|As captain and goal scorer Holt (L) found himself in the Premier League after promotion with Norwich [GALLO/GETTY]|
Sergio Aguero, Luis Suarez and Edin Dzeko are amongst the strikers who can lay claim to making a big impact in 2011 after their arrival in the Premier League. An unlikely addition to the list is Grant Holt, the Norwich captain whose long journey to the English top-flight includes a spell in Southeast Asia.
Like Aguero, Suarez and Dzeko, Holt plays up front but that’s where the similarities end. Holt is an unfashionable English forward who, until recently, was barely known outside East Anglia or the gritty towns of Cumbria and Yorkshire where he began his playing career.
Lacking in glamour he may be, but the barrel-chested 30-year-old has been clinically effective in Norwich’s impressive return to the premiership. His seven goals this season make him the equal third top English-born scorer and have some Canaries fans calling for his inclusion as an over-age player in Team GB for the London 2012 Olympics.
Last weekend, he made Dutch World Cup defender Johnny Heitinga look second-rate as he concocted a remarkable individual goal in close quarters as Norwich drew 1-1 with Everton at Goodison Park.
The previous week Holt scored with two headers to give the Canaries a largely unexpected 4-2 victory over Newcastle who’d gone the first three months of the season unbeaten.
Slinging on from Singapore
Holt has made it to the top the hard way. He began in non-league football and less than three years ago he was playing in England’s fourth tier with Shrewsbury Town.
His Southeast Asian stint came in the summer of 2002 when he signed a four-month contract with Sengkang Marine in Singapore. Holt was recruited by countryman Trevor Morgan, a family friend who’d taken over the S-League strugglers. Morgan now coaches East Bengal in India’s I-League.
“You could see that he was a good target man who was strong in the air and held up the ball well”
S-League commentator, R. Sasikumar
At the time, Holt was a raw 21-year-old who’d taken a break from football after the death of his father and wasn’t even an out-and-out striker – he would also play in central defence.
Sengkang Marine had been re-named in the hope of attracting fans in a growing part of Singapore and changing their fortunes as perennial wooden-spooners.
With Holt on-board, Sengkang Marine weren’t quite able to go from bottom-feeders to champions, but they did earn respect by finishing in a solid eighth position in the 2002 season. Holt scored 12 goals in 14 games and was a constant menace up-front.
“You could see that he was a good target man who was strong in the air and held up the ball well,” said S-League commentator, R. Sasikumar, a former Singapore international defender.
“But Sengkang were struggling at the time with no real notable stars so he had a tough time showing his quality.”
The S-League has been known to accommodate foreign players in the twilights of their careers or those who never really made it at professional level in their birth nations. But Holt used the experience to re-launch himself in England.
After 35 goals in 69 games for Conference side Barrow between 2002 and 2003, Holt was signed by Sheffield Wednesday and his league fortunes slowly started to look up. He became a regular scorer in the lower divisions and was named Nottingham Forest player of the year in 2006-2007.
In the summer of 2008, he made a club record $275,000 move to Shrewsbury Town and contributed 28 goals as the Shrews advanced to the League Two Play-off final.
Holt plied his trade with Notts Forest before joining Shrewsbury and then Norwich City [GALLO/GETTY]
His qualities were spotted by Norwich City, who recruited Holt in July 2009 when they were still in the third tier. Thirty goals in 44 appearances earned yet another player-of-the-year title, helping the club finish champions of League One to earn promotion to the n-Power Championship.
The climb to the Premier League was complete the following season as Paul Lambert’s side advanced after finishing second behind Queens Park Rangers. Holt was again voted the best in the Canaries’ squad with 21 league goals and was nominated for 2011 Championship player-of-the-year.
Now into this 30s, Holt hasn’t missed a beat on his belated arrival in the rarefied air of the Premier League. A handful at 1.83m and 80kg, he throws himself about in the box and also does a mountain of defensive work when required.
“We’re all surprised that Grant has reached that level from his S-League days, but he certainly looks like he belongs in the Premier League,” said Sasikumar, a FIFA match agent who runs his own sports marketing agency.
“Singapore has a special interest in Norwich and hopes they stay up because Zak Whitbread who played here as a kid when his father Barry was national coach is also part of the team.”
In April, Holt signed a new three year contract to keep him at Carrow Road until mid-2014 but bigger clubs are sure to be watching his progress with interest.
In less than a decade, he’s gone from playing in front of sparse crowds in suburban Singapore for a couple of thousand US dollars a month to duelling with the likes of Rooney, Bale and Gerrard.
It’s a feel-good story to inspire any journeyman player in Asia who may be watching the Premier League on television and dreaming of being part of it.
* Jason Dasey is an Asia-based international sports broadcaster and host of Football Fever, the world’s first international soccer podcast with an Asia-Pacific perspective. Twitter: JasonDasey
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