When Rob Holding made the move from Bolton Wanderers to Arsenal back in 2016, his father Stuart in particular was bursting with pride.
Holding senior had been there every step of the way in young Rob’s career. From his early days at Stalybridge Celtic Juniors and the Bolton Wanderers academy, to making
his senior debut while on loan at Bury, Stuart Holding was present – driving his son to and from training, to matches, and always available to offer words of support and encouragement when needed.
So when Arsene Wenger brought the defender to Arsenal nearly seven years ago when Rob was still 20 – and with just one season of league football behind him – it was a huge source of pride for everyone in the Holding household.
But it was also something of a watershed moment for Holding senior. His son was heading to London, taking a huge next step in his career, and those regular chats about football would inevitably become more infrequent as Stuart stayed in Manchester.
“He’s been there with me literally from day one,” Rob explains, “talking through everything with me, and then all of a sudden I move to London and that link is broken a bit. In fact, I don’t think he’s watched me train since I was about 15 or 16. He’s watched the footage the club put out on social media and things like that, but he’s not come down to watch me at Colney – we’ve never done that.
“He comes to the games when he can, he was down for a couple of the Europa League games at the Emirates, and obviously he follows me as much as he can when I’m playing,” Rob adds.
“We still do talk about football together, but obviously not as much. When I was at Bolton we used to finish the games and then have a long drive home, so the two of us were just sat in the car chatting about the game all the way home. But when I moved down to London seven years ago, he stayed in Manchester, so we don’t have that window where we always talked about the game.
“Now I often get home from games and try to relax, but if he calls we’ll talk about the game maybe, and how I’ve done. To be fair, it was difficult for him at first when I came here, because he felt like he was out of the loop a bit. I’m sure that was more of a struggle for him, having always been there with me during my childhood and early days in football. We have that nice balance now though, because we talk about it, but at the right times.”
So although the “link is broken a bit” in Rob’s words, he says he will always be grateful for the support and sacrifices his dad made to get him started in football in the first place.
“Absolutely,” he states. “My dad – and my grandad as well to be honest – were the first to ever inspire me in football, because it was them who used to drive me to training and all the games when I was starting out. It was a 50-minute drive to Bolton from where we lived in Manchester at the time and they are always right behind me and supportive when I was growing up, so they were my inspiration.
"There is a bit of football talent in the family – although it probably skipped a generation with my dad!"
“I was never someone who needed much motivation to get to training and play football every day. When I got home from school every day I was always like: ‘Right, let’s get to training, let’s get to Bolton!’ I had that motivation to go, I always wanted to train and play football.
“It was more a case of channelling my energy towards football. I had the enthusiasm, and my dad and grandad were really keen to take me too, so there were never any arguments about it.”
It probably helped that football had always run in the family for the Holdings. Rob’s father, and his father’s father, were both promising players in their youth. In fact, his grandfather, Derek, was very close to becoming a pro with Blackpool, until fate intervened.
“My dad and my grandad both played a bit of football themselves. My dad played when he was in the army, and my grandad played for the navy team. He could have been a pro actually, but he signed up for the navy just before he was offered a pro contract.
“His dad, my great grandad, was putting pressure on him to do something with his life, so he signed up with the navy, but only a couple of days later Blackpool got in touch to offer him a contract. It was too late then though – he’d already joined the navy. He had to leave it, so the timing wasn’t great.
“So yes, there is a bit of football talent in the family – although it probably skipped a generation with my dad! Big Stu won’t mind me saying that, I’m sure!”
Talent certainly didn’t skip this generation. After working his way through the youth ranks at Bolton, Rob made his senior debut while away on loan at Bury at the age of 19, before signing his first pro contract.
The 2015/16 season was his breakthrough. He made his Bolton debut – the club he joined at the age of seven – in the League Cup against Burton Albion in August 2015. He then played 26 times in the Championship, and was voted as their Player of the Season before making his England under-21 debut.
Throughout Rob’s development, his dad was a constant source of inspiration and motivation for him. In fact, he was something of a frustrated coach on the sidelines.
