Matt Holland made over 700 appearances during his career for Bournemouth, Ipswich, Charlton and the Republic of Ireland. He captained all four teams.
He didn’t play for one of the biggest clubs, didn’t win any silverware and was never one of the country’s most acclaimed midfielders, but Holland’s career was remarkable in its own way.
He was first made skipper as a 22-year-old at Bournemouth and was nicknamed Captain Marvel by George Burley while at Ipswich, where he played 223 consecutive games, missing only one league match in six years at Portman Road.
He was an ever-present in his first season at Charlton too, where he immediately assumed the captain’s armband and spent another six years before retiring.
For a central midfielder, his ability to avoid injuries and suspensions was quite astounding, but equally as impressive, at least to his managers, was his reliability, his consistency and his leadership qualities.
“I always felt I led by example on the pitch,” Holland says, “and that wasn’t just the 90 minutes that everyone sees on a Saturday, that was Monday to Friday as well in training. Getting in early, leaving late, and trying to set an example to the rest of the players.
“I always felt I was available to the younger players to talk to if they ever wanted any advice so I think it was leading by example [that made so many managers choose me as captain] rather than being a massive shouter.
“As for all the games, I played through the pain barrier quite a lot through my career. There was a handful of games I played that I probably shouldn’t have done, but I wanted to play.
“Some of the fitness tests that I had, looking back, were laughable really. I was on one leg at times and trying to say I was fit, and the manager was going, ‘alright, I’ll play you’.
“I didn’t get suspended at all either, and I was lucky I suppose. I did work hard and train hard, but you need an element of luck to get through without serious injuries.”
Holland understates his hard work somewhat. Released by Arsenal as a 14-year-old and then kept waiting for a first-team chance at West Ham, he went out on loan to Bournemouth and decided to drop down two levels permanently despite the offer to stay in the Premier League.
“I spent six months on loan with Farnborough in the Conference when I was about 18,” he says. “I wanted to go on loan again. There were five or six clubs that wanted me, but Harry (Redknapp) with his connections to Bournemouth pushed me in that direction really.
“I spent a few months there at the back end of the season. Then when I came back in the summer, I had a chat about my contract situation with Harry.
“He offered me a new deal but said I was going to be fifth or sixth choice central midfielder for him. At the age of 22, I couldn’t be sat not getting a kick, I needed to be getting regular first-team football so they did a deal with Bournemouth.”
The decision to move certainly worked out for Holland in the long run, and it’s a decision he would advise any young players not getting first-team football to make.
“I would say to any youngster, try to play in a first team somewhere. It just means so much more. Your three points might mean that you get into the play-offs or move out of the relegation zone.
“It toughens you up a bit too, and particularly when you’re coming from a Premier League club where everything’s done for you and the facilities are perfect, it gives you an idea about what it’s like lower down the leagues.
“Harry was always one to send his players out on loan. It gives you the hunger to want to go back and prove yourself because (at Bournemouth) we had to wash our own kit, we’d go up on the day to, say, Crewe away and have to meet at six in the morning.
“You’re in a bubble in the Premier League. You go down the leagues and it makes you appreciate what you’ve got in the Premier League.”
“I speak to lots of managers and coaches that say the hunger in young players isn’t what it once was. They’re given big money at the age of 17 or 18 as soon as they sign their first professional contract, and it’s all about the money rather than what you can achieve on the football field.
“I’m not saying all are like that because there are players out there that have still got that attitude, but there aren’t as many. Too many players are happy just to pick up a wage and be sat on a bench. I would say go and play in a first team.
“If you look back at your career and you’ve played 150 games, you might have done nothing. Go and play 600, 700 games, that’s what it’s all about, to look back and have all those memories.”
After making 116 appearances at Bournemouth, Holland moved to Ipswich, where he led the team to the Premier League via the play-offs after three previous failures and then, incredibly, fifth place and the UEFA Cup in their first season back in the top flight in 2000-01.
All these years on, that achievement is still yet to be bettered by a newly-promoted club. And Holland takes no time in answering why that Town team was so special.
“We had a very close group,” he says. “The play-off defeats probably helped us in lots of ways in that respect.
“We were a team that stuck together really. One might leave at the end of the season and a couple would come in, but there weren’t massive changes to the squad, it was very much the same team that was knocking on the door of the Premier League.
“We were a close unit, and that togetherness of a football side is underestimated in terms of how far it can take you – and how far it took us. The spirit among the group was something else.”
