I look out for players in the pro game that I played against during my own career to see how they are doing. Not so that I can say "it could have been me" - it couldn't and would never have been as I just wasn't good enough - but just so that I can look back with a touch of pride and say at least I shared the same pitch as them. Most of them are relatively anonymous having forged modest careers in the lower leagues. There is one however who has recently become very recognisable as a Premiership footballer.
Grant Holt's performances for Norwich City have been one of the highlights of the season for me, and I don't think I'm alone in thinking that. Whilst talk of England call ups is perhaps just a step too far for the Norwich skipper - I think Kevin Davies' brief flirtation with the international game hasn't helped Holt's cause as the gamble to play an "old fashioned" English centre forward didn't work in that instance - his performances and goals this year have caught the eye of many who had dismissed him as a journeyman pro simply not good enough for Premiership football at the start of the season.
Holt is a classic target man. Great with his back to goal, physically very imposing and a massive aerial threat, Holt could be compared to the likes of Bob Latchford, Mark Hateley, Niall Quinn and John Fashanu. I struggled to think of players easily there - this type of player is verging on the extinct in today's game. Alan Shearer, though a better player than Holt and one of international repute, was probably the most recent of that breed at the top level of English football. Today's coaches clearly look to develop smaller, more mobile forwards, but Holt has proved that big can be beautiful, at least in the eyes of Norwich City fans.
Holt's technique when finishing in and around the box is excellent, and he has adapted to the pace of the Premiership quickly, rarely taking too long in possession to release it when the ball is played into him and improving his conversion ratio when chances do come his way. Twelve Premiership goals so far mean he is the second highest English goal scorer at present, and is ahead of the likes of Adebayor, Bent and Balotelli in the goalscoring chart. When you consider Norwich, though they've fared impressively in exalted surroundings, are no more than a mid table outfit, that's a terrific return. So maybe there is still a place, at least in the English game, for a big, old school centre forward.
I think there are two reasons for Holt's success. First, Norwich play great passing football and move the ball into the final third of the pitch with accuracy so Holt, Steve Morrison and Simeon Jackson get good service to work off. Holt and Morrison (another player plucked out of non league football) provide a perfect foil for that type of football because they have the ability to use the ball intelligently when it is played forward, as well as causing a lot of problems for the opposition's defence with their physicality and work rate, which bring me on to the second and most prominent reason. Holt really, really wants it. He plays every game like its his last.
Having arrived in the Premiership via such outposts as Barrow in Furness, Workington, Singapore and Perth, Australia, his arrival at the top level occurred because he has made the most of his footballing attributes. Even when he did make it into the ranks of full time, football league surroundings, he has had to move back down the leagues, been farmed out on loan and dealt with his fair share of set backs. There was no five year contract on the table for Holt as a teenager - he was working in a factory. He's had to fight tooth and nail every inch of the way and has become accustomed to dealing with critics suggesting he's not quick, mobile or technically gifted enough to deal with stepping up a level, something he has done gradually rather than in one giant step. He's learned, adapted and then succeeded at every level. The work rate and aggression which comes so naturally to him had to be complemented with better movement off the ball, quicker feet, more subtlety and most definitely more clinical finishing if he was to keep progressing.
I played against Holt twice (for Whitby Town against Halifax Town and then Barrow) and if I'm honest, he was the type of player I liked to play against. Being of limited ability and limited pace, I was happy to get involved in a battle and he was certainly game. He was no big time charlie - every other forward I played against had a chip on their shoulder and a bit too much lip for me - he just went at it hammer and tongs with anyone in the vicinity, ran all day long and never gave up or switched off. His touch wasn't bad but if I'm honest, I thought he'd maybe make a modest career out of the game in the bottom rung of league football or maybe the conference and then gradually drop down the non league pyramid. He didn't cause me the kind of problems that some of the smaller, quicker and more mobile strikers in the Unibond Premier league did. He definitely seemed like a decent lad who would dish it out but could take it too without either crying to the referee or vowing to make it his mission in life to "mess me up" ( only one centre forward I played against was seriously scary enough to make me think he could and would do just that given half a chance!).
Whilst the Unibond Premier league back then was the pinnacle of my career, it was from that modest level that Holt then embarked on a journey that would ultimately take him five steps up the footballing ladder to the promised land of the Premiership at the age of 30 and prove he had a lot more left in his locker than the centre half marking him back then would ever have. I'm delighted for him, and I value everything that Holt stands for. He's a proper man - brave, honest, hard working and a real team player. The fact that he has continued to improve technically to the extent he is now being considered as having an outside chance of making the England squad for this summer's European Championships proves that with the right attitude, you don't have to be blessed with the natural talent of a Zinedine Zidane or Lionel Messi to play at the very top of the game. There is no hope for me but there's a lesson in there somewhere for today's young players, and maybe even the not so young.
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