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'I thought: Am I going to kick on in my career or am I going to be a bit-part player?'

Gavan Holohan chats to The42 about life with Galway after the difficult decision to leave Cork.

Gavan Holohan (file pic).
Gavan Holohan (file pic).
Image: Galway FC

PLENTY OF FOOTBALLERS would have been content with the position Gavan Holohan found himself in at the end of last season.

The midfielder had played in Europe in the frenzied atmosphere of Turner’s Cross. He had been part of a Cork squad that, for a long period, genuinely threatened to upset a Dundalk side that many believe is the best League of Ireland team in history.

Moreover, Holohan was with an outfit that was clearly progressing well and that received a heroes’ welcome home after finally gaining a degree of revenge against the Lilywhites — the side they had finished runners-up to in the league the past three years on the bounce — by defeating them in the FAI Cup final, in the process claiming the trophy for the just the third time in their history.

Yet while Holohan reveled in the celebrations with the rest of the city, in the back of his mind, there was a sense of restlessness when he reflected on his football career up to that point. It was the second year running Cork had faced Dundalk in the FAI Cup final and the second year running Holohan had been an unused sub for the game. He was due to turn 25 the following month and the player’s career was at a crossroads — he could no longer be considered a promising youngster. It was time for the Kilkenny native to start fulfilling his potential and that meant guaranteed first-team football.

While some players in his situation would be probably be happy enough being a small part of the team who were on the verge of becoming the best side in the country, Holohan was determined to be a key player, and that led to the difficult decision to leave Cork. There was no acrimony amid Holohan’s subsequent departure though, with the midfielder instead announcing he was going elsewhere via a classy parting statement, which memorably concluded: “I’ll be back at the Cross next season so go easy on me.”

It was difficult in the sense that I loved it down in Cork,” Holohan tells The42. “In my opinion, it’s the top club in the country. The fanbase down there is something else. I loved playing with all the quality players.

“But I thought: ‘Am I going to kick on in my career or am I going to be a bit-part player in a team?’ I just needed to make a decision to go and be a main figure instead of an on-the-fringe squad player.

I’m the type of player, I want to be out there every week, contributing to the team winning games, helping the team push up the table.

“It was a tough decision, but I had to think of the bigger picture.”

Gavan Holohan Gavan Holohan spent two years at Cork City. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

After signing from Drogheda in November 2014, Holohan had done enough in his two years at Cork to ensure there were some interested parties when it became known that he was looking for a new club.

In the end, he chose Galway, after a chat with their recently appointed manager Shane Keegan.

I spoke to Shane in the off-season and liked how positive he was about his plans for Galway and for me personally. He gave me a lot of confidence and told me that he was really keen on getting me. He obviously drilled home that I’d be a big part of the team, one of the main figures, which is what I wanted to hear.

“We had signed some good players. The squad was shaping together well. And Galway is obviously a lovely City to live in.

I needed to go somewhere where it was going to suit me, where I was going to be able to play week in week out and show my quality.”

And while they may not possess quite the depth of talent that Cork have, the intensity and professionalism at the club remains high.

In Galway, we’re full-time, we’re training every day. We’d mostly do double sessions two or three times a week,” he adds.

But despite his sense of optimism after completing the move, the season did not start off well for Holohan and his teammates.

After nine games, they were winless and sat bottom of the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division on five points. Few people gave them much of a chance when reigning champions Dundalk came to Eamonn Deacy Park last Friday.

But against the odds, Galway earned their first victory of the season against Stephen Kenny’s men, as Gary Shanahan’s deflected 93rd-minute winner sent the home crowd into ecstasy.

It was a win as unexpected as it was morale-boosting, and one that might just kick-start the Tribesmen’s season.

It’s a massive result because of who we were playing, the champions,” Holohan says. “We would have taken a win against anybody at that stage. We’ve had a tough start to the season.

“We haven’t picked up points in games where we probably deserved to get all three. We’ve either drawn or just lost the game. But everybody’s attitude has been spot on. We’ve stuck at it and kept doing the right things.

Thankfully, we got the break on Friday night against Dundalk. Having said that, they did have the majority of the play of course, and we had to ride our luck a bit.”

Galway, however, were surely due some good fortune, given that this underrated factor had deserted them for much of the campaign prior to Friday night.

In plenty of the games, it was fine margins really,” Holohan explains. “The first match of the season against Drogheda at home, we dominated for the majority of the game. We had lots of chances, then they just caught us with a sucker punch.

“Even a few games after, Finn Harps, Shamrock Rovers, we were well in it and probably should have won if anything. Unfortunately, we just weren’t getting the rub of the green, which happens.

We were staying positive and thinking eventually, the luck’s going to change for us. We just needed to keep doing the right things, keep working hard. It’s very easy to start downing tools, but nobody did, we were in it together.

“(Shane Keegan) kept showing belief in us and kept drilling home that: ‘You’re good players, the luck is going to change for you. You need to just keep on going.’ He motivated us to keep doing the right things.”

Source: Galway United TV/YouTube

Holohan and his teammates are now determined to prove that last week’s outing was not just a freak result. Although with the club still bottom of the table, the midfielder is under no illusions about the perilous nature of the Tribesmen’s current position. Three sides go down this year, and Galway seem especially vulnerable to the drop, as they currently sit three points from safety, although they have a game in hand on their rivals, which they will fulfill on Monday against Derry.

