Socceroos midfielder Brett Holman revealed he was tempted to come home when his adventure abroad reached rock bottom in the Dutch second division but he refused to give up because he knew all along he was good enough to make it in Europe.
His determination and persistence were later rewarded when he became Eredivisie champion with AZ Alkmaar, realised his dream of playing in the Premier League and scored two goals for Australia at the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Holman joined Dutch giants Feyenoord from Parramatta Power in 2002 but knew beforehand he would move on to Excelsior on loan.
Holman’s first season in the Netherlands ended in disappointment because the Rotterdam side were relegated.
Which is when Holman’s problems started. He was struggling for game time and sometimes not picked at all and the grim reality of European football away from the bright lights began to sink in.
It would have been easy for the attacking midfielder to take up his father’s parting words to the effect of ‘there will always be a home to come back to’, but he chose to stick it out and fight for survival.
“At Excelsior I was in a bit of mess because I was not playing too much after we got relegated,” Holman, 36, said.
“I was struggling and that period in the second division would have been the lowest point of my career. At the back of my mind I was thinking of the possibility of maybe coming home.
“My dad told me before I left Sydney to have a real crack at it and that there was always a home to come back to. But even though things were not working out for me I knew I had something more to offer.
“I knew that playing in a foreign country was going to be tough because I was taking a local’s position yet I always felt I had something more to offer than the player in front of me even though I was not scoring or hitting the right straps.
“I was at Excelsior for four years and it was getting a bit stale because my whole objective of going abroad was to play for Feyenoord. That never eventuated so I felt like I was running to a dead end almost. I refused to give up, however. I persevered and I’d like to say that my perseverance was eventually rewarded.
“This is the message I would give to the younger generation who might be finding it hard to break through in Europe: ‘don’t give up and come home’. We have a situation at the moment where young players are coming back too early.”
Holman was happy to share some of the best and worst moments of his career.
What are you doing now?
“After finishing up with Brisbane Roar last year I took some time off, then I started a small football academy on the Sunshine Coast. Basically I am just being a dad. Many people think playing football takes just a small part of the day because it is only a few hours for training but it actually takes up the whole day because you have to prepare for games at the weekend and then spend time recovering. And when your kids ask you to play with them you often have to say ‘no’ because you always need time to rest or switch off. So now I have to make up for lost time.”
Were you always an attacking midfielder?
“No. I was a number nine in my early days in western Sydney with Enfield Rovers. I had speed and that was my preferred position. It all changed at Parramatta because we had a big centre-forward who was a good target man and those days nearly everybody played 4-4-2. I gradually moved further back but I think it was always in me.”
It did not take you too long to jet off to Europe after just one season with Parramatta. The Eredivisie would have been a big step up. Did you see the brave move then as a gamble or a chance to test yourself?
“A bit of both, to be honest. The first time I really felt I could become a professional footballer was when I played for Power. I was training and competing with guys like Alex Tobin, Ahmed Elrich and some really good players and I was doing okay. So when I got the opportunity to sign for Feyenoord I took it even though I knew that I would be sent out on loan to their sister club Excelsior. It was a little bit scary when I arrived in Rotterdam but everything kicked off.”
Excelsior’s relegation after just one season in Europe would have been hard to take.
“It was a huge let-down because I felt we competed well enough to stay in the top division. Of course we had some big defeats against the top teams but relegation was disappointing because you always want to play in the top division.”
Your move to NEC, which is a bigger club, must have restored your morale.
“In my last season with Excelsior in 2005-06 we won promotion and our coach Mario Been moved to NEC and took me with him. That was a blessing because I got on well with him and he knew how to push my buttons. Needless to say, I was over the moon because I was back in the Eredivisie and playing for a bigger club.
“Been first rejuvenated my career, then saved it for sure because going into my fourth year with Excelsior there was a bit of doom and gloom and there were no real prospects for kicking on.”
Your best years would come in Alkmaar with AZ. Winning the 2009 championship was an extraordinary achievement for a relatively small club and probably the fondest memory of your Dutch adventure.
