Grant Holt celebrates scoring for Norwich City in the Premier League
By Chris Dunlavy
Grant Holt finished the 2011-12 Premier League season as the second-highest scoring Englishman behind Wayne Rooney.
But for the form of a young Andy Carrroll, the then-Norwich City striker might even have been on the plane for Euro 2012.
“I was inches away,” says Holt, now 39 and still playing for Wroxham in the Eastern Counties Premier.
“Ahead of the Euros, I know for a fact that they rang Norwich to ask about my medical history. I didn’t get picked but it’s still an achievement. I never dreamed that I’d even have a sniff of getting in an England squad. In the end, I came that close.”
Holt is justifiably proud of a career that saw him score 232 goals in 665 games at almost every level from the North West Counties to the Premier League.
Yet the break that took him from Non-League Barrow to Sheffield Wednesday in 2003 was pure serendipity.
“There was a man called Bill Green, a former player who sadly passed away recently,” explains Holt, who currently combines coaching in the Norwich City academy with a role as Director of Football at Langley School in Loddon.
“Bill was working for Sheffield Wednesday at the time, but came up to Newcastle for a christening one Sunday. He was at a loose end the day before and knew someone who played for Blue Star so he came along to the game.
“I played in the game for Barrow and scored a hat-trick. Bill watched me again, got me into Sheffield Wednesday for a trial game and within five weeks I was playing in the First Division.
“It was a fluke, really. Right place, right time. But that’s how it happens. If anybody sees a good player, the first thing they do is tell someone else. People want to be involved in a story. If a player makes it big, they want to be able to say ‘Ah, remember when I told you about him?’.
“Usually, that’s all it is. But, sometimes, that person will ring a friend, who then rings another friend, and in that instant your life can change.
“That’s what I say to all the young lads I coach now. It doesn’t matter where you are. It could be the deepest darkest hole in football and I’ve seen some crackers. If you take it seriously and show your quality, you just never know who is watching.”
Holt would go on to play for Rochdale, Nottingham Forest and Shrewsbury before capping his career with back-to-back promotions as captain of Norwich City. His top-flight debut finally arrived at the age of 30.
But without his formative years in Non-League, the Cumbrian says none of it would have been possible.
Released by hometown club Carlisle United at 17, Holt scored a goal-per-game for Northern Premier Workington to seal a £10,000 move to Third Division Halifax in 1999. When that fell flat, the striker dropped back down to Barrow, where 54 goals in 113 games – plus that hat-trick -–propelled him permanently into the pro game.
“What Non-League taught me is that the way to get paid is to win football matches,” says Holt, who supplemented his income by working as a tyre fitter and beetroot packer.
“That was the big realisation. I was 19 years old. I had no commitments, no kids. No mortgage or rent. My money could be spent on whatever I wanted.
“But you quickly realised that it wasn’t like that for everyone. The lads I played with at the time were mainly lads who’d come out of the league and were at the end of their careers.
“They were doing this to pay bills. To feed families. Bonuses might be the difference between the kids going on holiday and staying at home.
“You went out for yourself, yes. But you also went to win for your teammates. They were relying on me to get the goals that would protect their livelihoods.
“It gave me a sense of maturity and clarity at a very young age because I knew exactly what the lads expected. And I think you carry that with you right through the leagues.
“For me, the desire to win always outweighed everything. It doesn’t matter if you’re not the best player on the park. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t have a flamboyant day or you didn’t score a goal. It doesn’t even matter if you have a stinker.
“I just want to win a match, by whatever means necessary. Even at my best, I was only ever an alright player that worked hard.
“But I had that mentality and, in my opinion, that’s why I was successful.
“I’ve always said – and I always will – that without starting in Non-League, I wouldn’t have had the career I did.”
And Holt is particularly grateful to Kenny Lowe and Lee Turnbull, the management team at Barrow who rescued him from both personal despair and professional disappointment following his release by Halifax in 2001.
“I owe a lot to Barrow and I owe a lot to Kenny and Lee,” he explains. “When I went there, it wasn’t long after my dad had passed away.
“I’d signed for Halifax in the summer of 1999, had a year there. When I went back for pre-season, I was just getting into the first-team.
“Then my dad got diagnosed with cancer in July-August and passed away in September. It was very fast.
“After that, it didn’t really work. I went on loan to Workington for a few months, just to be back home.
“It wasn’t the best decision, to be honest – it wasn’t a good place to be. By the time I went back to Halifax the manager had changed and told me straight that I wasn’t going to play. It was like a double whammy, really.
“I had a trial at Carlisle, went over to Australia for a bit. Eventually I rang Kenny. I’d been on loan to Barrow for a month and we’d got on great.
“He said ‘Right, get your boots, get your stuff, come up and see me and you’ll be in the squad for the weekend’. That was it – I never looked back.
“To go there and be with that group of players was life-changing. They looked after me, gave me some structure and that was exactly what I needed at the time. That’s why I’ll always be forever grateful to Barrow and all the players.”
As a Football League rookie at Hillsborough, Holt credits Shefki Kuqi, Lloyd Owusu and Mark Robins with transforming his game
“Even though I didn’t play much in my second season, the knowledge I gained from watching those players – their movements, their decisions, the way they trained – probaby set me up for life,” he says.
And even in the dwindling twilight of his career at Wroxham, Holt says he retains the ethos forged at Barrow.
“I learned so much playing against wily old pros in those days,” he adds.
“I’ve gone full circle now; I’m the old man trying to get one over on the young lads and it’s great – I enjoy it every bit as much as playing in the Premier League.
“There’s nothing better than coming off the pitch after a good battle, shaking hands and saying ‘That was a good test’.
“Too many people see Non-League as a bad place to be. But if you treat it with respect and appreciate what it can teach you, it’s a brilliant place to play – whatever your age.”