Gavan Holohan, centre, celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the English FA Cup fifth-round soccer match between Southampton and Grimsby Town at St Mary's Stadium. Alamy Stock Photo
a true underdog story

The Irishman at the heart of an FA Cup fairytale

Gavan Holohan has been key to Grimsby Town’s remarkable journey.

WHEN GAVAN HOLOHAN stepped up to take a penalty at St Mary’s Stadium earlier this month, he would not have needed a reminder as to what was at stake.

A win would see Grimsby Town become the first side in FA Cup history to eliminate five teams from a higher division in a single season of the competition, having started back on 5 November with an impressive 5-1 defeat against League One promotion hopefuls Plymouth.

They subsequently dispatched two more sides in the division above them, beating Cambridge United 2-1 and Burton Albion 1-0.

Then came another contest when they were significant outsiders, coming up against Luton Town, a side who could be playing Premier League football next year as they are currently in the playoff spots in the Championship.

They drew 2-2 with the Hatters before winning the replay 3-0.

Almost no one was tipping them thereafter to win away at Premier League side Southampton, however.

Per BBC Sport, Grimsby’s last appearance in the FA Cup quarter-finals had been in the 1938-39 season. A victory would break Reading’s 83-year record in terms of the gap in time between appearances at that stage of the competition.

The chasm between the sides was also emphasised by the fact that Southampton were 64 places above them on the English football ladder when the sides met.

But none of those factors appeared to faze the Kilkenny-born midfielder. He coolly slotted home not one but two penalties to send the 4,000-plus travelling fans into ecstasy.

Saints defender Duje Caleta-Car’s 65th-minute goal to reduce the deficit set up a nervy finish while Theo Walcott appeared to have equalised late on, but it was ruled out for a tight offside after a dramatic VAR intervention.

It meant Grimsby became just the sixth team from the fourth tier or lower to reach the competition’s last eight since the division was introduced in the 1958-59 season.

As has been the case for their previous six FA Cup encounters, Grimsby will go into today’s quarter-final match against Brighton at the Amex Stadium as underdogs.

But despite the Seagulls enjoying a superb season — they are currently challenging for Europe in the Premier League table — it would be foolish to write off their lower-league opponents on the basis of what has transpired thus far.

Moreover, the 31-year-old midfielder and former Ireland underage international Holohan is perhaps the perfect symbolic figure for this unlikely success story. By his own admission, he has had an “up and down” career.

From birth, the odds were against Holohan. He grew up in a county not renowned as a soccer stronghold and was a keen GAA player as well as a talented footballer. 

He initially lined out for local side Evergreen and then, seeking greater exposure, joined the respected Dublin-based schoolboy club, Cherry Orchard.

In addition to her nine-to-five job, the starlet’s mother would devote a considerable portion of her week driving him to and from the capital city for training. Nonetheless, these lengthy, relentless, and exhausting commutes paid off ultimately.

At 16, Holohan joined Hull City — it was 2008, the same year in which the club secured promotion to the Premier League for the first time ever.

Yet first-team opportunities were few and far between. Holohan’s most promising moment came, funnily enough, in the same competition in which he would be a headline maker over 10 years later, making the first team’s bench for a January 2011 FA Cup tie against Wigan.  

“I’m still living in Hull to this day,” he tells The42. “So I ended up kind of being adopted by Hull and it’s more like a second home to me now.”

After his release from the Tigers in the summer of 2012, Holohan went on trial with Carlisle United and Hibernian, but the following November, he ended up signing on for a brief forgettable stint with non-league outfit Alfreton Town as cover for injured players.

After this move did not really work out, Holohan somewhat reluctantly opted to return home to Ireland, initially signing for Drogheda in August 2013. He knew that getting first-team football, which had been severely limited across the water, was crucial at that stage of his development.

“There’s a bit of an unfair stigma,” he says. “Some players get labeled as a failure when they come home, which at the time when you’re young, you read into that too much.

“But looking back on it now, it was probably the best decision I made for my career, it really helped me progress and put me in the shop window — I managed to get that experience that I needed.”

He is confident more players will follow a similar path in the future: “I think the [Irish] league has progressed from when I first came home, there’s a lot more opportunity for players to come back and the league’s getting more exposure now.”

gavan-holohan Holohan pictured during his time at Drogheda. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Holohan’s long-term goal was always to get back to England, but his route proved circuitous.

