Call it the O'Neill effect. Until late Thursday, Emile Heskey had planned on returning to Liverpool at the end of the season. With his contract set to expire in June, the 31-year-old Wigan Athletic striker was poised to maximize his earning potential by signing at Anfield on a free transfer. Until Martin O'Neill hijacked the transaction.
By Friday morning, Wigan and Aston Villa had agreed a fee of £3.5 million. The player arrived at Villa Park for a medical just a few hours later. It's expected he'll sign a three-and-a-half-year contract at the club.
Like so many of O'Neill's signings, Heskey arrives at Villa having already worked with the manager. The two spent five seasons together at Leicester City, winning the League Cup in 1997 and 2000. At 6-foot-2, he's also the big body that O'Neill prefers to have leading the line. And although the manager admits that Heskey's goal return is less than both of them would like, he sees the England international as the type of player who creates space for his teammates and makes everyone's job easier.
Assuming he passes the medical examination and that the papers are filed with the FA, Heskey could make his Villa debut as early as Saturday against Doncaster Rovers. With John Carew injured and Ashley Young suspended, O'Neill would love to have Heskey parter Gabriel Agbonlahor in attack.
On paper, it appears the ideal big man-little man combination. But don't expect the two to play every match together. Since Carew went down with a back injury in early November, Agbonlahor has featured in every match for Villa. With 11 goals, he's already equaled last season's output. But with the club entering a crucial stretch of fixtures, a rest wouldn't do him any harm. Villa have tended to tail off in February and March under O'Neill as squad fatigue has set in. Heskey's arrival should help that somewhat.