The troubling, humorous and honest world of Ian Holloway: an artist in a game of robots

The troubling, humorous and honest world of Ian Holloway: an artist in a game of robots

When Ian Holloway’s departure from Queens Park Rangers was announced earlier this year, it came to the surprise of absolutely nobody. Holloway has a knack for not staying put too long, to then go on a break and return somewhere mildly unexpected. One thing you can guarantee, though: it’ll be in England.

The Holloway legend, contrary to popular trends of social media, is verging on a modern myth. From miracle-worker at Blackpool to his immersion in the self-sustainability movement, Holloway and ‘expected’ are like oil and water. He’s as British as shepherd’s pie and a pint of ale. His press conferences are always the Full English, featuring something for everyone. Granted, you might get more beans and less sausage than you wanted, but that’s part of his charm. He’s the humble greasy spoon with the kindest waitress for a heart.

He’s also a figure who has led clubs straight out of dark days and into promotion places. Outside of football, he’s helped keep a family together against all odds. How he managed to combine the two is a testament to the man’s steel.

We love characters in football, although they seem to be increasingly few and far between. The veneration of Mohamed Salah has highlighted this. It’s a game begging for something more. Not necessarily a success story, because they happen all the time at many different levels, but something that transcends even that.

Similarly, Jamie Vardy was thrust onto our newsfeeds during Leicester City’s title-winning season, although for different reasons. He was a late-bloomer, destined for Championship football at best. A rough-diamond of a lad – we all knew a Vardy, he lived just down the street. That’s important because, like Salah, the modest man in a time of ostentation and pomp gives us hope. Football longs for such men. Holloway continually delivers on this front.

The reason that they are so revered is partly down to the fact that professional football has become just that – professional. With that ‘p’ word, it has brought along all the connotations and behaviours that fly against many of the things that used to mark players and managers out – their eccentricities, their smoking, their drinking.

Now, we measure success with money and marketing potential as much as the ability to influence and impact. To be a consummate professional is as much about what you can’t do as what you can, about how you should behave as much as shouldn’t. It means not being you; rather being a version of yourself that others want. It’s great that football has advanced and yes, professionalised, but we’re creating robots when we long for artists.

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Whenever someone comes along that doesn’t fit into this mould, we love it. Look at Maurizio Sarri, the chain-smoking maverick manager, reminiscent of a philosopher-slash-coach like César Luis Menotti – exotic, wild, brilliant and unpredictable. They are revolutionary because they had the space to be who they wanted to. All of the aforementioned are the kind of people that your gran would love as much as your little brother.

Such men in the game are diminishing in droves now, although in terms of personality, there’s still some quality among the crop. It’s here that Ian Holloway would come to most people’s minds, as a fan or otherwise. Here we have a figure not only untarnished by modern football’s expectations, but also one who doesn’t seem to care about perceptions and opinions. It would be hard to imagine him fronting a campaign for any major brand, even if he had had the influence of Pep Guardiola or Antonio Conte.

‘Ollie’, as he’s affectionately known, has never shied from controversy, nor it seems has he shied away from anything. With an autobiography under the same name, it’s not only filled with Ollie-isms but with personal stories that reveal the more tender side of the man with the whippet-fast tongue, famous for his humorous interviews and scathing rants.

Head-strong and bold, we cannot mistake this for a kind of arrogance. Holloway is as down to earth as they come. When he appeared on Soccer AM, between jobs, he told the hosts about his latest venture of building chicken coops – a story that became an extended metaphor for what was happening in his life at that time.

“I’m not a mana …” Holloway began before rethinking it. Was it too strong? It appeared not strong enough. “I couldn’t manage anything at the moment, apart from me chickens,” he said, gesturing to the screen behind his right shoulder that was displaying images of Holloway in battered boots and a hoodie surrounded by his flock. And for the refrain, he added: “And to be fair they just run around the bloody garden, I couldn’t catch them anyway.”

His Bristolian timbre rarely abates. Wherever he lives, we know where he’s from. It was in his hometown that his career started for Rovers as a 17-year old on the right side of midfield. A working-class boy, he followed in the footsteps of his father, himself a keen amateur player, a pastime he enjoyed alongside the typical work for men in coastal towns – seaman and factory worker.

It’s in this mould, the quintessential everyman, that Holloway cuts his dapper figure on the sidelines. His bald head often topped with a tweed or checkered bonnet and his figure wrapped neatly in a well-tailored suit. A dugout geezer, the fashionable farmer seems sartorially more suited to Serie A.

