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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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