Ahead of Blackpool reunion, boss talks of his hopes for his new club and star man

Evening Standard

Ian Holloway is never afraid to voice his opinions, or to take on the greatest in the game. There is a riveting clip of him suggesting he would be ready to chop off Michel Platini’s head after the leader of European football proposed that the 2022 Qatar World Cup be played in winter.

But this weekend, as Crystal Palace face Blackpool for the first time since he switched Bloomfield Road for Selhurst Park last month, Holloway is for a moment unsure. When I suggest that Blackpool fans will still honour him for the memorable Premier League ride he provided them two seasons ago, he seems at a loss.

“Do you think so? Who knows how those people feel?”

He fears some Blackpool supporters “will never forgive me for not still being there” and there is no denying the match in south London will have an extra edge. “Their fans will want to beat me,” he says. “I hope my players want to beat my ex-players. For me, to go back or for them to come to where I am now is a difficult thing to explain.”

But then, having acknowledged the problems, Holloway suddenly produces a stream of consciousness about his three and a half years there.

“Nothing could ever be greater than Blackpool,” the 49-year-old says. “It was fantastic. We were great for each other. I’m very happy where I left the club. I couldn’t have done any more.

“It will always be somewhere I think of fondly — the people, the supporters — I don’t think that will ever leave me.

“The way they invented some songs when we got promoted, ‘We’ll only get 10 points,’ because certain people said we would be the worst team in Premier League history. I took great offence and we used it as a strength. We actually got 10 wins, instead of 10 points.

“I’m sure in 20 years, if I’m still around, I’ll be very proud of the job I did. The lads, the fans, the staff and the chairman all responded to me. We got a great thing going but it was time to take up a new challenge. That’s football.”

But, before I can say this is just the language used by those who do not want to disclose the real reason for changing jobs, Holloway says: “There wasn’t a failing in Blackpool at all for me. People will speculate on what so and so didn’t do and what the chairman didn’t say and say, ‘They’ve fallen out.’ It’s all nonsense.

“It was purely me. This right now was a better challenge for all sorts of reasons and that shouldn’t upset anybody.”

And, just to make sure, the former Bristol Rovers player underlines his central reason for moving to London was that it brought him nearer to his home in Bath. “My wife was in on that decision. Sometimes life decisions are much more important than football ones.”

With that Holloway quickly changes the subject and soon is in his hallmark philosophising mood. “This is another challenge, another chapter. Was your article last week better than this week’s? Or was it worse? The King is dead, long live the King.”

And he can soar as he spells out his regal ambitions and how high he wants the Eagles to fly. “I genuinely believe I can make Palace a really big club. They are already but I can make them even bigger, make them something that people will aspire to play for and established in the ­Premier League.

“I won’t dare give you a time limit but my target is for us to be one of the best teams in London, if not the best. When I played for Queens Park Rangers we were the best London team [in 1992-93] and finished fifth that year, not Arsenal, not Tottenham.”

That, he accepts, was long before the rise of the Champions League changed the Premier League. However, the reference to Arsenal is pointed and there is no mistaking the edge in his voice as he speaks of the Gunners.

This is understandable given that, last week, Arsene Wenger acknowledged an interest in Wilfried Zaha, who is a target for several top-flight clubs. A furious Holloway publically rebuked Wenger and there were reports he would even phone the Frenchman.

Now, when asked, Holloway says tartly: “I haven’t spoken to Arsene Wenger at all. I’m busy trying to get my team ready. Why should I pick the phone up to him? Can I stop him making comments? No. I’m sure there’ll be lots of people who like Wilfried but he belongs to us, so why are you wasting your breath?”

Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he adds: “I think Walcott’s absolutely brilliant, isn’t he fantastic? ‘Ian Holloway thinks Theo Walcott’s absolutely fantastic.’ Let’s see if that causes a stir.”

With a laugh he answers his own question. “Probably not. If Mr Wenger said this, it would be all over the world. With me saying it, it only gets a little bit of coverage. I’m not as important as some people, am I?”

But, just as Wenger must manage Walcott’s expectations, or his pay demands, so Holloway has to manage Zaha’s changed world since the 20-year-old made his England debut against Sweden last month. And the lengthy soliloquy he now gives illustrates the problem a manager of a Championship side has when one of his players becomes the focus of top-flight attention.

“I’ve got the hardest job because I’ve got to make that boy play like he can, without a messed up head. All I’m trying to do is make sure that happens because that’s completely the best thing for him. He has a four-year contract. Palace and Wilfried have got no problems with each other.

“Let Wilfried just go and play. When we let him play it’s an absolute joy. At the minute, him and Palace are getting on tickety-boo and I want it to continue.

“I’ve told him how good I think he could be and where I want to get him. But he has to live the right way, otherwise I won’t recommend him to these people.”

Recommend? This seems to suggest that, despite Holloway’s lofty dreams for Palace, he recognises Zaha might one day leave for a bigger club.“I will only recommend people as being good enough to get to the top if they have the right attitude and temperament and everything about them is focused on their football. This is the biggest test this boy will ever have. Let his feet do the talking.

“The only thing that matters is what you do on the grass. It’s not what boots you’re wearing, what deal you can get or what someone said about you. They might come and watch next week, you have the worst game ever and they might not like you. He will have to learn an awful lot, to keep improving if he ever dreams of pulling them shirts on that might be mentioned. You have to earn the right to play for them because they can buy anybody in the blimming world! So let’s not run before we can walk.

“It’s really important to him and his family and to everybody in this club that we don’t make a song and dance about him, that we just keep him focused on playing well for Palace. It’s not easy to deal with the fact that the boot companies want your signature and which one you should sign for. I hope he keeps talking to me because I can help him with all that. He trusts me. We haven’t got a problem.”

Zaha is integral to the way Holloway wants Palace playing, replicating the creative passing style Blackpool used. It all goes back to something he learned from a group of waiters.

“I was in the Premier League, a QPR player. We were on holiday and we played on some gravel, against some Spanish waiters. My wife said, ‘Don’t play,’ but I did. We couldn’t get the ball off them! Since then, Barcelona, Real Madrid, the Spain team, they’ve completely changed football. The game’s evolved into a wonderful free-flowing one. If you’ve got the skills to retain the ball then you’ll be a good player in a good team and it’s attractive to watch.

“To me, it has to be not just winning; it has to be how you win and how you play because otherwise it’s not entertaining. If you aim at the stars you might hit the moon. As a very famous poet used to say, ‘We’re all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars’.”

But, as Holloway aims at the stars with Palace, he hopes Zaha is not tempted to immediately join the established stars in the football firmament.


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