Matt Holland: A look at the career of an underappreciated midfield marvel

Matt Holland is walking proof of what you can achieve in life with the right blend of talent, hard work and professionalism. Despite being adored by the fans of the clubs where he played, his widespread appreciation isn’t nearly as high as it should be.

Matt Holland? He’s no Frank Lampard

When Holland was trying to make his way into the professional game he found himself on the books at West Ham alongside Frank Lampard. The gaffer at the time was Harry Redknapp. During a press conference in 1996, Redknapp was put on the spot about his persistence to play Lampard whilst getting rid of Holland (and Scott Canham) for ‘peanuts’. Redknapp insisted neither of those were a patch on Lampard. There is no denying that proved to be bang on but Holland did more than alright for himself.

Redknapp predicted that ‘Matt Holland may bounce back’ for a career in the First Division. He took the long route but he bounced back alright and his level proved to be beyond Redknapp’s expectations too. Holland had spent time on loan with Bournemouth already and made the move permanent despite the fact it meant dropping into the second division. A contract extension at West Ham was on the table too. Holland’s decision was one dictated by his desire to play.

The ultimate pro and a real leader

Holland was 22-years-old when he opted to join Bournemouth and he was quickly named captain with his performances on the field consistent and his attitude off it exemplary. He’d give his all for the badge and would lead by example. A ‘do as I do’ and you won’t go far wrong attitude. Holland himself has detailed how he’d be the first player in training and the last to leave. It was the same on a match day with his performances and never say die approach that dragged his teammates up a few percent. That’s a code he carried with him throughout his career.

A rollercoaster with Ipswich

Early pain followed by glory

A lot of people would have questioned Holland walking away from West Ham. After three years on the south coast though he found himself at Ipswich Town. The club were managed by their former right back George Burley and played in Division One. Redknapp thought that was Holland’s ceiling. The former Bournemouth man slotted straight into the Blues’ midfield and over a six year period went on to establish himself as one of their best – and most loved – players of all time.

There were some crushing lows in that spell of his career to though. When Ipswich splashed £800k on Holland, they were dragging themselves off the canvas after a semi-final play-off defeat. In the next two seasons they would suffer the same cruel fate with Charlton and Bolton the sides to deliver the respective knockout blows. The next couple of campaigns offered somewhat of an improvement. First, Holland skippered his team to play-off glory (finally) at the old Wembley with their three matches offering up a total of 18 goals. Then came the promised land. Ipswich became everybody’s second team.

The season of a lifetime

They were not only tipped for the drop but were heavy favourites too. Those murmurings stopped pretty sharpish. Prior to Christmas, Town took points from all of the so called ‘big boys’ having drawn with Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal in addition to beating Tottenham, Leeds and Everton – a game Holland cites as his favourite of the season as the Goodison crowd applauded Ipswich off after a 3-0 win. Everyone was waiting for the bubble to burst but the team was just as grounded as their skipper and they emerged as genuine contenders for a Champions League spot right through to the final day. They ended the season fifth and they did so having played beautiful football all season too.

And the crushing lows

The following campaign goes down as one of, if not the, lowest of Holland’s career. Ipswich’s European tour went well with their exit only coming after Inter Milan overcame a 1-0 defeat at Portman Road in the second leg. The league was a different matter though. Burley went against his usual approach of picking up gems from the lower leagues and bought in Matteo Sereni and Finidi George – both on big money. That strategy seemed to take something away from the team.

After winning just one game between August and December 22nd, things looked bleak. A corner appeared to be turned after that thought with seven wins in eight – the only loss coming as Ipswich blew an early two goal lead to Charlton. Unfortunately, they’d only win one more game all season and fell to relegation in 18th place. The pain wasn’t over though. Expensive contracts and a revamped stadium were not easily managed outside of the top flight. Administration beckoned.

The talent began to drain from the squad. Titus Bramble, gone. Marcus Stewart, gone. The exodus continued. Eventually, Burley’s ‘Captain Marvel’ would leave too. Ipswich had reluctantly accepted an offer of £4m from Aston Villa their skipper the previous summer. 11 months later, he joined Charlton for just £750k when the financial situation worsened.

The ups and downs of being an Addick

Early joy

Holland has openly admitted that his move to Villa didn’t go through because they were unwilling to match his Ipswich contract – neither in money or length. That’s no dig at the player either. He was a professional with a family. You need to feel genuinely wanted and respected. When the Charlton deal came around, there was no hesitation.

Alan Curbishley had them established as a decent Premier League side. Holland instantly became his captain. His first year at the Valley was unquestionably his best in red. He had already led Ipswich to their highest finish for nearly 20 years and now, in 2004, he had done similar with his new club – only this time, their seventh place finish was their best for over four decades. One year in and already he was putting his name in the history books.

A familiar sense of dread

Two seasons followed with Charlton finishing in respectable mid-table positions of 11th and 13th. Like at Ipswich, a lot of the success was built around a good team spirit and a group understanding. The longevity of the manager and core players was key. Then came a dreaded sense of de-ja-vu with Holland’s Ipswich days. The situations were not remotely comparable from the outside but with Curbishley gone there was huge change at the club. Holland has retrospectively likened Curbishley leaving to Sir Alex Ferguson retiring from Man United. To some, that might be a laughable suggestion but given the context of Charlton’s journey it is spot on. A new manager combined with trying to incorporate 11 new faces was simply too much change.

Holland was getting on. He wouldn’t kick a ball in the Premier League again. Fast forward two years to 2009 and Charlton had nosedived to League One. It was time to hang up the much worn boots. He did so as a Charlton legend.

It wasn’t only on the domestic front though

Holland might have been born in Bury but he qualified for the Republic of Ireland through his grandmother. It’s something he had long been aware of and in 1999 the call came. Mick McCarthy was in charge of Ireland at the time and offered the opportunity of a B team cap. Holland, who felt he had a pretty average game, was picked out by McCarthy as the standout performer. A senior call up soon came. Matt Holland was an international footballer.

When paired in a midfield with Roy Keane, it’s fair to say Holland wasn’t seen as first choice captain material – although he did don the armband on a few occasions to further demonstrate his leadership qualities. Unlike Keane, Holland went to the 2002 World Cup and even found the net in the opening game – a draw with Cameroon – with a splendid 25 yard strike to the bottom corner.

Like a lot of Holland’s career, the mood swung from peaks of joy to troughs of rough times. His goal was an obvious high. The first knockout round served up the low as he missed a spot kick in the penalty shootout. Ireland were out. It didn’t tarnish Holland’s reputation though and he remained with the squad through to 2006 World Cup qualifiers. He retired from international duty after the team failed to qualify for the finals. 49 caps was a decent haul. More would have followed if the management had their way.

Mr Reliable

Consider that Holland came through in an era prior to the ‘healthy revolution’ and look at his appearance record. Throughout his career he racked up over 700 appearances, hardly ever suffered from injuries or suspensions and, whilst with Ipswich, even managed an almighty run of 223 games without missing a match.

Regardless of where he was playing, who he was playing for and what form his team were in, Holland was as consistent as they come. A dependable eight out of 10 man every game. Every team who he represented for an extended period worship the ground he walks on. Rightly so. It’s just a shame the rest of the footballing world are so eager to judge a career by silverware.

There you have it, a look back at the career of Matt Holland.

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