Grant Holt: ‘Who would have thought I’d play in the Premier League?’
27 July 2019 09:00
On the way to Norwich to interview Grant Holt, he rings me on the train. “Hi mate,” he says in a breezy voice, “you should get off at Diss, it’s quicker.” The former Norwich City, Sheffield Wednesday and Sengkang Marine striker has a role coaching students at a boarding school deep in the Norfolk countryside, so I take his advice. But it turns out that Diss is twice as far from the school as Norwich, to the extent that the taxi driver has no clue how to get there. I put that to Holt when I meet him and his reply is succinct. “No, it isn’t.”
A certain obstinacy served Holt well in his career. The 38-year-old has published an autobiography that details his journey up and, just as often, down the league ladder. He played for 17 clubs and scored 192 goals. Some spells he relished, others he spent at loggerheads with the manager (see: Colin Calderwood, Nottingham Forest). Ultimately, however, Holt became one of the more unlikely goalscoring sensations in Premier League history.
Twenty-three goals in two seasons for the Canaries put Holt close to the England squad, only for Roy Hodgson to travel to Euro 2012 with four strikers instead of the customary five. Missing out on a cap is as close as it gets to a regret for Holt, a man who has found perspective thanks to his long and winding career, and who may be one of the last of his kind.
“It’s hard, isn’t it,” he says. “You’re now regretting getting off at Diss and not Norwich. It’s done now. You’ll never go to Diss, you’ll go to Norwich. Or get a better taxi driver. That is the reality. For me, I’ve got to look at my career and be thankful.
“People talk about the England thing and I say: ‘It is what it is.’ Was I disappointed not to get in? Yes. Of course, you would be. Anyone who says they wouldn’t is a liar. To wear the England shirt, to stand there and wear that shirt, it would be the most ridiculous thing that I’d ever achieved. But, at the same time, would I have thought I’d ever play in the Premier League?”
Holt’s book is good on his early years. Amid lots of Swallows and Amazons details (except it’s the 80s and the location is Carlisle), Holt tells how he was inspired by his competitive dad to pursue a career in the game and how a boyish enthusiasm for kicking a ball around kept him going through frequent tough times. He was a mechanic – “I do loads of interviews and everyone knows about the tyre-fitting” – and he was a summer footballer, plying his trade in Asia and the Antipodes. But, somehow, he made it within touching distance of the very top.
“I wanted it more than anyone else,” says Holt. “You have to have talent. You don’t get to any level or standard of football if you don’t have the talent. My talent was learning, being able to outwit someone, knowing that I could exploit your weakness with my strengths. That was it. And I ran harder than anyone else. People laugh at that. They say I wasn’t as fit as other people. Maybe I wasn’t, but you get to the match day and it didn’t matter to me. I’d run myself into the ground.”
The big goals of his Premier League years – a booming header past Pepe Reina at Anfield, a no-look flick over Petr Cech at Stamford Bridge, a spin and smash past David de Gea at Carrow Road – receive a full reconstruction in the book. Each smacks of his determination but also a cuteness, an ability to read the game. It’s a skill Holt says he picked up thanks to the players he worked with further down the ladder.
“It’s the ability to take something that you’ve seen and bring it into your own game,” he says. “To use it for your own. I’m never going to say: ‘OK, Neymar does a flip-flap, I’m going to start doing it myself.’ That’s not my bag. But what I could do was watch Lloyd Owusu at Sheffield Wednesday and the timing of his headers. He would always go up late and he won so many flick-ons. That’s an ability, that’s what you pinch. Mark Robins, the timing of his runs into the box, you pinch that. Shefki Kuqi at Sheffield Wednesday, how he held the ball up. Things like that, little things you take.
“By the time I got to the Premier League, I just had a real ability to see things happening. I talk about the goal at Anfield, I knew Reina was never getting the cross. I knew [Anthony] Pilkington was going to whip the cross, because that’s what he does. I know that Steve Morison has made a good run so he’s taken one away from me. There’s me versus two and I know the keeper is coming in and he’s not getting there. You’ve just got to know these things. You learn as you get older.”
Had Holt got to the Premier League younger, he might have benefited from more sophisticated coaching or fewer of the Tuesday night drinking sessions that were standard in the lower leagues (“We’re probably at the end of that now,” Holt suggests with half a sigh). But he would also never have built up that dossier of insider knowledge and in his role as a coach, which also takes in work with Norwich’s youth teams as well as some scouting, Holt is concerned that a new generation of players will never learn those lessons because they will be finished in football by the time they’re 23.
“Everything has changed in terms of young lads,” he says. “I talk a bit in the book about respecting, about earning it, having it and achieving it. Everyone goes into football now, believing that they’re going to go to the Premier League. Everyone in there now is on OK money. But will they be better for that money? What have they learned? The proof will be in the pudding.
“You’re going to see more things like Bolton where people can’t get paid and big clubs are going to go bust because they can’t afford to keep up. Then there’s the other trend where kids are going to be coming out of academies on half‑decent wages, kids who have never saved anything.
“They won’t know what it’s like to go into non-league because they hardly ever go on loan to anywhere that good. And when they get to non-league they’re going to drop off the face of the earth. That’s what’s going to happen.
“When I was 19, if you weren’t in the first team, you were in non-league. Now you can sit somewhere till you’re 23, 24 and then leave. It’s a strange reality.”
You could probably make the same argument about a former tyre-fitter with the build of a wrestler who made it to the top of Match of the Day. Speaking of wrestling, Holt is keen to point out that media reports of his turning full-time to performance art, in the guise of the Incredible Holt, are exaggerated.
“I’m not a wrestler now, though technically I am,” he says. “We did a show at Carrow Road and we had 4,300 in there. Which was surreal. But I can’t do it now, because I’m back with my football head. I’m not saying I’ve stopped but I’ve got so much other stuff on, I’m going to keep it in the background for now.”
Like a lot of other journeys then, it is about knowing when to get off.
Grant Holt: A Real Football Life, published by Twocan, is out now.