Feature

'All of your senses were dialled up to 10'

Rob Holding

Now into his sixth season at the club, the matchday programme caught up with Rob Holding recently to discuss his early memories of playing in front of a crowd, his Emirates debut, and his love for other sports.
 
The first time Rob Holding ever played in front of a crowd, he marked the occasion with a goal. He’s been hooked on the experience of performing to fans ever since. 

Growing up in the youth system at Bolton Wanderers, he was earmarked for big things from an early age. As such the defender made his FA Youth Cup debut, shortly after his 17th birthday, in the third round at home to Portsmouth, on December 10, 2012.

With just five minutes on the clock at the Reebok Stadium (as it was then) Rob pounced on a loose ball from a parried free-kick to fire his side ahead, and send them on their way to a 2-1 win.

“Yeah that was the very first time with a crowd,” he reflects. “There were only a few hundred fans in but I’ll always remember it because I ended up scoring.

“I remember having a lot of friends and family there, and playing in a big stadium – it was a really nice feeling. When you play for the under-18s the FA Youth Cup has got a lot of hype around it, so it’s a big occasion for us young players.

“All the young lads saw it as our chance to get a game in at the main first-team stadium, which we had never done before. It’s a brilliant way of doing it, rather than at the training ground or in front of no fans. It gets you used to it and I loved it – scoring obviously helped – and we ended up winning too.”

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All of his football to that point had been played on training pitches and empty grounds, as he worked his way through the age groups at Bolton, the team he joined as a seven year old from Stalybridge Celtic Juniors.

“The first thing I noticed about playing in a game with an atmosphere is how the fans can help change the momentum of play,” he adds.

“If there is a big tackle, or a foul or another big moment, the reaction of the crowd can really affect what way the game goes. If there’s a big chance or whatever, the fans get in to it, they are on the edge of their seats, and that all transmits on to the pitch.

“It gives a whole sense of anticipation and excitement to a game that I hadn’t really known before. It gives you an extra gear to go to because the excitement levels increase.”

That’s the positive side of having fans at the games, but how did Rob, as a young player, learn to deal with the intimidation or hostility that can come in away games? When asked about his early experiences of away fans, it was actually a home game that sprang immediately to mind, during Rob’s only season in the Bolton first team – 2015/16.

“We were at home, against Leeds in the FA Cup, but their fans took up a whole end of the stadium, so they were really loud," he said. “It was one of my very first games in the FA Cup, and even though it was a home game for us, it felt like a home game for them. They had two tiers and the noise they were making was just unbelievable.

“I don’t think it affected my game though, I loved it – I thought the atmosphere was really good to play in. It was enjoyable, but at the same time I was hating it because I kept thinking, ‘We’re at home – we’re supposed to be louder!’ But that’s how Leeds travel, it was my first taste of that and I loved the atmosphere.”

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But all of those experiences in the Bolton first team – he played 30 games that season, winning the club’s Player of the Year award – still didn’t quite prepare him for his very first time playing in a sold out Emirates Stadium.

After his move to Arsenal in July 2016, at the age of 20, he was drafted into the side on the opening day of the season, due to injuries to Per Mertesacker and Gabriel Paulista in pre-season, and with Laurent Koscielny struggling for fitness after the European Championship. And our opponents on the first day were Liverpool, who raced into a 4-1 lead before holding on for all three points after we brought it back to 4-3.

“I had never even been to the Emirates before that game, the first time being there was for that game,” reveals Rob, who played a few friendlies during our tour to USA in pre-season before his competitive debut.

“I remember coming out of the tunnel before kick-off and hearing the roar as the teams emerged on the pitch. It was the first day of the season, a hot day as well and hearing that noise was just like all of your senses were dialled up to 10.

“It was my first time in front of a crowd that size. We weren’t going through a great time at Bolton when I was there, so we never had really big crowds, maybe 15,000, 20,000 if we were lucky. So yeah, playing in front of 60,000 at the Emirates was different for me.

“You learn about all sorts – how to communicate better with your team mates for example. There’s no point in shouting at him from across the pitch, they won’t hear you, so you have to choose your moments.

“To be fair, when I’m playing, I only really ever notice the fans in the lower tiers. The ones level with your eyeline are the ones you notice more obviously, I look round at the upper tiers when I walk out at the start of the game, and you might try to find your friends up there, but during the game you don’t really notice them.”

