Ian Holloway: In a league of his own

Anger management, mixed metaphors, gun threats and the odd game of football are all in a day's work for Queens Park Rangers' colourful manager Ian Holloway
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Holloway's use of language, like his view of the world, is bold and distinctive to the point that - like Eric Cantona, Ron Atkinson or the late Bill Shankly - he has become familiar to a constituency which has no interest in football. In June he came 15th in Time Out magazine's list of the 50 funniest Londoners - ahead of Paul Merton and Ali G, among others - no mean feat when you consider that Ian Holloway neither comes from, nor lives in, the capital.

"They say every dog has his day," Holloway declared, after Queens Park Rangers were promoted to the Coca-Cola Championship. "And today is Woof Day. I want to go out and bark."

And yet, when he discusses recent events at Queens Park Rangers, it's clear that even the small man from Bristol knows Woof Day is definitely over.

A few minutes before the kick-off of QPR's home game against Sheffield United in August this year, one of the club's directors, Gianni Paladini, had a gun held to his head, in the boardroom, by a gang allegedly seeking to persuade him to sign a letter of resignation. Four men have been charged with conspiracy to commit blackmail, and joint possession of a firearm with intent to commit GBH.

Gianni Paladini has since been appointed chairman of Queens Park Rangers - the latest in a bewildering series of upheavals at board level. Paladini, a former footballers' agent who was once a wine waiter in Birmingham, recently issued a writ against a newspaper which alleged improprieties in his transfer dealings. He inherits a club with debts of around £10m.

I ask Holloway when it was that he first heard about the supposed firearm incident. "After the game. We're walking off the pitch. We've just won, 2-1. The ref's given us a goal that was blatantly offside, so I'm absolutely elated. Neil Warnock, the Sheffield United manager, is going ballistic. Anyhow," he continues, "I am shouting at Neil, as we walk off: 'I always supported you. But now I see I was wrong. Everybody else in football is right. You are a twat.'"

In the dressing room afterwards, "I'm saying congratulations to my team..." Holloway searches for a way to summarise his speech and settles - perhaps unfortunately - for the phrase: "Well done lads... bang, bang, bang."

Then, he adds, "Bill Power [former QPR chairman] gets hold of me. He's in a daze. He says: 'Er... something... has...' I said: 'What?' He said: '... ah... happened. I don't know quite how to tell...' So I'm like: 'Bill, do us a favour. Don't tell me.' That way, when I met the press after the match I didn't know what had - allegedly - gone on."

Since then, the CID have been regular visitors to Loftus Road, the club's west London stadium. "It has," says the manager, "been absolutely horrendous."

The whole thing sounds like a surreal black comedy.

"Yes," says Holloway. "I kept expecting Harry Potter to fly in."

In a precarious and hostile trade, the general run of football managers tend to espouse the kind of haughty machismo perfected by Jose Mourinho. Ian Holloway is not like this. Holloway paints huge, abstract canvases. He has wept on camera, talking about his love for his wife. He has difficulties with reading and says so in public. Though fiercely combative by nature, he meets life head-on with a frank and disarming vulnerability.

In his photograph in the club programme - one place where even the most thoroughly tormented manager can usually strike a pose of imperious tranquillity - Holloway's expression is a mixture of determination and foreboding: he has the look of a man who has just led a breakout from Colditz, and is glancing back to the perimeter wall, only to see that all of his fellow escapees have been machine-gunned.

When I arrive at his house in St Albans, Holloway, wearing a blue dress shirt and jeans, answers the door and leads the way to his living room, talking to a colleague on his mobile. I sit on the sofa, under the scrutiny of his rottweiler, Nathan, while the manager, who is 42, discusses the club's situation. (omega)

Holloway's end of the phone conversation is the usual blend of candour and mixed metaphors; he has a tendency to start one sentence before he has completed the last, and speaks in a strong West Country accent which lends a kind of poetry to the most banal phrase.

"Directors are calling me for advice," he says, the last word rhyming with "choice". "It's like they're holding on to my shirt tails. It should be the other way round. It's getting to the point where other managers would start thinking bugger this, I'm off into the river and joining another boat... the tail," he adds, "cannot wag the dog."

