You won’t find many people with a bad word to say about Matt Holland. He has managed to combine a successful career at the highest level of football with a media career. Yet still 9 football fans out of 10, perhaps even 99 out of 100, would describe the former midfielder as a real gentleman. That he is, and he was also a very good footballer.
A Testing Start and Bournemouth
Matt has gone from being the subject of, to helping people with, their accumulators for each weekend. Without his trademark determination and will to win that has made him fan favourite at every club he has been at, and of course his abundance of talent, it could all have been so much different.
Back in the 1980’s and 90’s the accusation of being too small to make it as a professional player was something that put a premature end to many a promising prospect.
Tasked with having to choose who will make it in the “man’s” game, coaches invariably used size as one of the determining factors. So it was with Matt, who was rejected on that basis by Arsenal.
Disappointed but not deterred, he joined West Ham, and despite progressing through the ranks of their esteemed academy, he failed to make an appearance for their first eleven.
At eighteen years of age, he decided to move on from East London. In order to kick start his career, play football and put himself in the shop window, he joined Farnborough Town, who were playing in the Conference, the fifth tier of English football. It was 1992 and the move paid dividends.
Matt made 21 appearances and his performances crucially won him a move to Bournemouth in the January of 1995. The south coast side had been struggling, and Mel Machin had recently taken over the club and was tasked with keeping them up, a job that seemed unlikely.
With Matt playing for his first league club, and finally looking like the career he had dreamed of all his life was going to take off, Bournemouth did survive, even if it did come down to the last day of the season. His time at Dean Court was solid if unspectacular, but Matt himself was steadily winning a reputation. He made 108 appearances, became the club captain and scored 18 goals.
Ipswich Town and the Big Time
In the summer of 1997 came the move that would change Matt’s career and life. He joined Ipswich Town for a fee of $800,000.
Compared with the recent two decades at the famous East Anglian club, those seasons when Matt played – and captained – were some of the most exciting since the glory days of the Robson era. Three disappointments in play-off semi finals finally ended when George Burley’s side won at the old Wembley – the last to be played there – beating Barnsley 4 – 2 to take their place in the Premier League.
Ipswich’s performance in their first year in the top flight should be ranked alongside Leicester’s title winning campaign. With a fraction of the budget of practically everyone one of their opponents, Ipswich, with Matt captaining and controlling play from the middle of the park, defied all expectations, finishing 5th and qualifying for the UEFA cup.
A draw in their final game of the season saw them pipped for the fourth spot and a champions league place by Liverpool. It was a remarkable season, one that saw Burley win Manager of the Season.
Unfortunately troubled times were on the horizon, and Ipswich were relegated the following season. Matt had played every game, scoring six goals. That consistency was one of the Bury man’s great attributes.
At Ipswich, he played an incredible 233 consecutive games, scoring 18 goals in the process. The only league match he missed was due to international duty.
Despite big money offers, Matt remained at the club in an attempt to get them back up to the Premier League. Overall, Matt played 314 times for Ipswich, scoring an impressive 46 times.
Charlton and Ireland
In the summer of 2003, Matt returned to the Premiership with his £750,000 (rising to £900,000) move to Charlton, again taking the captain’s armband.
The consistency he showed for Ipswich continued at The Valley, and he became one of the longest serving Charlton players, accumulating 214 appearances and scoring 14 goals.
Matt qualified to play for the Republic of Ireland courtesy of his grandmother, and he pulled on the green jersey for his international debut in Macedonia on the 9th October 1999, when he came on as a substitute.
His international career was crowned at the 2002 World Cup when he scored the all important equaliser in the one all draw against Cameroon in their opening game.
That Ireland squad is most well known for the incident between Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy (interestingly enough both went on to manage Ipswich), but that teams’ performances and quality should not be overlooked. In his 49 appearances for Ireland, Matt scored 5 times.
Retirement and Media Career
Matt retired from international football in February 2006, hanging up his playing boots for good at the end of the 2008-2009 season.
In a stellar career, most of it at the very top of the game, Matt made 666 appearances, scoring 78 goals. Being so articulate and knowledgeable about the game, it was no surprise to those who had watched him play or followed his career, that he made the step up into media.
Matt has appeared as a guest, a summariser, host, analyst and co-commentator on practically every radio and TV station showing football, not just in the UK but around the world. He is a regular on talkSPORT, BBC Five Live and BT Sport.