“I was playing my best football under some amazing coaches like Louis van Gaal, who was a meticulous planner, and Ronald Koeman, who trusted the players’ instincts, and we won the championship and the Super Cup. My Dutch wife and I had both our children in Alkmaar so, yes, the whole four years at AZ were perfect and the most memorable.”
You spent 10 seasons in the Netherlands and accumulated almost 300 matches, most of them in the first division. What did Dutch football teach you?
“The finer details, mainly. If you look at how precise the Dutch are in the way they train and perform and how they focus on technique, when I was growing up in Sydney I did not have that level of coaching until later. I was never really a technical footballer but I got so much better with my left foot and my first touch thanks to repetition every single day. It’s the essence of the Dutch school.”
You would have played many times at the Amsterdam Arena and the Kuip in Rotterdam. Did you ever pinch yourself when you remembered that, as a kid from Sydney’s west, you were performing at two of Europe’s most famous grounds?
“You know what, when I first went to Rotterdam I was able to watch the 2002 UEFA Cup final between Feyenoord and Borussia Dortmund at the Kuip. Both clubs have some of Europe’s most fanatical supporters and I said to myself ‘I want to be part of this’. Brett Emerton was playing for Feyenoord at the time but he was suspended for the final. It was unfortunate because I never got to watch him. The atmosphere at the Arena and the Kuip is amazing and gives you goosebump-moments. Ajax's and Feyenoord’s fans are something else ... and you’re playing against them.”
What was it like to play in the Premier League for Aston Villa?
“It was incredible because it was a dream come true to finally get an opportunity after so long. I grew up watching guys like Dennis Bergkamp and David Ginola and further on, Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell playing for Leeds.
“I just don’t think Villa was a perfect match for me and that’s why it lasted only one year. It did not help that I was brought in by manager Alex McLeish and he got sacked before the season started. Paul Lambert came in and told me ‘I don’t know you and I didn’t sign you’, so basically he was telling me he did not want me around. So I said to myself ‘okay, if he does not know me I will make him know me’. I worked hard at training and I played almost every game in the first part of the season because I gave everything. I got a bit ill around Christmas and after that it went downhill for me for a reason I still do not know. It was very difficult.”
Which is the best English ground for atmosphere?
“St James’ in Newcastle, no doubt. From my personal experience, being on the field was amazing. I don’t know what it was but playing there was like… ‘wow, this is nuts’. Also playing at Anfield when we beat Liverpool was pretty special.”
It was only a matter of time before you got picked for the national team. You came in soon after the 2006 World Cup and played in the 2007 Asian Cup. It is claimed the Socceroos did not have their heart in it because some senior players had not had a proper holiday in two years. What’s your take?
“It was our first Asian Cup. In regards to the claim that some players did not have their heart in the right position, I’m not sure. It was disappointing because we are talking about the ‘golden generation’ doing what they did at the World Cup and then supposedly doing something unworthy a year later. I was happy to be in the set-up because I was just a young boy then and starting off my international career. It felt like the squad was divided in two: the seniors and the the new boys. It was almost as if we were blinded by the fact there could have been underlying issues. I don’t know because I was not one of those ‘senior’ players.
“There would have been an element of complacency too after what the team had done in Germany.”
You ended up playing 63 full internationals yet it took you a while to win the hearts of most Socceroos supporters. You eventually silenced all the critics with a string of top performances around 2010. Was the initial criticism fair and what changed people’s minds about you?
“You’re the first person to ask me why fans thought about me like that. You know what - okay, I was not scoring as an attacker in the beginning but - I did not really understand the criticism in a way. It was hard to accept because I was not flying halfway around the world to play a game in midweek and risk your place at your club to play badly. I gave everything and maybe that was not good enough for some supporters and journalists so you’ll have to ask them (if criticism was fair).
“It affected me a little but that's because there were things said about my family which were not very nice. It’s crazy that you can talk about football and all of a sudden you bring families into it.
