Ian Holloway: “Life’s about baby steps ’cause if you make big ones, you can fall right over”

For the second of this week’s interviews on Chairboys Central, one of the game’s great characters spoke to me about his new TV role, the gaffer, and the state of management in general, as well as offering up a few pearls of wisdom for us all to take onboard.

“I’m delighted,” enthuses Ian Holloway in that endearing Bristol accent of his. “I’m glad there’s an international break so I’ve ended up here; it’s absolutely wonderful.” I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend the day at Adams Park?

The man affectionately known as ‘Ollie’ has been out of the management game since the end of his second spell at QPR in May 2018, but he’s in no great rush to return to the touchline. “Well,” he ponders, “you never know how other people think about you, do you? I feel relatively young; I feel relatively young; I’ve got a lot of experience; maybe that experience might frighten people off – who knows? I’m thoroughly enjoying what I’m doing at the moment [as a pundit for EFL on Quest]. I’m all over the country watching football, talking about it and meeting new people.”

At this point, a thick, ever-friendly Northern Irish voice loudly interrupts from across the table: “ME! Meeting me!” It’s show anchor Colin Murray, eager to get a word in over lunch. Ever the professional, Holloway continues unperturbed. “It’s an absolute joy to be able to use what knowledge I’ve had and the experiences I’ve had,” he says. “For you to ask me a question and I can give you some insight into what Gareth was like as a player, what it was like coaching him, how proud I am to see what he’s doing at the moment…I can’t tell you how lucky I am.”

“Away at Cheltenham, Gareth nearly took out the dugout”

Holloway’s pride in Ainsworth goes way back – the two were together at Loftus Road for three years in the mid-noughties – but did he see the manager in him at first? “No I didn’t,” he states affirmatively. I saw it in his personality – and I think that comes out probably better than any manager I’ve ever seen, how Gareth is, how his team portrays how he is (he’s full of life; he’s full of energy; [he] never gives up) – but tactically out on the pitch, I used to have to tell him over and over and over and over again. I’ve realised what it is, ‘cause when I watch his teams play, he is structured – he does it really well – so he did understand, but,” he pauses, “he didn’t listen, ‘cause he wanted to run forward and he wanted to shoot and he wanted to score.”

“So I had a go at him earlier on,” Holloway jokes. Most of the time I was trying to do the worst side of his game, which is tuck back round ‘cause my team needed to be defensive sometimes, whereas if it was now and if I had him at Blackpool, I would’ve just said, ‘Look son, you go and do [your thing] and we’ll look to hit you’, you know, because he was so good at that and I think I’d have got even more out of him if that was possible.” Could Gaz have done a job in the Premier League in 2010/11 instead of playing for us? Yeeeaaah.

‘Ollie’ took Blackpool to the top flight in his first season in charge and very nearly kept them there.

Throughout our chat, Holloway is full of praise for his and our ‘Wild Thing’. “I have to say as winger or [in] a front three on the right-hand side, he was absolutely sensational,” he reminisces admiringly. “He used to frighten full-backs to death. He would batter them – I felt sorry for them sometimes – and away at Cheltenham, he nearly took the dugout…out – ‘cause he went to get the full-back, the full-back moved out the way, and he smashed our dugout.” If anyone has footage of this, please send it my way!

Gaz’s on-field aggression has stood him in excellent stead as a manager, but his former boss pinpoints his individuality as perhaps his most crucial, beneficial trait. “I think that’s the beautiful thing about him,” he says, “’cause he has other interests. He’s so enjoying his life – you can see it emitting out of him. I’ve just spoken to Fred Onyedinma, who I had at Millwall – who was a fantastic signing, by the way – [and] he’s loving it because [of] the encouragement that Gareth has given him and the way that he adds energy to your team. That’s what he did for me at QPR in the time [when] we had no money and could have gone bust. He helped us get promoted with his pure energy coming out of his soul, and I think it’s wonderful to see.” 