Unfortunately, Ipswich were relegated the following season. The UEFA Cup campaign clearly took its toll, but George Burley has admitted he made a mistake in bringing in too many players to cope with the extra demands.
Holland spotted it as a problem even without the benefit of hindsight.
“European competition was something new for the players, he says. “If you look at Leicester this season, they probably took their eyes off the ball in the league because the Champions League became their focus. Even the manager said it.
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“I think players not switched off but were putting more towards the Champions League, and I think we had a little bit of that, but I do think there was a bit of upset in the dressing room as well.
“The lads that came in weren’t bad lads, but they came in on big money. There were one or two that had been there five or six years, building to get to that point, who perhaps weren’t as well-rewarded financially as players who had just come in so I think there was a bit of resentment in the dressing room.”
Holland turned down the opportunity to stay in the Premier League with Aston Villa following Ipswich’s relegation, but he admits he would have moved had the Midlands club matched the contract he was on at Portman Road.
“I spoke to Graham Taylor in depth, and he wanted me to come, but I had a four-year contract left at Ipswich, and Villa offered me a three-year deal, which to me didn’t make sense.
“Also, the money would have been better than I was on for the first two years, but in the last year it would have been less than I was on at Ipswich because I’d have turned 30. That was their club policy.
“I said if you want me to come you’ll have to match my contract. If you want me to make a commitment to you, you’re going to have to make a commitment to me.
“I’ve got four years left at Ipswich, I’m not going to sign a shorter contract, I’m only going to come if you at least match my contract – which they decided not to do.
“People say I didn’t want to move, but that wasn’t the case. I just felt that for me to go there they’d have to show me a commitment that I was willing to show them.
“But Graham Taylor got the sack two or three months later so it might have been the best thing not going there in hindsight.”
After a season back in the Championship, Holland joined Charlton and, once again as captain, helped the Addicks finish seventh in 2003-04.
It was the club’s highest finish since the 1950s, but Alan Curbishley left after two more seasons in charge, and the next one brought relegation. As far as Holland is concerned, that was no coincidence.
“Again I think there were probably too many changes in terms of personnel,” he says. There were a lot of new signings that summer so to try to integrate all of those into the team at the same time was difficult.
“But the biggest thing was just that we were trying to replace Alan Curbishley.
“You’ve seen with Sir Alex Ferguson at Man Utd that when a manager has been at a club for a long time, they’re so ingrained into the club, the training ground and how things are done, that everything is natural.
“When someone new comes in they try to change things, they try to do things differently, and it’s difficult sometimes to try to adapt to that.”
Holland spent two more seasons with Charlton before they were relegated again, this time to League One, when he was surprisingly released on a free transfer after over 200 appearances.
He trained with Colchester United to keep fit and did receive offers from other clubs, but Charlton’s failure to offer him a new contract effectively sounded the death knell on his career.
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“I would have liked to carry on,” he says. “I actually thought come the end of the season I would still be at Charlton. There was no thought in my head that I wouldn’t be.
“Phil Parkinson had taken over and was saying all the right things about wanting me to stay, but there was never an offer on the table. He kept saying we haven’t got a lot of money, but I was thinking, ‘just make me an offer – I might say yes’.
“My thought when we went down to League One was that I’d still be at Charlton, but it just didn’t work out in the end.
“I did have a few offers to carry on from teams in League One, which I thought about, but I would have had to move, and it would only have been on a year’s contract.
“I was 35 and didn’t want to uproot my family at that stage, and I was doing more and more in the media anyway so I fell into that rather than carrying on.”
Despite that disappointment, Holland is grateful to have played so many games during his career and finished with so many great memories.
“You don’t want to have any regrets, and I hoped I could look back and think I got as much out of my career as I possibly could have done.
“As a footballer, and I played over 700 games, you have a lot more lows than you have highs. Only one team can win the league, only one team can win the FA Cup and so on, so there are lots of players that are very disappointed at the end of a season and very few that are really pleased with what they achieved.
“So when you look back at the end of it you have to have those special memories: playing Inter Milan and beating them at Portman Road, playing at Wembley, playing at the World Cup, scoring at the World Cup, playing against some of the best players, they’re the memories that stick with you.
“Not everyone can win things, not everyone has a cabinet full of trophies, but I’ve got lots of good memories.”
By Mark Holmes