This story first appeared in the November 2016 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
In many respects, Rob Holding’s rise to prominence has been the archetypal footballing fairytale.
From kicking down the molehills before being able to play as a child to walking out at a packed Emirates Stadium to make his competitive debut for Arsenal against Liverpool, Holding’s whirlwind journey is one that will resonate with many.
But the bright lights and the glitz and glamour of the Premier League couldn’t have seemed much further away just last summer.
Holding was left behind as the Bolton Wanderers first team set off on a pre-season jaunt to Austria, instead remaining in the north-east as the Trotters’ under-21 group took to Newcastle for their own preparations. Pre-season came and went, but Holding remained out of the picture.
He freely admits that his former club’s well-documented financial issues perhaps worked to his advantage, presenting him with an opportunity to play first-team football. From that moment he never looked back, making his first team debut on a drab Tuesday night against Burton Albion, before cementing his place in the line-up and picking up the club’s Player of the Year award as his maiden season ended with a points deduction and relegation to League 1.
A dream move materialised for the local lad done good, with Holding swapping Lancashire for London in a transfer that surprised many outside of Bolton. And he could be forgiven for enduring a sense of deja vu upon his arrival in N5, with injuries to Gabriel and Per Mertesacker meaning the then 20 year old was selected for the Premier League opener against Liverpool.
Again, the Tameside-born defender rose to the challenge, winning plaudits along the way. But after such a dramatic and fast-paced introduction to life at Arsenal, Holding has been short of chances to take a breath and reflect on his rapid rise – until now.
THE BIG INTERVIEW
Firstly, Rob, let’s go right back to the start. What are your earliest memories of playing football as a boy? It would have been at Staybridge Celtic juniors. The pitch was on a slant and our warm-up was to kick the molehills down that had come up overnight! We used to have to knock them down and then we could play, that’s my first memory.
Was there a particular moment when you started to realise that you were better than some of the other lads you were playing with?I don’t know... I took the corners, goal kicks, free kicks, throw-ins! So I think that was when you realise that if you’re going to be doing everything, you’re probably one of the better players.
Obviously your first professional appearance came with Bolton Wanderers, but how did that come about? It was a weird one because I didn’t go away with the first team for pre-season – I was away with the 21s. We went up to Newcastle and they went to Austria. When we came back I was just training and doing what I was doing with the 21s. Then they pushed me up and I made my debut on a Tuesday night at the Macron Stadium, as it’s now called, against Burton Albion, and we lost 1-0. The shot ricocheted off me and sent the keeper the wrong way which was unlucky, but it was great to make my debut.
A lot of academies get criticised for not getting players through to the first team. How do you feel that Bolton prepared you for when you did make that transition? I think they’ve had some decent players come through. The likes of Josh Vela, who’s still there – he’s been playing for a couple of seasons now – and was the first one to break through. Joe Riley, he’s at Shrewsbury Town now but he made his debut at Bolton and broke through. Zach Clough’s still there, Niall Maher... there’s quite a lot of young lads who I grew up with who’ve come through and played.
Were there any particular experiences that stood out in your first few games in the first team against Championship strikers?I remember my Championship debut. It was against Middlesbrough, and they were favourites to go up and it was the first game at the Riverside. We got battered 3-0, we played three at the back and I remember Stewart Downing just ripped me apart. I learned from it and built on it through the season.
A lot has been written about Bolton’s problems off the field, but do you think that actually worked to your advantage on the field?I wouldn’t say it worked to our advantage because we couldn’t get the performances together but, personally, they didn’t have the money to bring a player in so they had to promote from within. That’s why I got the chance to play and then stayed in the team.
And those performances at Bolton caught the eye of Premier League clubs and you were linked to Everton, Chelsea and Bournemouth, for example. How did you end up here at Arsenal?I’d seen everything – it was all paper talk. There were people with things on Twitter saying, “He’s linked here, he’s linked there,” but I think the concrete one that I knew, that my agent told me, was that Arsenal were interested. I was like, “Wow, Arsenal are interested in me,” so that was one that I wanted to push forward. Then when I went away with England in the summer to Toulon, I spoke to Calum Chambers and he said Arsenal is a great club – “If it happens for you, it would be great to have you there.”
Is it a strange experience as a young player in the Championship to suddenly see all this paper talk and stuff on Twitter and Facebook about your future?Yeah, it was a bit surreal. At the time I was just looking round and seeing my name all over Twitter and places and I’d wake up in the morning and one of my mates had sent me a screen of the newspaper that had linked me with Everton, and I had no idea. They were asking me, “What’s happening, what’s happening?!” and I was like, “I don’t know, it’s crazy, we’ll just see what happens.”
