Ever-willing Holland earns Irish reward

Ipswich midfielder handed key role in today's World Cup play-off against Iran.
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The Independent Football

Becoming an international over the last two years has provided Ipswich Town's Matt Holland with all manner of new experiences, not least the unusual one of sitting watching a game. His delight was therefore all the greater when the Republic of Ireland manager, Mick McCarthy, preferred him to Charlton's Mark Kinsella for today's World Cup play-off first leg with Iran.

The amiable Holland's club record is without parallel for a modern outfield player, running to 223 consecutive matches before being given a rest in the Worthington Cup-tie at Crewe last month. Missing out on a Tuesday night at Gresty Road might count as a bonus for many international footballers; West Ham's Florin Raducioiu did, after all, go shopping in the West End even after being picked to play at Stockport in the same competition. Typically, Holland was "disappointed'' he recalled yesterday.

"I don't like missing games. If there's a chance of me being on the pitch, I'll be out there.'' Just as typically, he travelled to the game, sat in the stand and lived every kick, to the discomfort of the spectator sitting immediately in front.

With the Republic, the Ipswich captain has learned to be more patient. Needs must, when the main rival for your place is the one-man team that is Roy Keane. Then there is Kinsella, who established himself as Keane's partner at just the right time, as the Irish began their Euro 2000 campaign with some impressive results.

If there is one quality Holland can teach the Manchester United maestro, however, it is staying out of trouble. Keane, and to a lesser extent Kinsella, have inevitably picked up suspensions and injuries and the calmest member of the trio has taken his chances to win 13 Irish caps.

There will be a 14th for Holland this evening, though it was a close call. Kinsella has previously been preferred when available, starting eight out of nine internationals last season to Holland's four, but missing all three games since June and only recently returning to full fitness. They are different players too: the Charlton captain lying deep for his club and dictating the play, sending long passes to the flanks, while his Ipswich equivalent seems to be in constant motion as he chases back, then strides forward to join the attack.

"I've played the last couple of games but I wasn't taking anything for granted,'' Holland said. "It's the highlight of my career, playing alongside the likes of Roy, which can only improve you. He's been immense, particularly in the last four or five games and it's a massive boost that he's fit. He's got every attribute you'd want for a midfield player, he leads by example, expects from the rest of the team the same as he gives, and I've been on the end of a tongue-lashing once or twice. But it's a squad game and we're all in it together. Everyone's involved and everyone plays a part.''

Holland was born in Bury, Lancashire, not Bury St Edmonds as is often supposed, given his accent and his club. But when he plays for Ireland there is no-one as proud. Indeed, Irish success, like Ipswich's, has been built on that sort of collective spirit. It was impossible to imagine half the Suffolk team deciding not to travel to Tel Aviv had they been drawn there in the Uefa Cup, any more than Keane would have tolerated any faintheartedness in the Dublin camp.

According to Holland: "There's a very close team spirit. Mick had a meeting with us on Tuesday, to alleviate any fears the players might have. He basically said there was nothing to worry about, so let's go there and do a job. And if one goes, we all go. There's a massive carrot at the end of this tie and I'll go anywhere to play it.''

First legs first. Today's game is at home, which is perceived as a disadvantage, though Ipswich have shown this season that it need not be: despite managing no more than a draw in the first game, they have twice won their away leg, in Russia and Sweden, to go through.

"We've been very pleased with the campaign, but nothing's been achieved yet,'' Holland added. "The chance to get to a World Cup doesn't come along very often.'' Even for a footballer on parade as regularly as Matt Holland.