BY George Utley
One-Season Wonders is a MatchPint series looking at those players who delivered a single, exceptional season in the Premier League, how they got there, what caused it and why it was never replicated again.
As his name suggests, Grant Holt was born to be a journeyman striker. That name just belongs on the side of a handyman’s van, just one of the qualities he shares with Kevins Phillips and Davies. Others include travelling up and down the country with non- and lower league teams, and not knowing when to stop scoring goals.
Every club has its saviour child, the little boy born in Carlisle and signed from Shrewsbury Town for a pocketful of grain. For Norwich, that little boy is Big Grant Holt.
He arrived when the Canaries were in League One with 99 league goals under his belt and who knows/cares how many non-league ones.
Norwich fan and co-author of Tales From the City, Jon Rogers, says “He wasn't the fastest, strongest, tallest, most prolific player in the league, but he had something you scarcely find in a modern day football. Maybe the closest you can say is Jamie Vardy. Not in playing style of course, but for an emotional rise from non-league to Premier League.”
With the help of a fresh-faced Paul Lambert and a rat-arsed Delia Smith, the club captain elbowed his way to the top tier in back-to-back seasons.
Wherever he cast his burly shadow, goals would arrive: 24 in League One, 21 in the Champ. Not content to do the Nugent and dutifully drop back down the leagues again to look for survivors, Holty carried his goal munching momentum into his first season in the Premier League in 2011/12.
Important goals, equalisers, winners and consolations, Grant Holt’s annus mirabilis saw him net 15 times from 24 starts, ending up eighth top scorer above players with the pedigree of Mario Balotelli, Edin Dzeko and Gareth Bale.
His bullying style and taste for goal provided a fear factor to a team not blessed with huge amounts of muscle in midfield. Lambert partnered him up front with Welshman Steve Morison, the two hardworking target men giving the Canaries’ shaky defence an excuse to clump it long willy nilly.
Holt’s part in the admittedly simple gameplan was to chase down these lumps of coal (no team played more long balls per game than the Canaries in 2011/12) and turn them into gold, something he did willingly and regularly enough to make him a cult hero. He rarely gave the ball away thanks to a first touch that ranged from the adequate to world-class.
“His style surprised many actually,” says Rogers. “I think he was better on the floor than he was in the air. I remember one of his first goals for us, he took four players on and spunked it into the top corner. He just drove his way through players, direct. strong, very forward thinking. Never stopped trying to move forward, into spaces high up the pitch.”
Grant Holt at his peak could lob anyone with his first touch, his magic boots would calculate the equation ‘jumping defender + 5cm’ in one second flat. This would leave him able to swagger into the open field, oozing the confidence of a striker on a career-long scoring streak. Never bet against him hitting the target.
At Stamford Bridge in August 2011, he bucked like a bison to hook an overhead into an empty net from Hilario’s flappy clearance. At Anfield he breached like a killer whale, soaring into the penalty area to pummel a header past Pepe Reina. Believe me when I tell you how difficult it is to compare Grant Holt to any animal that has a neck.
At Goodison, he backed into the box, ignoring the defender riding his back; cushion, trap, drag back, slide rule finish in one rolling motion. The epitome of strength and control. Like a penguin? He also got away with elbowing Marouane Fellaini in the neck, which we can all agree was a victory for karma if not for fair play.
Holty’s goalscoring form lead to talk of an England call up, understandably given the context of the strikers Fabio Capello had picked that year for England: Peter Crouch, Andy Carroll, Bobby Zamora (!), Kevin Davies (!!), Jay Bothroyd (!!!). But Big Bad Fab quit out of principle (I don’t know, ask Anton Ferdinand,) and the era of the big man leading the line went with him.
Cheerleading for Team Holt gathered momentum around the second half of the 2012 season, but now Old Uncle Roy was in charge of the project, and he wanted to give the kids a chance. Holt was the wrong side of 31 - all he could offer was goals, possibly enough goals to make a Mexican commentator pass out, and personal anecdotes about life in the 1820s.
Sadly, we will never know. Hodgson ended up taking a strike force of Rooney (26); Jermain Defoe (29); Dat Guy Welbz (21). Big Andy Carroll (23) took the berth of northern target man made of elbows.
Cursing his luck, Holt handed in a transfer request at the end of the season in a bid for one last long-term contract. His form had inspired Norwich to a hugely respectable 12th placed finish, but Paul Lambert quit for the bright lights of Villa, to be replaced by the more conservative Chris Hughton.
Holt got the improved deal he wanted at Norwich, but Hughton played him up top on his own in a league improved by the relegation of Bolton, Blackburn and Wolves, and the promotion of Southampton and West Ham.
His second-season tally of eight goals in 28 starts is a reasonable haul for a defensive side, but it reeked of a man missing his partner in crime. Everything you need to know about the Hughton factor is summed up by the fact that in 2013 the Canaries finished one place higher in 11th, despite scoring 14 fewer goals. In reality though, Holt's remarkable but brief spell as an elite footballer had come to an end.
When relegated Wigan Athletic came in with a £2 million offer at the end of the season, Holty returned to the Championship, the 32-year-old tempted by a three-year deal and more frequent chances. Norwich spent big on Gary Hooper and Ricky van Wolfswinkel and promptly got relegated.
It is often said that when a player allows himself to be tapped up by a group of schoolchildren pretending to be Sean Dyche, then that player might not stick around very long.
Sure enough, he cemented his journeyman status with 8 moves around Scotland and the nether regions of English football in the 5 years following his arrival at the DW Stadium.
In the modern era, with clubs sloshing mad hundreds of crazy millions every transfer window, the romance of a lad arriving late to elite football and taking his chance touches all of us.
The fairytales of Rickie Lambert and Jamie Vardy, who both made it past the final boss to represent England in major tournaments, are heartwarming stories for Hollywood to sniff around. But, lest we forget, it was a former tyre-fitter from Carlisle that paved the way.
The Premier League will remember Holt for his first unplayable season, when he consistently found success against the best defences in the country. That he never made it to the final stage of the Hollywood dream we can put down to a couple of unlucky management changes at the apex of his career.
“When he joined, we had been beaten 7-1 in League One. When he left, we were in the Premier League. Says enough about what he did at the club. His departure was messy, disruptive and sad - but he changed our club for the better,” says Jon.
Grant Holt is now player-manager for Barrow. He once evacuated a bath for Kevin Pressman.
Cover image - PA. Stats via WhoScored.