After a standout season with Drogheda in which he won the supporters’ player-of-the-year-award, Holohan signed with Cork City ahead of the 2015 campaign.

At the time, John Caulfield’s side were, along with Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk, the best team in the country.

Such was the quality available to the Leesiders that Holohan tended to find himself in and out of the starting XI.

Twice, Cork City made the FAI Cup final in that period and on both occasions, the midfielder was an unused sub for the season’s showpiece event.

Consequently, Holohan concluded a move was necessary and so he made the bold decision to sign for a less high-profile side in Galway United.

In 2017, following the move, he told The42: “I thought: Am I going to kick on in my career or am I going to be a bit-part player?”

Despite some commendable individual performances, including a first-ever career hat-trick against former side Drogheda, Holohan could not prevent Galway’s relegation, though he stayed in the Premier Division, signing for newly promoted Waterford ahead of the 2018 campaign.

After another successful season, English football came calling again as he joined National League side Hartlepool. 

“That’s a club that I’ll always hold close to my heart because they gave me the opportunity back in the UK,” he says. “And the minute I came into the club, everyone welcomed me with open arms, all the staff and the fan base up there, the way they accepted me and supported me and I like to think that I gave everything for the club and repaid the favour for them.”

Holohan established himself as a regular in the team. And while up to that point, his experiences of finals had been somewhat anticlimactic in light of the aforementioned Cork City experiences, it was different in this instance — he started as his side beat Torquay on penalties and were promoted to League Two at the end of the 2020-21 season.

Yet it was not enough to ensure a long stay at the club as he went back to the National League with Grimsby, signing in March of last year. After making over 100 appearances, he had lost his place in the starting XI while the decision to drop down a division was aided by the fact that the club was in much closer proximity to his home in Hull. 

bristol-uk-june-20th-gavan-holohan-of-hartlepool-united-gees-up-the-crowd-after-luke-armstrong-scored-their-first-goal-during-the-vanarama-national-league-play-off-final-between-hartlepool-united-and Gavan Holohan of Hartlepool United gees up the crowd after Luke Armstrong scored their first goal during the Vanarama National League Play Off Final. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

And for the second successive campaign, the season ended for Holohan with promotion to League Two via the playoffs, as he once again justified the decision to drop down a level, with a small step back preceding a significant leap forward.

The astonishing cup run has since inevitably overshadowed a solid but unspectacular first year back in the Football League for Grimsby. At the time of writing, they sit 15th in the table and barring a disastrous conclusion to the campaign, look safe for another season in the division.

And there is a sense that Holohan has spent a long time searching for a permanent home. His Hartlepool stint lasted just shy of three years and before then, discounting underage level, he had not spent more than two seasons at any one club.

With Grimsby, he might finally have discovered a place where he can settle for the long term — moreover, the Southampton win was momentous for another reason too, it coincided with a landmark 50th appearance at the club.

Furthermore, as much as he loved the back-to-back playoff final successes, Holohan believes today’s game with Brighton eclipses everything else that has come before.

“It’s without a doubt the biggest game of my career. So, I’ll obviously have to really cherish it and just make sure that I soak it all in,” he says.

The midfielder has unsurprisingly been busy sorting people out with tickets as many family members and friends, including his old manager at Cherry Orchard, are travelling for the occasion.

And in many ways, this afternoon will feel like the culmination of a journey for Holohan, a reward for all the tough times he experienced and the perseverance required to keep going in spite of numerous setbacks and disappointments.

“As a kid, you dream of playing Premier League football. And unfortunately, just for whatever reason, it hasn’t worked in that way for me. And then, it’s about just accepting that and trying to make as good a career for yourself as possible and play at the highest level you possibly can and achieve the most that you possibly can.

“It is a short career. So it’s about just giving it everything and leaving no stone unturned. And I feel like I’ve done that, I’ve really had to push myself and push myself through some difficult moments. I’m reaping the benefits now, this just makes it all worthwhile.”

He concludes: “When you’re a young player, if you do have a setback, you feel like it’s the end of the world, but with experience, you realise that they’re the kind of things that shape you and make you a better person as well as a better player.

“It makes you stronger and more resilient which, in professional football, you need [to be]. It’s a dog-eat-dog world so [it's important to] just use those experiences as learning curves and things that are only going to make you stronger.”

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