The gaffer’s genuineness is another key part of what’s made him so successful, Holloway suggests. “He’s not pretending to be somebody,” he says. “He’s not changing his love of heavy music and hiding it when he comes in to be a manager; he’s embracing it, and that’s how we should all be. And I think you only ever do well in what you’re doing if you’re enjoying it – and you can see that his team enjoys playing for him, and Gareth is thoroughly enjoying his life.” That’s exactly it, and that’s exactly why we as fans love watching this team (well, being top of the league helps too). Outsiders may dismiss us as long ball merchants and label our style “brutal” and what have you, but ‘unattractive’ football hasn’t diluted the enjoyment. And look at us now: we’re having a whale of a time and playing some champagne stuff.

Being a legend is thirsty work.

Ultimately, we’re reaping the rewards of standing by our man. Remember, in the top four divisions – only Morecambe’s Jim Bentley has been in the job – where he’ll probably remain forever – longer than Gareth. That’s not just an anomaly in the modern era; it’s a lesson to many clubs. Holloway spent some time with Middlesbrough head coach Jonathan Woodgate last week and it appears he learnt something about himself. “Jonathan did some research on me,” he says, letting out a light half-chuckle, “and he said, ‘Do you realise that [in] both your first two jobs, you lasted five years?’. You need to give a manager time to cut their teeth. Whether he’s an experienced one or not, you cannot just bin people. Gareth has had the wonderful joy of being here seven years, learning, getting it wrong – and now he’s getting it right. That’s the privilege that he has earnt from you lot. There was a promotion in there and some tough, tough times – but I’m delighted that you’ve got the common sense to actually appreciate somebody who works as hard as Gareth, a team that works as hard as Gareth, and giving him long enough to develop.”

“He helped QPR get promoted with the pure energy coming out of his soul”

Has he developed to the point that Championship clubs will come knocking? Well, Barnsley already have done once, and I think every Wycombe supporter was at least a little worried that he might be on his way this summer, but there’s yet to be the kind of interest that others such as, say, Danny Cowley have attracted – and ultimately pursued. Will he move on sooner or later? “He might well do,” says Holloway, “but,” he considers, “it doesn’t sound like that to me because he feels things are improving – and I see things improving here. When I go to my own club, Bristol Rovers, I don’t see things improving. I see it here.”

“You’ve got a good crowd – [a] very supportive crowd,” he adds. At the end of the day, that’s your hard core; that’s the base of your support. [It’s] exactly how your manager is. I think you’re wholehearted; you’re honest; you’re down to earth; you’re always there; you’re always level. And [the team’s] exciting and you have got flair – you have. Gareth had it all really, and to me he crossed over. I had a lot of players who had flair, but they didn’t have the work rate and they didn’t have the endeavour and they didn’t have the honesty to get stuck in – whereas Gareth encapsulates all of that to me, so he was the all-round complete player – yet,” he reiterates, “sometimes what he wanted to do was go and shoot and finish and not do my defending.” Oh Gaz, what are you like?

Terrace celebrate
Wycombe’s driving force

Regarding the great man’s future, Holloway believes that there are “no limits to where he can go because of his personality, because of who he is.” He hints that the rest of football could learn from Wycombe’s success under him too. “I think the game needs to understand that if you’ve got an honest, hard-working fella who’s dying to improve and can improve people around him, why do you need to change him?” Why indeed? “I think Gareth proves that, and you can’t always in life-you can’t always get what you want, so you’ve got to keep moving towards getting it. The fact is if you want to be successful long term in football, you can’t buy it anymore; you’ve got to earn it.”

Might his future lie at Adams Park? Might he be able to take us to the Championship (yeah, I said it)? “You’ve had Gareth for seven years. If you had him for another seven I think you’d be higher than this; that’s my gut feeling. Would it be as high as Gareth could get if he left and went somewhere else? I don’t know. That’s the challenge to Gareth to encourage the owners (the supporter-owners) and the new American ‘family’ to actually believe enough to keep making gradual baby steps. Life’s about baby steps ’cause if you make big ones, you can fall right over.”

Ian Holloway is a pundit on the official EFL highlights show EFL on Quest every Saturday at 9pm. Quest is the home of EFL highlights, broadcasting every round of fixtures throughout the season. Also available on desktop and app via QuestOD.

Main photo: Matt Cecil | Ian Holloway photo: Brian Minkoff (London Pixels) via Wikimedia Commons. Used under license. | Gareth Ainsworth photo: Martin Belam via Wikimedia Commons. Used under license. Cropped | Crowd photo: Ben Prior-Wandesforde
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