There are whole web sites devoted to so-called "Ollyisms". Invited to analyse one hard-fought victory, over Chesterfield, he responded as follows: "To put it in gentleman's terms, if you've been out for a night and you're looking for a young lady and you pull one, some weeks they're good-looking and some weeks they are not the best. Our performance today," he went on, "would not have been the best-looking bird, but at least we got her in the taxi. She was not the best-looking lady we ended up taking home, but she was very pleasant and very nice, so thanks very much, let's have a coffee."

When a journalist enquired about his health, following a leave of absence, Holloway told him: "My arms withered and my body was covered with puss-like sores, but no matter how bad it got I consoled myself by remembering that I wasn't a Chelsea fan."

He shares his tastefully decorated, large modern house with his wife Kim, son William, 17, and three younger teenage daughters - Chloe, Eve and Harriet. Each of the girls - for reasons doctors have been unable to explain - was born deaf. The family moved to St Albans to be close to a state school that teaches British sign language.

On the wall is Promotion, Holloway's abstract canvas in the style of Jackson Pollock. He painted it while being filmed for the 2004 BBC programme Stress Test. The documentary addressed the fits of rage which were disrupting his home life, with the help of psychologists and an anger management expert - who, Holloway recalls, "was constantly trying to get my goat up". The experience might have destroyed some people. Ian Holloway emerged as a national treasure.

I tell him that I honestly believe that going on that show is the bravest thing I've ever seen a footballer do, on or off the pitch.

"Bravest?" Holloway asks, "or most stupid?"

It's probably true that Sir Alex Ferguson, say, might have taken some persuading before he consented - as Ian Holloway did - to have his stress levels monitored while he performed an a cappella version of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?"

"But if I hadn't done that programme," Holloway says, "I wouldn't be sitting here now. Before I did it, I believed that I was a person who was kind, considerate, and believed in free speech. The anger management expert showed me I was a jumped-up, obnoxious little get who wouldn't listen at home because of what happened at work. If I'd carried on the way I was," he says, "I would have destructed everything I had."

Stress Test showed him addressing his players before a game.

"One of their staff was as rude as [beep] to us," he said. "So [beep]ing get on your [beep]ing toes. All my life I've been on a [beep]ing crusade. I want us [beep]ing focussed. Because you can [beep]ing win without being [beep]ing rude."

To his deaf daughters, Holloway's furious gesticulations must have made him look like James Finlayson, the bald, apoplectic straight man to Laurel and Hardy, in one of their silent shorts. The painting was part of his therapy.

"I said, 'But I always have an original to copy.' They said, 'That's your problem.' I sprayed something on the paper and I thought, 'Oh God, I've ruined it.' By the end, I was throwing paint at it. Doing that picture set me free. I had always worried whether I was doing the right thing; always believed that nothing I did would ever be good enough. I realised all of that is bullshit. Most of my life," he adds, "is bullshit."

You mean your life in football?

"No, I'm talking about that perception I once had of what I ought or ought not to say. Now I feel I have got to tell it how it is."

In one scene he faced the camera alone, talking about the effects of his explosive anger.

"Kim," Holloway said, in one scene from the programme - facing the camera alone, in an emotional state - "don't love the fella I am. A lot of things used to scare me. None of them do now. Only the fact that I might lose her. Without your family," he adds, "you've got nothing. I wouldn't want to carry on living without them. There would be no point."

Kim, who has been his girlfriend since she was 14 years old, appears with coffee. "I used to shout her down," Holloway says. "I used to be vile."

Has anyone mocked you for appearing on that programme?

"Not to my face."

Holloway - 5ft 8in tall and not heavily built - has had to rely on passion, integrity and commitment to gain the respect he commands in his dressing room, and throughout the game. Before he went into management nine years ago, he was a midfield player who gave devoted service to both Bristol Rovers and QPR - admired, it has to be said, for full-blooded endeavour rather than grace and flair.

Was his anger worse, I ask Kim, when he became a manager?

She laughs. "Just a bit."

"Am I better now?" he inquires.

"Yes," she says.

"I nearly lost her twice," Holloway tells me. She was briefly engaged to someone else, when she was in her teens. Shortly after they married, Kim developed lymph cancer, from which she has fully recovered.

