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Grant Holt, football fandom and me

A tribute to a dying breed, and the narratives around him.

Grant Holt of Norwich City in May 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

“My name is Juliet and I support Norwich City.” There should be meetings where I can introduce myself thus to sympathetic people, but there aren’t, so instead I’m sharing my sadness with you, dear reader, because my favourite team have sold my favourite footballer.

It would be hideously self-indulgent to just write a love letter to former City striker Grant Holt after his departure for Wigan Athletic, so really, I’m writing about the narratives I build as a football fan, and why I build them. (I removed the journalistic “we” from that sentence, you’ll be relieved to know.) And, in the two decades that I’ve supported City, no transfer has seemed to signify the end of a narrative as much as this one.

Speaking rationally, it makes sense. Holt joined Norwich in July 2009, after City were relegated to the third division (League One) for the first time in fifty years. Ten years earlier, Carlisle United released 18-year-old Holt, who took a job as a tyre fitter and played part-time for non-League Workington, Halifax and Barrow, around a brief spell in Singapore with Sengkang Marine. He joined Sheffield Wednesday in 2003, but it didn’t work out and he went to Rochdale; after two years there he signed for Nottingham Forest, starting impressively before struggling again at a bigger club. So he spent a strong season in the fourth division with Shrewsbury Town which led him, at 28, to Norfolk, the flagship signing by former City goalkeeper and new manager Bryan Gunn.

There, Holt starred in a surreal success story, with City’s rapid recovery and his own belated recognition as a strong, deceptively skilful centre-forward becoming intertwined. He made his debut as on the opening day of 2009-10 Norwich lost 7-1 at home to Colchester United – the single worst result in the club’s history. City responded by sacking Gunn – whose appointment, in hindsight, felt like some sort of Andy Kaufman-esque performance art stunt – and taking Colchester’s manager, Paul Lambert. Holt was twice top scorer and Player of the Year as Norwich won League One before shooting straight through to the Premier League.

But in the Premier League, Holt really exceeded expectations, and became a symbol of resistance to the homogeneity, commercialisation and globalisation of twenty-first century football.  He was already a hero to Norwich fans, not least for his hat-trick against rivals Ipswich in the Championship (indeed, this picture of Holt laughing during City’s 5-1 win in Suffolk instantly became my favourite football photograph), but very few thought that Lambert’s team, which retained several players from the third tier and recruited mostly from the lower divisions, would survive in the Premier League, and even fewer imagined that Holt would end the season with 17 goals and in contention for England’s European Championship squad.

The first game I went to that season was at Chelsea. I paid £47.50 for my ticket, almost certain that City would get thrashed, and expecting to hate every minute, but going because, somehow, I retained some hope that I might see something unexpected, even miraculous. Charmingly, in contrast to Chelsea’s expensive international superstars, Norwich started with six who had played in non-League football, as well as the attacking Holy Trinity – Holt, Chris Martin and playmaker Wes Hoolahan – who had fired them out of League One.

José Bosingwa put Chelsea ahead in the seventh minute, and I feared the worst. (Later, several friends told me that they’d seen me on Match of the Day here, “looking worried”.) But in the second half, the impossible happened: City played a long cross into Chelsea’s penalty area, Chelsea goalkeeper Hilário and defender Branislav Ivanović collided, the ball dropped and Holt volleyed a looping shot over John Terry, whose sprawling failure to stop it going in only heightened our euphoria.

Chelsea scored two late goals and won 3-1, but somehow, the whole endeavour suddenly felt less futile: our club could keep its identity and compete in the top flight (even if we couldn’t hope to win it). Holt’s success epitomised and emphasised this: his bullet header to equalise at Liverpool and his brilliant trap, turn and finish against Manchester United earned him national recognition, but his strikes in victories over less established teams were just as important – Holt’s unusual, almost unthinkable career path and his burly physique provided a thrilling counterpoint to the hyper-athletic modern footballer and the often hollow spectacle of the Premier League.

It wasn’t so much that Holt made me, or any other fellow fans, think that we could become professional footballers – I’ve had to accept that, aged 31, having never got past Horley Town’s B team at Under-12 level and subsequently undergoing gender reassignment, I will probably never play for Norwich (although I’ve not ruled out Ipswich) – but that people like us, who we knew and understood, could still get onto the other side of the touchline. We didn’t so much ignore his imperfections as celebrate them: Holt committed the most fouls in the Premier League for two consecutive seasons, and for the second, I wanted a trophy.

But, by then, the inadequacy and stupidity of the narrative around Holt had been exposed. In a few awful days, Holt first admitted that he had always voted Tory – even before he became a professional footballer – and then submitted a transfer request, and the middle-class fans who’d built up Holt as a working class hero had to reconsider. (Has this ever happened before?) It was a reminder that footballers are, you know, people, with opinions and financial choices to make and families and futures to think about – easy to forget when you’re used to thinking about footballers as faces on stickers or names on management simulations or people bought and sold according to expediency.

In the end, Holt said his transfer request was a negotiating ploy and stayed in Norfolk for one last, very different season. His relationship with the fans recovered but was never quite the same, and he scored half as many goals as new Norwich manager Chris Hughton adopted a far more defensive approach – and now things have changed a lot more. Slowly becoming established, Norwich have replaced Holt with Holland striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel, after 1974 World Cup finalist Johan Neeskens recommended that he join. So it’s a new story – of my team competing on the terms of the Premier League, rather than despite them – but one that never would have begun without Holt. Somehow, I’m sure I’ll adapt.