All Bark And No Bite: Why Millwall Are Better Off Without Ian Holloway
Towards the end of Ian Holloway’s Millwall reign I read a piece posted on an Internet forum. It was reproduced from a Plymouth message-board from 2007 when Holloway left the Pilgrims for Leicester. Reading it sent shivers down my spine. I felt like a cheated partner finally discovering the truth about their philandering other half having stumbled upon their secret love letters.
This fan was blowing open the Holloway myth and he, like the spurned lover, was shouting after him “you’re not all that anyway” as he made his way down the street with his new squeeze. Sour grapes? That’s what many thought at the time, but, reading the details of Holloway’s time at Plymouth, an awful lot rang true with his ill-fated spell at Millwall.
Holloway was a great lover of long drawn out, sometimes bizarre analogies. With hindsight, they were the making of him, and papered over many, many cracks. In fact it would be more accurate to say that in his doomed Den days, most of his post-match pearls of wisdom were akin to trying to plug the iceberg-wounded Titanic with a couple of Rizzlas.
He arrived at Millwall with Messiah status. It would be fair to say that 99% of the fans – me especially – had that “we’ve got a proper manager” feeling. I felt he was the archetypal ‘man with a plan’, and went as far as dressing him up as Winston Wolfe, Quentin Tarantino’s very own Mr Fix it when I celebrated his arrival here at Sabotage Times. Just over a year down the line, match days in SE16 were more like Hostel than Pulp Fiction, but don’t worry, there was plenty of fiction.
There isn’t room to document all of Holloway’s eccentricities in that 14 month spell here. All the usual frustrations that so many other football managers cause their fans were there though. Buying players and not playing them, playing players out of position, promoting players from the reserves to the starting line-up one week – and then banishing them again. They all do it. It infuriates us, and we all think we know best, but Holloway took it a step further.
If I could pick out just two examples, they would have to be Reading at home last season and Huddersfield away this. Reading had taken the lead and, in a quest to claw his team back in the game, the very precise formation that we were led to believe was Holloway’s intricate ‘single striker’ Modus Operandi, was abandoned and suddenly a triple substitution saw what appeared to be no less than five strikers playing in a team that appeared totally confused. The 1-3 defeat was no surprise but Holloway redeemed himself despite rumblings already beginning in the stands. An eight game unbeaten end of season streak saved Millwall from relegation and restored faith in Holloway once more.
But it wasn’t long before it fell apart once more. Another triple substitution, this time away at Huddersfield, literally had the players looking at each other and exchanging shrugs, head-shakes and outstretched palms of confusion.
Holloway had now abandoned the kids’ TV entertainer-like, jovial cheeky chappy that arrived in south London and once regaled post-match press conferences of ‘barrels of boobs and sucking thumbs’. Now, in his flat cap with greying goatee, he looked more like a beleaguered Lenin, attempting to convince that all was well with the Millwall Revolution.
We weren’t buying it.
Danny Baker summed it up when he tweeted: “Just heard Millwall are now "flirting with relegation". Flirting? We've been sending it pornographic selfies since October.”
The trouble was, Millwall owner John Berylson – one of the good guys, not the regular madcap foreign owners that some have been cursed with – was desperate for some stability for the club. He’d already disposed of Steve Lomas after a matter of months. Holloway had promised a long term plan to sweep throughout the club from top to bottom over a period of years building a firm foundation for years to come. A glorious five year plan if you will.
But Holloway’s metamorphosis continued. After Millwall were unceremoniously dumped out of the FA Cup in a 4-0 thumping at Bradford, he went to war. Persuading the owner to release team-building funds set aside for the Summer of 2015 to raid the January transfer window and moth-ball the players that weren’t performing for him. He went as far as describing his squad as ‘dysfunctional’, and yet also continued to deny any dressing room revolt and insist that every single player was behind him.
From Mr Tumble, to Lenin, to Comical Ali, all in the space of a year, and still results got worse.
Millwall fans aren’t famed for their patience but it has to be said that they wanted Holloway to succeed probably more than any other manager in recent history, such was his likability when things were going well. For the club’s part, getting rid of Holloway would not only be a blow to their long-term plans, but it would hit them in the pocket too – to the tune of a cool million quid.
A crushing home defeat to Norwich however tipped both fans and board over the edge. The pressure from the stands was such that Holloway was unable to take up his usual animated position at the edge of the technical area, on the rare occasions he ventured out, the home fans turned on him, sending him scuttling back to the safety of the dugout. And yet he still continued to insist in that final post-match press conference that the players were giving their all and were right behind him. It seemed that, in a last ditch attempt to save his skin, he’d ditched tales of ‘pulling young ladies’ and was trying his hand at Jedi mind tricks. Suddenly, £1 million seemed a good deal.
So where are we now? Millwall legend Neil Harris is in charge. That in itself can be dangerous. Think of McAllister at Leeds, Mowbray at Middlesbrough, Pearce at Forest. But Millwall is a unique club and the only managers who have ever succeeded there are the ones that truly knew what the fans wanted to see from their team on the pitch. Holloway’s greatest mistake was that he thought he could change that and reinvent a new Millwall for the fans to identify with, whilst constantly telling the fans that he knew exactly what the club was all about.
One of the first things Harris did was adopt a more recognisable playing system that the players looked instantly more comfortable with and whilst his encouraging start of a win and two draws in his opening four games may not be enough to save Millwall from League One, there’s a feeling all around The Den that they’ve really got their Millwall back.
So what next for Holloway? Well, the realisation that his success at both Blackpool and Crystal Palace was probably more down to the efforts of his predecessors was the warning from his detractors when he arrived, but would we listen? No. For us, we’re not left bitter that our manager has cheated on us for someone new. To put it in Holloway terms, we thought we’d pulled that gorgeous, perfect blonde who works behind the bar, spent a fortune on her, only to realise that she was a massive let down in the sack. However, like that Plymouth fan, we too are left shrieking after him, only in the style of Kat Slater from Eastenders: “You ain’t all that anyway, mate…”