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One of our own: Holohan relishing role as a hero in his home away from home

Kilkenny’s Gavan Holohan has made a big contribution to Hartlepool United’s return to the Football League.

hoolahan dolls read Source: Source: Nigel French/PA Wire/PA Images

FOR THOSE CONNECTED to Hartlepool United, the celebrations that followed their recent promotion went on for several days.

At the centre of them was a man from Kilkenny who knew very little about the club prior to joining them in 2019.

The supporters who carried him on their shoulders knew even less about him when he first arrived, but videos shared on social media after the dramatic victory against Torquay United revealed the extent to which Gavan Holohan has been embraced.

Four weeks have passed since he was repeatedly serenaded in the wake of the result that sent them back to the Football League, yet Hartlepool’s ode to Holohan is still ringing in his ears.

We’ve got an Irish midfielder
His name is Gavan Holohan
And when he’s in the blue
We’ll sing this song for you
Holohan’s a Poolie through and through 

“The fans have created one of the catchiest chants I think I’ve ever heard for a player at Hartlepool United and Gavan absolutely loves it,” says journalist Matty Jones, who covers the club for The Northern Echo.

“By his own admission, his time in Ireland was spent moving from club to club. He never spent longer than two seasons at one side. With Hartlepool, he seems to have found a home and it really shows.

“The fans will offer up unwavering support to any player that runs themselves into the ground, irrespective of the result, and you can always expect that from him.”

A working-class port town in the north-east of England, disillusionment in Hartlepool triggered by economic decline was recently manifested at the polls.

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In a by-election held in May, the Conservatives capitalised on the natives’ growing sense of alienation from the Labour Party by claiming victory in a rival stronghold.

The result was interpreted by the Tories as a show of approval, yet closer to the truth was its portrayal as a denouncement of a Labour representation that voters felt they could no longer depend on to fight for the town.

In Hartlepool, parallels can be drawn between the expectations on MPs and the ones placed on the players who represent the football club. Once honesty of effort is guaranteed, the locals trust that the rest will look after itself.

hartlepool-united-v-torquay-united-vanarama-national-league-play-off-final-ashton-gate Hartlepool United fans at last month's play-off final at Ashton Gate in Bristol. Source: PA

Thus explains their appreciation for the efforts of Holohan. In his case, an insatiable workrate, blended with a penchant for decisive goals, formed a vital element of Hartlepool United’s bid to avoid spending another season cut adrift from the Football League.

“It was huge,” team-mate Mark Shelton says of Holohan’s role in Hartlepool’s promotion. “His goals alone were so important; we picked up a lot of points because of goals he scored. Goalscoring midfielders like him are priceless.”

The eight goals scored by Holohan in his 40 appearances during the 2020-21 National League season helped Hartlepool to finish fourth and earn a play-off place. 

“Gavan is basically one of our own,” says Michael Weir, a board member for the Hartlepool United Supporters Trust. “What Poolies love is someone who works hard and never hides. Even when Gav is not having his best of games, you know he’ll still want the ball and try to make things happen.”

* * *

GAVAN HOLOHAN HAD spent five years in the League of Ireland, representing four different clubs, by the time his contract at Waterford expired at the end of the 2018 campaign. 

Between spells with Drogheda United and Galway United, a two-year stint at Cork City yielded an FAI Cup medal and a couple of appearances in the Europa League.

Holohan was first exposed to life as a professional footballer at Hull City, who were a Premier League club when they signed him as a 16-year-old.

gavan-holohan-and-martin-ericsson Holohan in possession for Cork City during the 2016 Europa League win against Sweden's BK Hacken. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The surroundings may not be as salubrious as they were when he pursued the elusive breakthrough in Hull, but Holohan’s second crack at English football has delivered an achievement he regards as the biggest of his career. 

“Originally when I moved home,” the 29-year-old recalls, “the idea was to put myself in the shop window and get that big move back over to a club in the Premier League or the Championship, but football isn’t that simple. It didn’t work out like that but it was always in my head to have another go at playing in England.

“The reality for most players is that you won’t get much success. When you’re playing where I am now or back home in the League of Ireland, it’s tough going. It’s not the glamour of playing for a Premier League club and you experience a lot of downs, so to be able to actually achieve some level of success that you can feel proud of is something that I think is special.