You immediately went on Arsenal’s pre- season tour to the United States. How important do you think that experience was for helping you to settle and get to know the lads?There was nothing better to settle in than that experience. Twenty four hours a day you’re with the lads. You would wake up in the morning and have breakfast with them and eat with them at night, so you definitely broke the group down and found your feet in there. When Per Mertesacker picked up his injury against Lens in pre- season, did the boss come to speak to you about starting the first game alongside Calum? No, it wasn’t until the day before that we found out that we were going to play. Which was probably better because it didn’t take my mind off anything – I was concentrating on doing well and working my way towards trying to get a place.
Do you think it helped that you knew Calum from the England Under-21 setup? Yeah, definitely. He took me under his wing for the first couple of weeks and settled me down. Then the likes of Jack Wilshere, who I was on tour with, and Chambo [Alex Oxlade- Chamberlain] have been really good with helping me settle down, so they’ve been a credit to the club really.
Your manager at England Under-21 level, Gareth Southgate, is now leading the Three Lions – how pleased are you for him on his promotion?I think it’s something that he could easily do and take in his stride, not a problem. He’s been really good with me – he brought me into the England setup so I wish him all the best for the few games that he takes charge of. Who knows in the future if he’ll take it full time.
With Gareth Southgate being a centre half himself, was that a help to you when you stepped up to international level?Yeah, he talks a lot to me, Calum and Kortney Hause, who are the three young centre halves that are there. And he’ll just pull us aside and say what he thinks, what he thinks is easier to do and where we should be. His experience is invaluable.
Looking back on that Liverpool game now, what was it that struck you most about your first Premier League match at Emirates Stadium?The sheer size of the event. Approaching the stadium, there’s people on the streets everywhere just buzzing around. And then coming out of the tunnel to massive cheers, and then the pace of the game as well. Liverpool came out flying in the second half, so you have to adapt quickly.
It was a big moment in your career, but could you still enjoy it, given the way the game ended? Yeah, I’ve got to take the positives from it and that was just the experience of being on the pitch for the first time, and although the result didn’t go our way we picked ourselves up.
You had a flying start to the season and really caught the eye of the Arsenal fans. Did the boss reassure you about your value to the squad and explain why you were dropping to the bench?Yeah, he pulled me to one side and said he’s been really impressed with what I’ve been doing and how I’ve started the season, so I’ve just got to keep doing the same thing and hopefully he’ll keep seeing that.
Are there parallels with your first season at Bolton where you came into the side, then went back out, but it gave you the hunger to come in and really make it your own?Yeah, you can say that, because that’s a similar thing. I’ve been in at the start and then I’ll do all I can to fight back and get back into the team again.
And finally, Steve Bould – is he a help for you as a former top-class centre half?Yeah, definitely. We’ve gone through a few things on video in the training sessions, we’ve gone back into his room and sat and watched some of the training sessions and my body shape and positioning of where I should be. It makes it a lot easier for when I’m next on the pitch to remember what Steve’s advised.
It’s been a whirlwind rise for Rob Holding, with journalists hastily Googling for any news on the Gunners centre half – so we asked Rob about some of the more surprising things we’ve found written about him recently.
We read on The Bolton News that you went on holiday with mates this summer and stayed in £5 hostels in Thailand – is that true? Yeah, that’s 100 per cent true. I went with five of my mates and we just booked it when we got there. We got the flights organised and then once we landed we booked a place to stay and just planned it day to day. It’s fair to say it’s not a normal footballer’s holiday... Yeah, it’s more of a sort of student gap-year sort of thing! A few of my mates are at uni and they asked if I wanted to go. I said if they could do it in June then I could go, so...
Another one – in a recent interview you were asked if you were scared of anything. You said you’re not scared of anything at all. Spiders? Heights? Not even Steve Bould, no? No, nothing – and Steve’s quite nice actually! New caption So if we proposed a feature of you having to hold snakes and tarantulas, you wouldn’t have a problem? No, no. We were playing footgolf on a day off recently and there was a frog in the hole and it was me that picked it up and took it somewhere safe. I think I saved its life – it was probably cooking in there!
Is there anything else you’ve read about yourself or heard about yourself since you moved to Arsenal that you’ve thought ‘that’s complete nonsense’? The height thing – I think that always gets brought up. They said on Wikipedia that I’m 5ft 10in, so I always mention that I’m 6ft 2in to try to put that right, but I think that’s fixed now.
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