This evening, they take on another one of Holohan’s former clubs, Drogheda, who sit just five points above them in seventh. With Pete Mahon’s side also tipped as one of the favourites for relegation pre-season, having only just come up from the First Division last year, it is the type of game that both sides will feel they need to win to enhance their survival prospects. Holohan is therefore confident his team can prevail if they match last week’s level of performance.

On our day, if we’re bang at it, which we obviously were last Friday night, we can put it up to anybody. That’s just the key from now on — to make sure that we’re all 100%.

“Of course, you have to beat the teams that are in and around you. We felt they kind of got away with one the start of the season. We’ll be looking to go up there and hopefully the result will be on the other side this time. We’re going up looking for a win.”

Battling relegation may be in stark contrast to what Holohan has been used to in recent years, playing for a team that has fought for the title, though his career has been full of challenges and tests of his character in general.

Holohan grew up in Kilkenny where, unsurprisingly, he “played a good bit of hurling as well”. And whereas the majority there tend to favour GAA over soccer, as a youngster, he ultimately chose the road less travelled — a decision that worked out well. When he was 16, Hull — a Premier League club even then — came calling. Having suddenly been forced to move away from home, the young aspiring footballer had to grow up fast.

You learn a lot because you’re playing with top players and training with top players. You’re looked after so well and the facilities are second to none. The only frustrating thing is getting first-team football is quite difficult, because the competition is so high.

“I’ve benefitted from that full-time training from the age of 16. I felt that it did improve me massively as a player and it improved me as a person as well. It helped me mature and find my own feet.”

Soccer - npower Football League Championship - Brighton & Hove Albion v Hull City - Amex Stadium Holohan's stint at Cork coincided with Robbie Brady's time there. Source: EMPICS Sport

There was a big Irish contingent at Hull during Holohan’s time there, including Paul McShane, Robbie Brady, Darragh Satelle and “a few boys from Belfast”.

We all stuck together around the place,” he adds. “It helped everyone settle, it was good to have that Irish contingent.”

Brady, he could tell, was a special player, with the Dubliner only arriving at the club from Man United towards the end of Holohan’s four years in England.

He had all the ability in the world. He was thrown into the limelight at such a young age. It was just whether he could handle it and still improve his game and keep kicking on. He was always such a hard worker. You could see he was determined to get to the top.

“And you can see now, he’s playing in the Premier League week in week out. He’s one of the main men if not the main man for the international team. He’s worked hard to get where he is, so I’m delighted for him.”

Nigel Pearson, who would go on to build a substantial bulk of the Leicester side that would win the Premier League, was one manager in particular who was good to Holohan, with the hard-nosed English boss managing Hull between 2010 and 2011, just after they had been relegated to the Championship.

When Nigel was in charge, I was in and around the first team for quite a bit,” he recalls. “I was on the bench for a third of the season. I had a decent enough relationship with him.

“He ended up going back to Leicester, which hampered my chances of pushing on and getting more first-team exposure. You could have a good relationship with him, but if you weren’t working hard or doing the right things, he wasn’t someone you wanted to cross on a regular basis.”

Ultimately, like so many Irish players before and since, Holohan returned home from England having not quite managed to make that all-important first-team breakthrough. The youngster didn’t let his head drop, however. After unsuccessful trials at a couple of clubs including Cork, his persistence finally paid off, as he joined Drogheda in August 2013.

I’ve a lot to thank the club for,” he says. “At the time I was in no man’s land. I was looking to get a break and get my foot in the door somewhere. You can have all the talent in the world, but you need somebody to give you that opportunity to go and show it. Thankfully, Drogheda did.

“I think it was 18 months there. It made me improve and grow up as a player. Playing first-team football, playing in a tough league — it’s held me in good stead for the last couple of seasons.”

And while the move to England didn’t work out in the end, Holohan reflects on the experience positively. That said, he feels that, increasingly, moving across the water is not necessarily the be all and end all for a young Irish footballer.

I saw it as the chance of a lifetime. The League of Ireland structure wasn’t as good then as it is now for a young player coming through. You have the U17 and U19 leagues to filter players into the first team, which is really good. You see it with players coming through the ranks all over the country, coming into first-team football, which is brilliant. If you can manage to break into the first team, you could be playing with men from a young age.

“Whereas if you go over when you’re 16, you’re coming from amateur football. The competition is nowhere near as high and you’re probably not ready for it. That’s why the success rate for Irish players going across and making it in England is so low.

The option of staying in the League of Ireland and getting that first-team experience is so priceless. I think it does put them in good stead when they go over to that first-team environment.

“They’re not overawed by it and used to being around good, experienced professionals. So I think it’s a positive thing that players do stay here. If you’re good enough in this league, then you’ll get opportunities across the water.”

Predictions

Every week, we’re giving readers the chance to take us on in predicting the Premier Division results. After Week 11, here are the standings:

The Readers: 35
The42: 34

Next up is Graham Russell from Drimnagh

Bray Wanderers v St Patrick’s Athletic – Bray win
Cork v Finn Harps- Cork win
Derry v Bohs- Draw
Drogheda v Galway- Draw
Shamrock Rovers v Dundalk- Dundalk win
Sligo v Limerick- Draw
Galway v Derry- Draw

The42 (Paul Fennessy)

Bray Wanderers v St Patrick’s Athletic – Bray win
Cork v Finn Harps- Cork win
Derry v Bohs- Derry win
Drogheda v Galway- Draw
Shamrock Rovers v Dundalk- Dundalk win
Sligo v Limerick- Limerick win
Galway v Derry- Derry win

If you’d like to try your hand at forecasting League of Ireland results, get in touch by e-mailing pauldollery@the42.ie

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Paul Fennessy

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