Grant Holt, football fandom and me

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

“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.

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

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.