“The performances were always there even though I was not scoring or providing goals. So nothing much changed really in terms of how I was playing. Actually, the criticism provided me with the ammunition to say ‘okay, I’ll prove you all wrong’… and that’s what I did. We will always have opinions. I myself sometimes wonder how certain guys are playing at a certain level after watching them in action. That’s the beauty of football.”
Socceroos coach Pim Verbeek was always one of your biggest fans and stood by you at all times. You must have been devastated to learn of his passing.
“Pim took me under his wing and protected me from all that crap that was going on. He was the main reason I never lost confidence in my ability. There are no words for me to describe how much he meant to me. And I could never adequately repay him for what he did for me. Pim came to visit us when I was playing in Dubai and we knew he was not well. We did not know it was that bad so it was definitely a shock to learn he was gone. I still do not believe it.”
Of all the goals scored for club and country, the one you got against Serbia in South Africa in 2010 would have to be up there with your best. What made you have a go from so far out?
“I had the best training care of my career in South Africa where I felt super fit and pumping for anything. I had scored against Ghana which was not a pretty goal and I felt everything was falling into place for me at that moment. Nine times out of 10 I would not have shot but the whole month, the whole lead-up and the way I was feeling made it possible. My old man always said to me ‘have a go’.”
With the Socceroos leading 2-0 did you guys on the pitch know what was happening in the other group match between Germany and Ghana?
“No. I remember looking at the bench when I was running back to my own half after I scored and (assistant coach) Henk Duut was going crazy. He was saying ‘get back… we need another goal’. On the pitch it was full on because we knew something was going on. Obviously it did not work out because we won only 2-1.”
In any case the damage was done in Australia’s 4-0 loss to the Germans.
“Of course. We can talk about drawing with Ghana with 10 men after Kewell got sent off and beating an unbelievable Serbian team but we really threw it away against Germany. We let ourselves down in that first game. It was a disaster.”
Do you keep videos of your most important matches to show your grandchildren?
“I do have some DVDs which my dad gave me but I am not the type of person to keep mementos. Throughout my career I didn’t swap shirts. It was not something I did because I did not feel it was necessary.”
Which were the highest points of your career?
“There were too many highs, to be honest. At club level playing six matches in the UEFA Champions League with AZ and lining up while the anthem was playing was pretty special. Playing for the green and gold at the World Cup and scoring such an important goal against Ghana meant a lot to me and the team after we had lost to Germany in our first game.”
Finally, who are the best players you have played with and against at club and national level?
“It’s a hard one. At national level it has to be Harry Kewell, who was focused on being a footballer and shut everything out. After training he was always the last to leave and kept practising on his technique and his shooting. I learned so much by looking at him. And Mark Viduka, for a big guy, had an unbelievable technique. He made my life so easy when I played with him because he used his body so well and brought down every single ball and put it on the deck for us.
“The worst game I have played for Australia was in Brazil when we lost 6-0 under Holger Osieck in 2013. One who jumps out is Thiago Silva. He was defending and he did not let me have a sniff of anything so, yes, he was the hardest man I played against.
“At club level I would have to say my best teammate was Moussa Dembele. I played alongside him at AZ and I do not remember any time I took the ball off him. He was so strong and technically gifted he could have played for Manchester United, Barcelona or Real Madrid.
“I remember playing for Villa against Chelsea in 2012-13 and we got destroyed 8-0. I chased Frank Lampard all over the pitch and I could not get anywhere near him. The funny thing was he did not sprint or change direction a lot but he was constantly moving, looking for space for himself and making space for other players. Very, very annoying.”
BRETT HOLMAN FACTFILE
2001-02: Parramatta Power
2012-13: Aston Villa
2013-15: Al Nasr
2015-16: Emirates Club
2016-19: Brisbane Roar
2006-13: Australia (63 matches)
AZ: Dutch championship 2009, Super Cup 2009; Al Nasr: UAE League Cup 2015.