Ian Holloway: 'Humans fascinate me. We're attention-seekers'

Brian Viner Interviews: Plymouth's manager remains ambitious to guide a team into the top flight, but has known enough family heartache to recognise that football is not quite a matter of life and death
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The Independent Online

The Plymouth Argyle manager, Ian Holloway, likes to talk about Sir Alex Ferguson. Holloway's Manchester United counterpart crops up several times, in different contexts, during our conversation.

On the subject of his professional ambition, for example, Holloway says, in his broad Bristolian accent: "I'm 44 now, and I'm targeting 50 as the age to retire. My dad died at 59, never got to retirement age, and thought he was a failure because we lived in a council house. What do I want from life? I want to make sure I've educated the kids the best I can. I want to spend time with my wife, a wonderful person having an awful time at the moment; her mum's dying in front of her eyes. I don't want it to say on my headstone, 'I wish I'd spent more time at home'. I admire and respect Fergie, and I've read his book. He says his sons got to the age of 16 and he hadn't really been there for them, but then he thinks, 'Ah well, I'm the manager of Manchester United'. Well, I think, 'You've missed out, my old friend'."

Whether Fergie will in turn read Holloway's autobiography, Ollie, is doubtful, but if not he will miss out there too, for it is a compelling chronicle of life's challenges: his wife Kim has battled cancer, diagnosed while they were still courting ("what's it like dating a baldy bird?" was the sensitive enquiry from one of his Wimbledon team-mates during Kim's chemotherapy), and of their four children, a boy and three girls, all three daughters were born profoundly deaf.

These challenges have improved him as a football man, he believes, and indeed Argyle have had a solid start to the Championship season, which on the day I meet him has doubtless contributed to the queue snaking out of the door at Waterstone's bookshop in Plymouth city centre. Holloway is due to sign copies of Ollie from 12.30 to 2pm, and then sit down with me, but by 3pm the punters are still queuing into the street, thanks not least to his insistence on writing a short essay in every book, and his willingness to chat and pose for photographs.

He is proud of being a "people person", and considers these skills paramount, in football as in life. "Man-management issues are far more important than team selection will ever be," he says. "You can do your coaching badges, get all the qualifications, but you need certain human values to be a good manager. Human beings fascinate me. We're all attention-seekers in one way or another. I've got two people [his twin daughters Chloe and Eve] from the same egg but totally different. The good one who used to be good sees the bad one being good so she starts to be bad. I see that with my players, too. I'd love to do a psychology course."

Holloway's insight into the human condition gained a depth he could have done without in the summer of 2006, three weeks after he joined Argyle. On a pre-season tour to Austria, on the coach back to the hotel with most of the team cock-a-hoop following a narrow 1-0 defeat by Real Madrid, he encouraged a singing competition between the players. Most of them joined in enthusiastically, but one of the younger players seemed detached.

"I could see he was a bit wary of me, this young fella. My wife had cancer, you see, and every time she coughed or sneezed there'd be this worry behind her eyes. I know when people have something going on behind their eyes, and I could sense it with this lad."

At the hotel, one of his senior players poked fun at the same lad, suggesting that he should sing a solo, and doing an impression of what it might sound like. The other players started laughing. That's when the lad stood up, grabbed hold of a water jug, and smashed it over the head of the man he considered his prime tormentor.

The incident received negligible media attention, even though the victim could easily have been killed. "He had to have his ear sewn back on, and it just missed the vein. An inch either side and he would be gone. Of course, what it's done to him mentally, who knows? He's a bull of a man, but because he flinched, he feels like a coward." The scene remains all too vivid in Holloway's mind. "I heard this terrible scrape, which was the lad pushing his chair back violently. Then he stood up, wrapped his hand round the jug, walked over and smash! Afterwards he sat there shaking, tears rolling down his face. The other players were in a state of shock. The younger ones were crying. Terrified, they were."

He has included an account of the episode in his book, without naming the players involved. He asks me not to do so, either, and later I get a fretful phone call from his publishers, saying that Holloway is worried I will hang the entire interview on that one incident. I assure him that I won't. Nonetheless, it's a heck of a story. "I couldn't not write about it," says Holloway, in the Waterstone's stock room. "Seeing what one human being can do to another..." He tails off, fleetingly lost for words, which for him is a rare turn of events. I ask what happened to the assailant. "I told him I wouldn't sack him, that he had a problem and I wanted to get him fixed first. But he wouldn't admit he had a problem. Eventually he went to another club on a free transfer. It was easily the most awkward thing I've ever had to deal with as a manager."