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Make no mistake, though, his approach and mindset are thoroughly grounded in the land that birthed him. Discussing the appointment of the latest England manager, he talked warily to journalists about how Mauricio Pochettino and Jürgen Klopp were “bringing pressing into our country,” and although it’s something he thought the English game could learn from, he stated unequivocally that “what I want is an English way of doing it”.

It’s perhaps his longing for a brand of football more closely associated with yesteryear, with long balls from the back and 4-4-2s, goalkeepers that command their box but don’t dare to see themselves as a sweeper-keeper, that gives him such a cult appeal. In YouTube comments and blogs, fans herald the way he cuts through the jargon of the contemporary game and ‘speaks the truth’ when others would prefer to sugar coat it.

In the same interview, he made it clear: “I’m not racist, but I wanna be proud of England.” Of this claim, I have little doubt. In wearing his heart on his sleeve, his willingness to be forthright in his opinions is disarming. We are usually taught to be wary of statements beginning with those three words – ‘I’m not racist’ – but with Holloway, one would be inclined to believe his intentions to stem from his clear love of the game.

Although a solid player, he never managed to eclipse the level that he did in his earlier days at Bristol Rovers. Moves to Wimbledon and Brentford were short-lived and it was with his boyhood team that he would begin and end his career. A substantial period at QPR between 1991 and 1996 was the longest time spent away from Bristol, where he would eventually begin his managerial career.

As a player, his heart shone through. He barely missed a game wherever he went. This tenacity seems to have laid the foundation for his cult-of-personality as a manager that places as much emphasis on grit and determination as it does on trophies in the cabinet. 

Values are something that feature heavily in the lexicon of Holloway, ones instilled by his parents from his humble upbringing in South Gloucestershire. Alongside pride and grit, honesty is key. A usually unapologetic Holloway raised his hands after leaving Plymouth prematurely for the larger Leicester job that he’d long-since been rumoured to take. Plymouth fans felt like it was a premeditated betrayal and Holloway understood this.

After guiding Blackpool to promotion – a moment he cites as being the best of his life besides the birth of his children – he ruminated on his departure from Plymouth three years prior. “I had a year out of football and had to think about what went wrong in my life. I was given some decent values from my mum and dad in our council house, and one of them was honesty and trust and loyalty. And I forgot to do all that at Plymouth. I left them, and I made the biggest mistake of my life.”

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It was during his managerial spell at Blackpool that he broke into the footballing public’s consciousness. His side, against all odds, made it to the Premier League through a sixth-place finish and successful playoff campaign. Perhaps better known for their tower and arcades, Holloway and Blackpool clicked, as the man summed up: “I love Blackpool. We’re very similar. We both look better in the dark.”

Even after the club’s expected relegation from the top-tier the following year, he once again led them into the Championship playoffs in a valiant attempt at redemption in their first season back. 

This was enough to catch the eye of a Crystal Palace board that, hoping that Holloway could emulate his success with the seaside club, appointed him as the new manager in November 2012. Astonishingly, he did manage to repeat his success. In the first season he steered the club back to the Premier League after an eight-year absence, where they have remained since.

Millwall came calling after Holloway failed with Palace in the Premier League. Unfortunately, life at the south London club was a struggle, despite them appearing to be a match made in heaven. Results never gained enough pace to build significant momentum to wage any real threat.

His first sacking took place at the club after he had become unpopular with the home fans. It’s hard to imagine the appointment being based solely on managerial merit, though. A straight-talking Holloway seemed to be hired as much as a face for the club as for his grasp of tactical nuance. 

In November 2016, he took the reigns at Queens Park Rangers for the second time. Again, in successive seasons, mediocre performances held the team in the lower third of the Championship without any glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. In May 2018, club and manager parted ways by mutual consent.

To his credit, Holloway has a well-rounded worldview of the systemic imbalances and injustices in football. Worn down by transfer speculation over his players, he evades reporters while offering backhanded lessons in etiquette. Players’ ego? Forget that. His tirade about Wayne Rooney’s behaviour, when the player tried to publically leverage Manchester United for higher wages, incensed him. In these instances, Holloway’s opinions and willingness to put them forward can seem like a breath of fresh air.

