It’s been a mere six years since former Norwich City striker Grant Holt was on the verge of an England call-up after 15 goals in his debut Premier League season propelled him into the public consciousness.
Six years before that, Holt was playing for Rochdale; six years on, he’s a player-coach at non-league side Barrow, the club he represented for two years in the early 2000s.
“When I was at Barrow the first time, if someone had said by 2012 you’d be knocking on the door of the Euros I’d have probably laughed in their face and walked away,” says Holt, reflecting on a career which has taken him to each of the top five divisions of English football.
“I never dreamt I’d play in the Premier League, especially when I got to 29, so that was enough for me. England would have put the icing on the cake but that’s football.”
While Holt clearly holds no resentment towards Roy Hodgson for his decision not to pick him for any of his England squads, the 36-year-old believes his fate may have been different had it not been for the Three Lions’ late change of manager ahead of Euro 2012.
“I think what killed me was [Fabio] Capello leaving when he did. I don’t think that helped me at all because he’d watched me on numerous occasions that season and I think that call-up might have come.
“They had a friendly with Stuart Pearce in charge and he went with a lot of the U21s, and that’s football. Everyone has a different opinion and no doubt in the next few weeks we’ll all be talking about who should and shouldn’t be going to the World Cup, but there’s only one man who will make that decision. As a footballer and a fan you have to look at it and say that’s what he’s paid for.”
Having begun his career at hometown club Carlisle, it was Holt’s success at Workington which earned him a move to Third Division side Halifax Town, before he embarked on brief spells in Australia with Sorrento and Singapore with Sengkang Marine.
The striker then signed for Barrow after a move back to Carlisle fell through following his return from Asia, and Holt admits the Premier League felt “miles away” at the time.
“I was just trying to make a living through football to be brutally honest,” he says. “It was more about topping up my wages alongside being a part-time tyre fitter and playing the game I loved. I was getting more money for winning than I was for playing if I’m being honest.
“I enjoyed the travel. I was going to stay in Singapore longer but unluckily for me I came back to sign for Carlisle and the deal fell through. But it was good for me to see different things, it was a good time for me to be over there because I was away from family and it gives you more time to reflect on what you’re doing. When I went to Halifax I struggled initially, so going away gave me that confidence to go and play where I wanted to.”
After a stint at Sheffield Wednesday and good spells of form at Nottingham Forest and Rochdale, 20 goals in 43 games for Shrewsbury Town saw Norwich fork out around £400,000 for Holt as they sought to secure an instant return to the Championship after suffering an ignominious relegation to the third tier.
A 7-1 home defeat by Colchester United on the opening day wasn’t the debut Holt had in mind, but the sacking of Bryan Gunn and hiring of Colchester’s manager Paul Lambert kick-started the Canaries’ remarkable rise to the Premier League.
“I think it [promotion to the top flight] came around a lot quicker than anyone expected, even people at the club,” Holt explains. “I don’t think anyone thought about two promotions in a row, but we had a great group of players who were willing to fight and the staff took us to the next level.”
Twenty-four goals in League One followed by 21 in the Championship meant Holt played a key role in Norwich’s climb, but his most impressive feat came in the Premier League: another double-figure season followed as the striker helped Lambert’s side finish comfortably in the mid-table at the first time of asking. Holt admits he didn’t fear the step up to the top tier.
“It’s a different mindset because in the Championship anyone could beat anyone and everyone has a go at each other,” he says. “In the Premier League you’re aware everyone has fantastic players, but I revelled in it a little bit. I didn’t feel overawed and didn’t really give any respect for who they were as footballers.
“I went in and embraced it, embraced testing myself against them because if you go in and start worrying about who you’re up against, that’s when you’re going to struggle.”
After being left out of Hodgson’s Euro 2012 squad, Holt dropped a bombshell on Norwich just six days after the final game of the season, handing in a transfer request in a bid to seal a move higher up the pyramid.
