Liverpool icon Emile Heskey on love affair with Asia, life after retirement
"People out here seem to like me," smiled Emile Heskey as he was given a room upgrade by the wide-eyed desk clerk while checking into his plush Singapore hotel.
The former Liverpool and England striker retired only a year ago -- his last club was Bolton Wanderers in the English second tier -- and yet this is his sixth trip to Southeast Asia since hanging up his boots. Whether it's coaching, playing in veterans' tournaments or working as a media pundit, the 39-year-old just can't seem to keep away.
Heskey flew into Singapore from the Hong Kong Soccer Sevens where he teamed up with fellow ex-Premier Leaguers like Phil Babb, Mikael Silvestre, Lee Hendrie and David James in the Masters' competition.
The previous month, Heskey joined forces with former England and Manchester United full-back Paul Parker as a junior coach in Singapore. He was the guest of honour at the JSSL Singapore International 7's, an annual youth tournament at the historic Singapore Cricket Club.
And last November, Heskey and his former international teammate Teddy Sheringham, stole the show as the England Masters defeated their German counterparts 4-2 at the Singapore National Stadium to replicate the score of the 1966 World Cup final, English football's greatest moment.
Of all the big names who regularly visit Asia, Heskey remains one of the most in demand, due to the fact that he was playing until so recently. And then there's his status as cult hero at Liverpool where he won six trophies, including the UEFA Cup, in the treble-winning season of 2000-01.
"It seems like I get a lot of job opportunities in Asia. It's nice to be liked, and it's nice to come out here regularly," Heskey told ESPN FC.
"I haven't missed professional football in terms of playing. I've more missed the training, and the daily camaraderie with all the lads. But so far, my post-football career has been good."
His trip to Hong Kong came at the invitation of former England and Arsenal defender Viv Anderson. Anderson has set up Playon, which is a club that offers support to ex-professionals after they retire, trying to help them with the transition to everyday life.
Heskey's taste for the Asia Pacific first came in a two-season stint as a marquee player for the Newcastle Jets in the A-League between 2012 and 2014. While his goal return was modest -- he scored 10 times in 42 league matches -- he was well liked by his teammates and the fans, and provided invaluable guidance to younger players.
On the back of Heskey's support, Jets' striker Adam Taggart claimed the 2014 Golden Boot with 16 goals, earning a move to Fulham in the English Championship.
Just like Dwight Yorke after his Sydney FC stint, Heskey turned what seemed like an Australian swansong into more years back in the grind of English football. He played almost 50 senior games after the age of 35 before finally retiring in May 2016.
"You can't go forever, and you don't want to overstay your welcome. Your body tells you when you need to retire," said Heskey, who earned 62 England caps and played in two World Cups.
"You see some younger lads who are quicker and more agile than you -- but not necessarily stronger -- and you say let them have their time let them shine. I've had 21 years of it. But I felt okay. I could have kept playing."
Apart from his career-defining five years at Anfield where England teammates Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler were his strike partners, Heskey played in the Premier League for Leicester City, Birmingham City, Wigan Athletic, and Aston Villa where he reunited with his old Liverpool boss, Gerard Houllier.
Having spent 13 years at the club, Heskey is very much a Leicester lad -- he came through their youth ranks and helped them win two League Cups -- but in the eyes of Asia, he will always represent Liverpool. He's relieved that the Reds have found their way back to the Champions League next season for only the second time in nine years.
"It was what they needed and I thought it would have been easier for them, but they got there, and you're thankful for it. It's where the fans and players deserve," he said.
"But they've obviously got to be a bit more consistent next season, and really be pushing for titles."
This Saturday night, Heskey returns to the Singapore National Stadium where he scored a goal last November as the English prevailed over the Germans. But instead of throwing his big frame about up front, Heskey will be taking the next step in his burgeoning career as a media pundit by offering his expert views at a private viewing party for invited guests at the UEFA Champions League final between Real Madrid and Juventus.
As someone who's played against the likes of Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, he can provide the hands-on insights that more seasoned pundits simply aren't able to.
Which is why he's likely to keep accepting those regular invitations to work in Southeast Asia. After all, he spent his honeymoon with wife Chantelle on a Thailand tropical island in 2014, and has also worked in Malaysia and Indonesia.
While a two-decade football career should have set him up quite nicely in a financial sense, Heskey is keen to continue to explore new horizons across Asia, well beyond his 40th birthday next January.
"I do enjoy coming out to this side of the world," he said.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.