporters never shy to show their appreciation of his efforts even now.
“It’s historical. It’s something that is going to be cherished by me because of the love they gave to me as a player, that allowed me to go and perform,” he adds.
“The fans are amazing. I go all over the world and they stop me and say thank you for what you did at Liverpool. No, thank you for having me, thank you for letting me grace the pitch.”