Some years ago, I tell Holloway, I was having lunch with a group of football writers, when the conversation turned to the question of why Bobby Charlton never succeeded as a manager. "Because," somebody said, "he is not a bastard."

"I don't believe that you need to be a shit," Holloway counters. "You have to be consistent, and strong, and your values need to be right. I live the way I want my players to be. I keep things in the open."

If the fans love this eccentric, inspirational figure - and most do - it's because he embodies the kind of fierce loyalty usually associated with the terraces.

"I remember meeting him years ago, when he'd just taken over as manager at Bristol Rovers," says Steve Tongue, this newspaper's football correspondent. "I was early and I sat down to wait for him in his office. When he arrived, he made me exchange chairs with him because mine was blue and his was red [the colour of loathed rivals Bristol City]."

Holloway also banned red vehicles from the training ground.

"When I was at Bristol Rovers," he says, "there was a journalist who wrote a match report where he said that if Bristol City had my two strikers - who, in that game, were rubbish - then City would be a team Bristol could be proud of. Oooof!"

"So," Kim calls through from the next room, "you dragged the poor sod in, didn't you?"

"I got him to the training ground. He didn't know why. I said: 'You are going to apologise to my team, you bastard.' I sat all my players down. I had the two centre halves stand up. I said: 'Right, now tell these two - who you only gave five out of 10 each - just how well you think they played, you asshole.'"

Did that ensure more sympathetic coverage?

"Well, he started killing me in the paper every week. From then on I said, 'OK, I'll laugh at myself. And I'll try to be honest.'"

Holloway grew up in Cadbury Heath, near Bristol; his mother still lives in the same council house now. His father Bill, an outstanding amateur footballer, was a seaman, then a factory worker. Family, Holloway says, was everything to him.

"He never knew who his father was. When he was 14 he'd just lost the man he believed was his dad, in the Blitz. The life assurance rep knocked on the door and said: 'Is your step mum in, Bill?' That's how he learned he was adopted."

Bill died of a heart attack aged 59, when Ian was 25.

"He never made a lot of money and at the end he was thinking: 'Oh God, I am a failure.' He actually said that on his death bed. He was so wrong. The destructive side I used to have that would not accept anything that wasn't perfect, I saw that in my dad."

Holloway was due to play a match on the day his father died.

"I got in the car to go to the ground. I just sat there with the engine off, staring ahead of me, gripping the steering wheel. I decided not to go. Then I looked across, and I saw an indentation in the passenger seat. I swear to you that it was there. I put the key in the ignition."

During the match, he says, "It was as if my dad was there alongside me. We won 4-0. It was the best game I'd had for years."

At another critical stage in his life, he recalls, "I was driving along, and 'One Sweet Day', that Mariah Carey song about light 'shining down on you from heaven' came on the radio. The volume went up to the maximum. My car was full of light, and the tears were just pouring down my face. I was like a bloody river and yet I had never felt so good. It was as if someone had opened up my head, poured a load of love in, then put the top of my skull back down. When the song finished, the volume fell again. I swear to you on my kids' lives, that that happened." Again, he says, "it was as if Dad was there, looking after me."

If ever Ian Holloway has needed the help of his spirit guide, it is now. The predominant theme in his life has been the struggle to fulfil his responsibilities as head of a household he cherishes. But, while his own domestic arrangements have stabilised, at Queens Park Rangers he has found himself presiding over an increasingly wild and dysfunctional family.

Holloway became manager of an ailing QPR side in the spring of 2001, and was unable to save them from relegation to the game's third tier, then League Division Two. The club spent the following season in financial administration and survived by taking out a £10m loan from a Panamanian-registered company. In the summer of 2004 Holloway led Rangers back up into the Coca-Cola Championship. From their current position in the top-half of the table, QPR's more optimistic supporters have started to eye the Premiership above them.

Holloway believes the only way he will become a manager at that level is to get QPR promoted. "Nobody," he says, "is going to want to hire a bumpkin from Bristol."

Within the game, Holloway's achievement is recognised as extraordinary: if clubs were ranked by their financial means, QPR would be in the bottom four of the Championship. What success they have achieved is the result of the manager's ability to communicate his own galvanic commitment to his players.