“We had success with Cork but I always felt there was a bit of a tint to it for me because I never felt that I massively contributed. I was in and out of the team, a bit-part player, whereas I feel like I’ve really contributed to getting Hartlepool promoted.

“I played consistently for the whole season and I put everything into it, so there’s something there for me now that I can look back on at the end of my career and have fond memories of.”

Hartlepool United’s promotion to League Two brings to an end an era of non-league football that began in 2017. After dropping out of the Football League for the first time in 96 years, a period of financial turmoil put the club’s existence at risk.

Jeff Stelling, the man renowned for his Soccer Saturday anchor role on Sky Sports, is a lifelong Hartlepool United fan who also serves as club president. With Stelling’s assistance, local businessman Raj Singh completed a takeover in 2018 and set about steering the club away from the looming threat of liquidation.

hartlepool-united-v-torquay-united-vanarama-national-league-play-off-final-ashton-gate Jeff Stelling flanked by Hartlepool United's Lewis Cass and Brad James in the aftermath of the play-off final. Source: PA

Last month at Ashton Gate, the home of Bristol City, Singh and Stelling were among the 6,606 spectators permitted to attend as Hartlepool overcame Torquay in the National League play-off final.

A penalty shootout was required to settle the contest after Luke Armstrong’s first-half opener for Hartlepool was cancelled out in extraordinary circumstances in the 95th minute, when Torquay goalkeeper Lucas Covolan headed in an equaliser.

“The occasion was surreal,” Holohan says. “The game itself was pretty thrilling and it had a bit of everything to it, which added to the emotions of it all.

“Since I’ve been at the club, getting back into the Football League has been the top priority. It’s a club that belongs in the Football League so that brought added pressure, I suppose. That was always in your mind, so when it was achieved it was very special.

“In the days afterwards there were grown men coming up to you bawling their eyes out crying – it means that much to them. It’s everything to them. That’s what really makes it sink in.”

For Holohan, it was a euphoric conclusion to a campaign during which he excelled, as evidenced by his winning of the National League Player of the Month award for April.

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Alongside the cherished accolades he collected this season is a blue teddy bear – named ‘Gav’ – that was gifted to him at a game by one of the club’s junior supporters. 

Holohan says: “I mentioned how important it is for the older generation of fans, but that just shows you how much it means to the younger ones too. It’s really nice to be treated like that.

“That’s one of the things you always want when you come to a club – to be loved by the fans. Our fans are pretty straightforward, in the sense that if you give it everything you’ve got then they’ll respond to you. That’s what I’ve tried to do since I came into the club.

“I do seem to have become a bit of a fan-favourite, which is really nice. I’ll remember moments like that forever and hopefully he will too.” 

* * *

AFTER A BRIEFER than usual off-season break, life as a Football League club will resume for Hartlepool United with a home game against Crawley Town in three weeks’ time.

Just as they did last season, Dave Challinor’s side may find themselves leaning heavily on their midfield trio of Holohan, Mark Shelton and Nicky Featherstone – who have been labelled ‘The Wolf Pack’ – in their efforts to ensure the transition is seamless.

“Gav’s willingness to succeed is just massive. He’s always looking to improve and he gets annoyed if he doesn’t do what he expects of himself,” Shelton says.

“When you’re playing next to someone with his quality and his drive, it makes you better as well. He’s exactly the kind of guy you want to be playing alongside and he’s a top guy off the pitch as well.”

hartlepool-united-v-torquay-united-vanarama-national-league-play-off-final-ashton-gate Holohan (left) tangling with Torquay United's Kyle Cameron. Source: PA

Should Hartlepool make a successful start to their League Two campaign, viewers who tune in for the 7 August edition of Soccer Saturday are sure to be kept well-informed of developments at Victoria Park.

“Gav is one of our Wolf Pack in midfield,” says Jeff Stelling. “He, Mark Shelton and Nicky Featherstone are like Duracell bunnies – they never run out of energy.

“Gav has goals in him too, which makes him a valuable commodity, but he is a massive team player and a great character. Trust me, every Pools fan loves him – me included!”

Having once set the Premier League as a target to work towards, Holohan has since adjusted his expectations.

These days he subscribes to the theory that the journey is more important than the destination – and right now that journey is giving him the best days of his life.

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

About the author:

Paul Dollery

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