“Yes, you could say that!” Rob laughs. “In fact we used to end up arguing in the middle of the game when I was on the pitch, because he’d be trying to tell me this and that. I’d be saying, ‘Dad, let me play the game,’ but it was only because he was so into it. Eventually we realised it would be better if he watched the game from the other half of the pitch to where I was playing. He was too far away from me to interfere then!
"I’m still here seven years later so I must have been doing something right"
“I remember when I made my debut for Bolton, I always knew where he was sitting, so I could look over and see him. He would give me a thumbs up or something to let me know I’d done something right. Or he would say something like get tighter to my man, be more aggressive, so I’ve always had that support from him. Now obviously I don’t see him so much at the games, but when I was breaking through it was like being back with the under- 18s because I always knew where he was in the stadium.
“I remember that Bolton debut well actually. I was obviously nervous, but at the same time I was inspired to have a good game and my dad was telling me the importance of making a strong first impression.
“Any debut is like that – my Arsenal debut was the same. We know what football fans can be like. They will make an instant judgment and make their mind up about you quickly. There’s just one chance for that first impression, then you might need to play six times after that to change their mind!”
Rob’s early performances in an Arsenal shirt certainly helped endear him to the Emirates faithful early on. In fact after just his second appearance – in a goalless draw away to Leicester – Wenger famously suggested that the media would have been much more fulsome in their praise if he had cost £55 million instead.
Rob was 20 when he signed, and he admits that he was inspired by the stature and history of the club when he arrived.
“Arsenal is obviously a massive name, and knowing that Arsene Wenger is the manager who wants to sign you means a lot,” he says. “That was inspirational for me, being wanted like that, and it maybe took me aback a bit. But then you realise that you have to believe in yourself, say to yourself: ‘Yes, I can go there and play, and prove myself.’ I’m still here seven years later so I must have been doing something right.
“When I arrived I had no idea at all what it was going to be like at Arsenal. No idea at all what to expect. I knew Calum Chambers from the England under-21s. We had played together before at a tournament the previous summer, and he was telling me that it was a really well-run club, family-orientated and that settled me down a bit. But you never really know until you go there what it will be like. It was exactly how Calum described it though,” he adds. “Everyone couldn’t have been more welcoming.”
Now Rob is one of the longest-serving players at the club, aged 27 and an established Premier League player with more than 150 Arsenal appearances to his name. It’s now down to him, he says, to ensure that the club’s traditions and family spirit live on, helping to instil the Arsenal way in the new players who join.
“You can sense in new players the sheer size of the club and the name Arsenal has when they sign,” he says. “How you cope with stepping into that is crucial, because there is a lot of pressure that comes with that. So what I do with people that sign is keep up that feeling that I had when I arrived of being welcomed.
"Now I look at the team, everyone is 23 or 24, and I’m 27 – so it’s my turn to set that example"
“There were never any issues in the changing room when I joined. There were some big personalities and big players there, like Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, but they were always great with me. I arrived as a 20-year-old from Bolton Wanderers, and I’m sure they had never even seen me kick a ball before. Then the next thing I know I’m there getting changed next to Alexis – but there was never any sense of, ‘Who’s this guy?’
“They were so nice, chatty and welcoming, and it’s important that carries on. Now I look at the team, everyone is 23 or 24, and I’m 27 – so it’s my turn to set that example, speak to the new players about things and how it works at Arsenal.”
Rob finishes by revealing a recent exchange with his ex-team-mate Alexandre Lacazette, which serves to underline how calling himself an Arsenal player continues to inspire him. The Frenchman spent five years with Rob at Arsenal before leaving in the summer, and the two were reunited briefly earlier this month when we played against Lyon at the Dubai Super Cup.
“Yes I saw Laca a couple of weeks ago,” he says, “and we spoke about what it’s like there compared to Arsenal. Lyon’s his home club of course, and he knows it really well, but he was telling me how much he loved his time at Arsenal.
“Actually a couple of months ago he texted me to tell me to enjoy my time at Arsenal because it’s a step above everywhere else. He said to me to stay at the club if you can because the grass isn’t always greener elsewhere, and to enjoy being at a club like Arsenal. It was really nice to hear that from someone at a different club.”
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