The £10m loan from the ABC Corporation of Panama carried a 10 per cent interest rate and the resulting annual payment of £1m horrified some directors. The deal was concluded under the reign of former chairman Nick Blackburn, who resigned in the summer of 2004. He was replaced by Bill Power, who was ousted by Gianni Paladini in August this year. Over the past two years, board members have departed with a frequency that is staggering. The surreal preliminaries to the Sheffield United game are indicative of the turmoil within the club, which at the time of writing has no chief executive.

"We had two people," Ian Holloway explains, "Gianni Paladini and Bill Power, in the highest positions and they had a great relationship. I liked them both. Their relationship has broken down and things aren't stable any more. I have never been a child who has been in a divorce. But now I feel like their kid."

Until last year, Gianni Paladini was a Fifa-registered football agent, who represented high-profile players such as Benito Carbone and Fabrizio Ravanelli. He bought a 22 per cent stake in QPR for around £650,000, but is also closely linked to two Monaco consortiums, Wanlock and Barnaby Holdings, that have invested £1.7m in the club; together, they own 46 per cent of QPR.

Paladini, now 60, was a striker on Napoli's books until injury forced him to retire at the age of 22. He settled in the Midlands in 1968, and build up a portfolio of restaurants and clubs. Certain aspects of his CV - the fact that he's a Neapolitan, who went from waiting on tables to owning nightclubs, and brokered many football deals in southern Italy - have led some to leap to stereotypical judgments. As Paladini said recently, "People must think there is Mafia involvement. But I want the best for QPR and I'm getting the right people to achieve this." The chairman describes allegations that he has signed players to QPR with a view to enriching his agent friends as "stupid".

I ask Holloway how he gets on with Gianni Paladini.

"His personality is electric. You want to be in his company." At the same time, he says, "You wouldn't want to do anything wrong. He loves you or he hates you. When he loves you, there is no better company in the world. You can talk about Gianni being a waiter. You can talk about Gianni being Italian. You can talk about Gianni being an agent. But Gianni is a bloke. Gianni is a fella. A nice fella."

What if you "do something wrong"?

"If you upset him," Holloway explains, "he will hurl abuse at you. He doesn't mean it the following day. Hopefully I can help him learn from my experience of how I used to scream at deaf children."

Does he swear in Italian?

"Normally in English."

Last year, Holloway recalls, he was at home, suffering from chronic diarrhoea, when he answered a call from Paladini.

"I was sat on the toilet - actually I couldn't leave the toilet. I had this virus. There had been rumours about me going to Wolves. Three days before, I'd bought flowers for some ladies in the office. Gianni assumed they were a leaving present."

So you were on the toilet...

"And Gianni was going: 'You fucking bastard I am going to kill you. I am going to kill you, you fucking bastard... where are you, you fucking... fucking hell where are you.'"

And you said...

"I am on the toilet. My wife is in the house. Ask her. He said: 'She could be at fucking Wolves with you.'"

In the end, Holloway says, he had to drive up to Leeds, to reassure the Italian. It was a journey he remembers.

"It was a terrible virus. It was coming out of both ends. I had to stop at every service station. I shouldn't have gone. It was horrendous. I was totally dehydrated. My lips were stuck to my teeth. I ended up in hospital, the following day. I was in for a week. I had six drips put into me."

It wouldn't be reasonable to invite any manager to criticise his chairman in public, but...

"Well I have seen people saying Holloway 'supports' Gianni Paladini. Holloway supports QPR. But I am a man of principle. If I thought there was any just cause for [the unease some have voiced about the Italian], I wouldn't be here."

Scotland Yard, Holloway points out, "has been looking into everything that's happened at the club. If there was anything untoward Mr Paladini had done, would he still be where he is?"

It can't be pleasant to be under such scrutiny.

"It isn't. As a football manager you are like... a doorstop."

A doorstop?

"You are in between the floor and the door. There's the board of directors, and the fans and the players, trying to push the door."

So who does the door represent - the board?


Is the board the door?

"Well you've got the door and the floor. I am the wedge. And someone is trying to force the door. But really it needs to be the other way round, because the board are above me."