Does he, changing the subject, consider himself a better manager than he was a player? "I hope so. I hope I get a chance to manage at the highest level, because I got there as a player [with Queen's Park Rangers, in a career that took him from Bristol Rovers back to Bristol Rovers, via Wimbledon, Brentford, Bristol Rovers again and QPR] even though I had limitations. I was a fetcher-and-carrier, but it was not until I met Gerry Francis that I learnt how to use what I was best at, my athleticism and work rate, and at Rovers I used to watch Match of The Day every Saturday night with a lot of anger, because I felt I could do all that [First Division] stuff. Then Gerry left Rovers for QPR and came in for me, which was like a dream come true. He said, 'I don't know if you're good enough to play but you're an infectious little git, I want you to rub off on them in training'."

Holloway did play for QPR, never more memorably than at Old Trafford on New Year's Day 1992. It was the first time he'd played against Manchester United, and it was live on television. "I couldn't get off the toilet beforehand," he recalls. "Gerry was giving his team talk and I was going, 'It's OK, Gerry, I can hear you!'" Astoundingly, QPR won 4-1. "That," Holloway says, "was as good as it gets".

Francis, he believes, represents a loss to the English game. "He had children very late, he'd earned enough, but he would've, could've, achieved so much as a manager. He had those human values. As Rovers manager he'd rung me up [in 1987] when I was at Brentford and said, 'Why don't you come back?' I said, 'With the greatest respect, I think that would be a backward move'. He said, 'Well, I saw you today and you were crap. I can make you play better. And not only that, but your father's not very well. If you come back to Bristol you might have some extra time with him.' You could always tell Gerry cared."

But he was uncompromising, too. Later, at QPR, Francis gave him the job of man-marking Peter Beardsley in a match against Liverpool. "Gerry said, 'He scored two for England last week, but if he scores today I'll nail you'. That was me back in the toilet again, shaking. But I went out and got man of the match. We all have to conquer our fears. And by then my family life had made me a better player. I'd been so intense. I'd go to bed at 8.30pm on a Friday and play the next day's game in my mind over and over again. Then we had a son, then the twins, and one or other of them was awake every hour through the night. I played my best football after that because I didn't have time to worry about the game.

"It was the deafness that changed everything, having to learn another language to teach our children. That incident in Austria, I wouldn't have been able to handle it before. I would have been too judgemental. The deafness made me a more rounded person, and taught me to be a better communicator."

His communication skills are celebrated in a small book called The Tao of Ian Holloway. "Every dog has its day and today is woof day," he said after guiding QPR to promotion in 2004, following a win at Sheffield Wednesday. It is easy to see why as a manager he has won the hearts of so many fans, first at Rovers, then at QPR, and now at Plymouth, where in celebration of the club's first away win of his tenure – 3-2 at Sunderland last August – he offered to buy a drink for each of the 700 loyalists who made the trip.

Leafing through The Tao of Ian Holloway – "we're on the crest of a slump" is another classic – it occurs to me that the Premier League, with Jose Mourinho departed, could do with Holloway's homilies. He would love that, he says. "Obviously, I've got to be realistic. I don't expect to be poached by Liverpool. But I would love to take a team into the Premiership, and it guts me that I didn't do it at Bristol Rovers, where I was too green, or at QPR, where the opportunity was taken away from me [after he fell out with the board]. That's what I'm aiming for here."

Does it satisfy him to look down on QPR, struggling at the foot of the Championship? "No, because unless it's after 46 games, it doesn't matter. And we have some rebuilding to do here, which isn't easy, because the game's gone crazy. I've never known such a change from one season to the next in terms of prices, although I've never really had money, I've never been able to buy someone else's best player without going three divisions down and polishing a lad up. I've never been able to get a shiny jewel out of someone's shop, but I've had a few taken from me, and I'm getting fed up with that."

At the same time, and hard as his competitive heart thumps, he insists that he wants to work to live, not live to work. And his daughters are there as a reproach when he gets the balance wrong. "They sign away and I don't have a clue what they're saying. I used to be on a level with them, but I'm off doing other things all the time, and now they sign so fast that I haven't got a clue. My youngest is at home now, and when I get home tonight she probably won't even bother to speak to me, because her mum's away. Sometimes they sign through mum to stupid, thick dad."

Holloway smiles, safe in the knowledge that he is anything but.

'Ollie: The Autobiography of Ian Holloway' (Green Umbrella Publishing, £16.99)

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