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He soon got used to it. In fact Rob didn’t lose another Premier League game at the Emirates for more than four years after his debut, until we went down at home to Aston Villa last season – and even that was when we were playing games behind closed doors.

“Those games during lockdown were obviously really different,” Rob continues. “Every game felt like a friendly in terms of atmosphere, or a game at the training ground with no fans. It was really weird to get used to at first.

“When your name was shouted from the coaches or the manager, you could hear what they were telling you every time. Normally, when the fans are in, it’s more about hand signals and gestures, and you’ve got to try and work out what the manager is saying in his best sign language!

“It can be useful though to get those instructions, which was easier in the lockdown games, because you might not have seen something that the manager has seen, so if he can pass that on to you quicker and easier, it could benefit you.

“Another thing that happened was that the cameras and mics around the pitch could pick up what the players were saying,” he adds. “I had that incident in the Wolves game (when Rob was heard accusing Adama Traore of going down easily for his size) but at least there were different aspects to it and fans could actually hear for the first time how the players talk to each other on the pitch. They saw the levels of communication between us, but saying all that, it’s a lot better with fans in the stadium, for sure.”

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It was a strange time to be a footballer, and stranger still to be a fan, and be unable to go to games regularly for the first time. Rob himself was never much of a football fan in his youth, having always been much more interested in playing than watching.

“Maybe that’s because it was always difficult to go to games as a kid,” he explains. “I was in the academy at Bolton from an early age, so I was always busy with my own football.

“Sometimes we would go and watch the first team though when Bolton were flying high in the Premier League. We always had tickets to watch them at the Reebok, and I remember all the academy boys used to sit right up in the top corner of the stand, and a lot of the time we would be playing football in the concourse rather than watching what was happening on the pitch.

“I remember always taking a little football with me so we could have a game of five-a-side in the concourse rather than watching the game itself, so that tells you that we always preferred playing than watching.

“I was always out playing, and when the big games came around on TV I’d watch sometimes, but not all of them. Then as I got older I chose not to watch so much as I wanted a break from constant football, and I got more interested in other sports so I watched those too.”

That interest in other sports remains strong today. Just a few weeks ago, during the international break, Rob spent his free weekend consuming as much sport as he could.

“I went to watch England v Australia in the rugby at Twickenham on the Saturday,” he explains. “Then on the Sunday I spent my time flicking between the Formula One, the T20 cricket final, and then the NFL in the evening. So that was my whole day!

“That’s a regular weekend for me to be honest, keeping up with the sport. Every Sunday between 6pm and midnight I watch the NFL coverage. American Football is probably the main sport I follow now. I watch a lot of it, and know quite a lot about it now in terms of players at each team. I watch basketball too, but over the past few years NFL has taken over for me.

“I’ve watched it for about eight or nine years, I started to get into it at high school and then watched it more as it was on TV more on Sundays. I really love it now.

“I’m a 49ers fan because that’s where my girlfriend is from – it’s the nearest team to her – so I thought that made sense. I went to the stadium and spent a bit of time in San Francisco while visiting her, so I have grown an affiliation with them. I like their kit as well, the red, white and gold – lovely combination.”

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So what is it about American Football that drew Rob in to the sport?

“In terms of watching, every play is like a set piece in football. Each play is designed beforehand, so it’s similar to football if everything was just free-kicks and corners! Apart from anything though, it’s just really entertaining. They make each game a massive occasion and massive show for the fans. There’s always something going on, especially when you watch it live. I’ve been to a few games when they’ve been played over here.

“There are a few differences to watching our football,” he continues. “In English football the fans are a lot more passionate, and the fans are kept apart of course.

“In the NFL it seems to be more about being there to watch the game and have a good time. If your team loses it’s not the end of the world, you can go again next year, whereas I think there are bigger rivalries in soccer. It means that if your team loses that’s your weekend ruined.”

There is though, Rob believes, something that ‘our football’ can learn from the American version, in terms of how the sport is presented to fans.

“One thing it could take, and I’ve seen it a bit in rugby as well, is that whenever there is a stoppage, or celebration or something, then blasting out some music can really lift the crowd.

“It only needs to be a little snippet – like five or 10 seconds – but if it’s good music, when it’s blasted into the crowd it can lift the atmosphere whenever there is a break in the game or it gets a bit quiet.

“I reckon that would be good in football too, it would make me enjoy watching it more if I were in the stands and little bits of music came on to lift people and give everyone a buzz.

“Although saying that, I’m sure there will be plenty of fans that hate that as well though!”

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