That transfer never materialised, though, and Holt ended up signing a new three-year deal in July. Yet the writing was on the wall by then, with the striker having held several conversations with the club throughout the summer.
“It was more to do with stuff going on in the background at the club,” he admits. “I wanted certain assurances and when I sat down with the club I didn’t like what I heard and I thought maybe it was time for me to go.
“In the end I decided to stay. A year later the same conversations happened and we ended up parting company. That’s just part of football and you can’t stay at a club forever.”
Holt only managed eight goals the following campaign, although Norwich again comfortably avoided a relegation battle as they secured an 11th-place finish under Chris Hughton. It was during this season that Holt was joined at Carrow Road by a future England star, with Harry Kane moving to Norfolk on loan from Tottenham.
“The thing with Harry is he’s a fantastic guy, he’s just a nice, nice guy,” Holt says. “The one thing people will say if you ask anyone at Norwich is he’s an absolute finisher. Whenever we did a training session he’d score goals from any angle.
“He’s got a fantastic work ethic and it was hard for him to come into a new environment. He’d always be out at the end of sessions with me and the other strikers doing finishing and it’s not surprising when you see what he does now.”
While Kane returned to Tottenham, Holt joined Championship outfit Wigan in 2013 with the aim of helping the club return to the Premier League following their relegation the previous campaign. The Latics had also qualified for the Europa League after their FA Cup triumph, but things didn’t go to plan for their new centre-forward.
“Unfortunately it didn’t work out,” Holt remembers. “I got a bad injury against Middlesbrough which kept me out for a few months. The new manager came in [Uwe Rosler] and he wasn’t having me at all. I went to Aston Villa and Huddersfield and when I came back I’d done my ACL.
“You take those twists and turns and it happens. You’ve just got to get on with it. I was delighted when Gary Caldwell got them back up because I was treated really well and the people were fantastic.”
Holt’s career may have taken a downward turn after he left Norwich and missed out on an international call-up, but he’s grateful for what the sport has given him.
“I was watching the MMA the other day and the trainer asked Rose Namajunas why she was doing it and was she enjoying it. She just smiled back and said she was. I said that to our lads here [at Barrow] this week.
“I think in football if you speak to any footballer, what you don’t realise is from the age of four or five you kick the ball against a wall, you watch your dad or you watch on TV. The reason you do that is because you love the game of football and that should never leave you.
“That can be the hardest part, when you get older and you can’t do it as you once could. But that’s irrelevant as long as you’re still enjoying it and still love the game – that’s the most important thing.”
The 36-year-old certainly doesn’t appreciate when footballers are stereotyped as money-grabbing mercenaries who are only in the game to get rich.
“Football is like any job in the world – you do a job to be the best at it,” he says. “If you don’t do it to the best of your ability you shouldn’t be doing it. You want to get up the ladder but you have to earn your money because your career might only last 12-15 years. You’re not a solicitor who can sit there until you’re 65 and earn money for an extra 30 years.
“Everyone talks about the top end of football and how much money there is, but there are lads at lower league level who do it because they love it. Everyone talks about players on £300k a week and what not, but why not talk about the guy at Accrington Stanley or other clubs who’s there to feed their family but also because they bloody love it?
“The trouble in this industry is everyone’s put in the same bracket and that’s not the case. There are some unbelievable people in football and there are some who give it a bad name, but that’s the same in any job, any society.
“In football you only see the top section. Papers don’t sell the happy, fluffy stuff. The stories that go in there are going to be about scandals, but that’s not a fair reflection of football and that’s my biggest gripe.”
And what of the future? Holt spent time coaching Hibernian’s youth teams during his time with the Scottish club last year, while he’s now passing on his knowledge to Barrow’s squad in the National League.
“I’m finishing off my A-Licence now and I’m really enjoying it,” Holt says. “I believe in football you’ve got to earn your stripes; you can’t just go in as a coach and learn about it. It’s very different to being a footballer – it’s a lot more time-consuming and a lot more about analysis and details. Learning those things now will make you a better coach going forward.”