But who is the door? (omega)

"Er... OK... forget the door." Holloway draws a triangle in the air. "I am in a three-way struggle involving the fans, the players and the board. I don't know of anybody else who has been in this situation, ever."

You did once say that you can never have complete harmony at a football club.

"Yes. But there is a difference between complete harmony and complete chaos."

And at QPR is it complete...

"Everybody out there makes it look like it's complete chaos." Gianni Paladini, says Holloway, "is Caesar and at the minute the old thumb is wobbling. The crowd are going wait a minute. I want to be Maximus. But I get a bit of a waft of fish sometimes."

This is a volatile situation that can communicate itself to the players via the fans - that's what you're saying?

"Yes. Normally you need support when things are going wrong. That is what I've found in my own life. I've needed the support of my wife and family. To me, if you're a football supporter, your love should be unconditional."

I'd expected to talk to Ian Holloway for 90 minutes. In the end we are together for four hours, during which time he covers - as well as such topics as the 4-5-1 formation, Sven Goran Eriksson and QPR's increased season ticket prices - the questions of divine fallibility and the theory of evolution.

"We are an offshoot of apes - allegedly - but who knows? We don't really, do we? How long have we been on this planet?" Holloway muses. "How long are we going to be here? What is it all about? We reproduce. Our offspring carry on. But that will only happen for a limited time. Before the whole thing blows up and we are sucked into a black hole. You know what I mean?"

The QPR manager will explore such themes further in his forthcoming autobiography, titled Thanks, Steve.

"I went to Southampton the other week, with Kim. These kids shouted, 'Oh Holloway, you're a legend. Sign this.' Then they said, 'Thanks, Steve.' It was the same in the Chinese chip shop when I was at Bristol Rovers. They started off by calling me 'Horroway'. But before long it was: 'Salt and vinegar, Steve? How much you earn, Steve?' Why," Holloway asks, "is it always Steve?"

At various points during our conversation he speaks of his admiration for Jose Mourinho who - with his inexhaustible transfer budget and terse, supercilious manner - is, in many respects, everything Ian Holloway isn't.

"Even to be in Mourinho's company must be amazing," he says. "When he gets doubts, how long do they stay in his head? What support does he have to help him banish those doubts?"

About £2.1bn and a club with more power than any in the history of the game, I suggest.

"But he still has to get those grossly paid players to perform."

Of the two, I know whose history I find more inspirational, and who I'd rather have as a dinner companion, manager, or friend, and he wasn't born in Setubal. There's no doubt which of the managers is going to have the more captivatingly unpredictable season. It could, I suggest, be a very long year for Ian: there will be little or no money for fancy signings, and the ongoing police inquiry, like the Paladini libel suit, is guaranteed to keep the club in the headlines for the least enviable reasons.

"The things that matter to me," he says, "are commitment and trust. So the last few months haven't been easy. I don't know what to trust, or what to think, or what to do. It might turn out that certain alleged facts are true. I don't know yet. But I do know that I won't work without trust. I have to believe."

What can he teach his players from his own experience?

"That winners are made, not born. And that winners are made by not fearing. I can sense fear in the eyes of players. I could see it in Kim's eyes when she had cancer. I have dealt with fear," Holloway adds, "all my life. My own fear has been a selfish dread that I might not be good enough."

But life, he continues, "is like the The Emperor's New Clothes. Don't you think that story says it all? I think part of all of us has doubts. Because of the animal that we are. You can't take away from the fact that we are an animal. Aren't we? This is a sofa," Holloway continues. "I am an animal. But we have evolved into sitting by the fire, and thinking, and to be fair when you see a fire... it does make you... you know if chimps had done that, maybe they would be the ones..."

Hang on - if chimps had done what?

"They'd found fire before... it was us that found fire, wasn't it?"

I think Holloway can see that his Emperor's New Clothes monologue has left me slightly perplexed.

"My main ambition," he goes on, "is to leave this planet knowing that I gave my best and that I was there for my children. And I am trying to make them independent and able to live happily, for many years after I have gone. By the way," he adds, as I'm getting up to leave. "You're stark, bollock naked, mate."