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Parallels between Holloway as a manager and political figure are not overly tenuous. In fact, it doesn’t take much imagination to picture him canvassing his local constituency for votes, perhaps even less so to think that people would want to be represented by him. He appeals to a very certain demographic: namely fans that reject the intricate wordplay and question-dodging that certain managers and journalists bring to the game. Sam Allardyce has a reputation for no-nonsense football; Holloway has a reputation for no-nonsense interviews.

Possibly an alarmist, certainly a cynic, English football, seen through the hawkish eyes of Holloway, is in dire need of an injection of self-respect. His shoot-from-the-hip style appeals to his audience in a similar way to many of today’s populist politicians. When no one else is willing to stick their neck out, people believe Holloway will. It is this, despite his mixed success as a manager, which keeps many interested in his career.

If he didn’t hate pundits and journalists as much, he’d be a perfect fit for either job on a major channel. Brave are those that would be willing to hire him, though – one can only imagine those positions would be as equally short-lived.

Although his interviews are no-nonsense in style, that doesn’t mean they are no-nonsense in content. It’s Holloway’s humour that will be his greatest legacy. Thomas Jefferson once declared that all men are created equal. Holloway famously gave this thought a twist when musing on the nature of victory and that they are not, in fact, all created equally: “To put it in gentleman’s terms, if you go on a night out and you’re looking for a young lady and you pull one, then that’s it. You know, some weeks they’re good looking and some weeks they’re not the best,” Holloway once stated, almost coyly to a giggling gaggle of journalists, before adding: “Our performance today would’ve been, not the best looking bird, but at least we’d have gone home in a taxi with her.”

In a rarely warm moment, manager and journalists laughed together. A lot of his audience would’ve understood exactly what he meant, though. For many, he’s the antithesis to the modern game. He is an unpolished figure that people can relate to, unlike the majority of superstars that receive the majority of air-time.

There’s no question that Holloway is ambitious at his clubs. For him it’s simple. You’ve got to go in there and win, or as he once aptly put it: “Managing a league club is like making love to a mermaid. You’ve got to aim for a top-half finish.” It really is as simple as that. The true power of this quip should not be understated. We’ll be lucky to ever hear of a ‘top-half finish’ now without a vivid image attached.

To reach these heights, the football has got to be simple. “If you’re a burglar, it’s no good waiting about outside somebody’s house, looking good with your swag bag ready. Just get in there, burgle them and come out. I don’t advocate that obviously, it’s just an analogy.”

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There’s an element in all of the absurdity that remains deeply significant. We all know too many football players that stand around, looking good, waiting for things to happen. It’s a problem. His analogy captures it with tremendous brevity, and as with his other well-known phrases, it’s memorable. A compact life lesson told through the microphone of football. 

A notoriously funny man, it may well be the case that Holloway is hiding behind the tears of a clown. His public appearances, when given more than a quick glance on social media, appear tinged with pathos – here we have someone profoundly affected by a personal life that they’ve managed to keep away from impacting on their career. If the two were to collide, it could be disastrous for both.

Holloway’s footballing achievements are nothing to be scoffed at, but it is when one weighs up his own life that his true character fully emerges – his sense of grit is one that he earned, not one that came naturally.

Kim, Holloway’s wife, was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer at 21. They had known each other since they were 15. Holloway attributes his wife’s unwillingness to give up as a driving factor for his own work ethic. It was with Kim that Holloway would find strength when he was treading water at points in his career.

With his wife, Holloway has four children – William, twins Eve and Chloe, and Harriet. The twins and Harriet were born deaf and, as a result, Holloway has learned sign language to communicate as well as at one point making a daily 250-mile commute from Bristol when he was playing at QPR so that the girls could attend a specialist school.

The journeys were taxing on Holloway. The free time in the car to think about defeats and shortcomings were menacing. Physically, the trips contributed to being diagnosed with aggressive sciatica. Despite all of this, his attitude remained overwhelmingly positive. The Ian Holloway we know is a product of his life’s difficulties.

True tenacity and fortitude define the ongoing animated career of a man who is not so much an enigma as he is a complicated and oftentimes clearly misunderstood figure in the game. Beyond the humour and fleeting achievements, though, he stands out for his open fallibility. He seems real and distinctly normal, despite all of his eccentricities.

It’s possible to debate for days on end about which club in world football is more than just a club, but with Holloway, despite his limited achievements, there’s no question that he’s more than just a manager.

By Edd Norval @EddNorval

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