Louis van Gaal is known to sever ties with players in blunt fashion.
It didn’t work out for Riquelme at Barcelona because the Dutchman felt “he didn’t score and he didn’t run.” Years later, Manchester United’s seven-year association with a beloved fan favourite was ended in the space of a one-minute meeting as Brazilian full-back Rafael was told, quite simply, “you can leave.”
Between those two incidents, in 2008, James Holland was one of Australian football’s rising stars and on trial with Eredivisie side AZ Alkmaar. All that stood between him and his first break in European football was the psychological assault course that is Van Gaal’s mercurial man-management style. The outcome was expressed in the form of a face-on-face assessment that would flip from brutal to bewildering in the space of the subsequent phone call.
“Too old to learn”
But how did Holland earn the attention of a legendary coach like Van Gaal? It has to do with the fact A-League history was made on his senior debut for the Newcastle Jets during the previous year.
“The A-League was in its first couple seasons at the time and they were still doing injury replacement players,” Holland explained to Squawka. “I had worked with the assistant coach at the Jets and a few of the boys were away on national team duty. So he called to ask if I’d like to come in and play for a game as an opportunity, and I obviously jumped at the chance.”
Holland was 18 years and 152 days old at the time of the match in question, a 2-1 win over Wellington Phoenix, and would score the opening goal. Never before had a younger debutant scored in the history of the competition proper, according to A-League stats.
“Since then I think a few boys have overtaken me,” Holland added, though he still holds that individual record for the Jets.
“As they do in Australia when you burst onto the scene, they pump you up a bit in the media and there was all of a sudden a lot of attention around me. For a young boy, it was definitely a nice feeling. Especially because I worked so hard to put myself in that position.”
The accolade did not usher in an avalanche of goals, as throughout his career the midfielder has gradually drifted toward a more defensive role. “It’s a little surprising given my goalscoring form of late,” joked Holland, who considers Michael Carrick the “textbook” example of a player in his position. He is a player who says “keeping it simple” is what “most good defensive midfielders should be able to do,” if also one whose continent-hopping career path has been anything but simple.
Currently, he plays in the Austrian Bundesliga with the recently concluded season’s promoted club, LASK Linz, who are based in the Upper-Austrian state capital. They have just finished fourth and will participate in a qualifying round for next season’s Europa League. Get past that, and they have the club’s first intracontinental campaign in nearly 20 years to look forward to.
So what are the strengths that have served him, and most recently LASK, in European football? “I’m a winner and a natural leader,” Holland, who captained the Young Socceroos earlier in his career and debuted for the seniors while still in his teens, continued. “My game is relatively simple. Defensively I’m strong. Tactically, I consider myself decent. I’m able to read the game and close the holes well and do what the team needs me to do.”
A grand final win, the Jets’ first and only, would follow Holland’s record-breaking debut, as well as an invitation to train with AZ Alkmaar, who were in the middle of their second-ever – and most recent – Eredivisie title win. It was there he had his encounter with the man they call the ‘Iron Tulip’.
“I was young, but, I did OK,” he said. “It was a big step for an Australian player to go to a team that won the championship that season. Louis van Gaal, at the end of my [trial], brought me into his office and his exact words were, ‘James, tactically you are not good enough, and you are too old to learn. You are too old to learn, so it’s too late.’
“So I walked out and I got on a plane the next day and thought, ‘Alright, no problem, it’s finished.'”
If ever there was a perfect snapshot of how fickle a game it can be for a young footballer, Holland’s experience of going from setting a record by virtue of his youth to being told he was too old in the space of a year might be it. Yet, the story had a positive kicker in store.
“Later I got a phone call. It had just ticked over to Christmas day, and [AZ] offered me a four-and-a-half year contract.
“I was sitting there scratching my head, thinking, ‘What happened?'”
“The battle of not playing”
What happened, it turns out, was that club sporting director Marcel Brands, who Everton have just hired this summer, saw something of former Aston Villa and AZ midfielder Brett Holman in him. “He has a fantastic drive and a good mentality. He’s the same type of player as Brett Holman, but a bit more defensive-minded,” Brand said of Holland way back when while announcing his signing, adding, “The Eredivisie could be the perfect stepping stone for him to kick-start his European career.”
With this big break in European football came exposure to several well-known players, such as Spurs’ box-to-box midfielder Mousa Dembele.
“He was a striker,” Holland explained. “It was interesting that they changed him, because he wasn’t really dangerous in front of goal, but on the ball he was unbelievable, mate. You could not get near him, you couldn’t touch him. He never lifted a weight, but he had this natural strength and those football smarts.
“He was a class above, but we had some top footballers in that team at the time. In my position, we had three Dutch internationals who ended up going to the World Cup final in 2010: Stijn Schaars, who was our captain, David Mendes da Silva and Demy De Zeeuw. They were the older boys I was looking up to.”
Naturally, this was also an example of how one obstacle is quickly superseded by another in top-level team sports. More specifically, it was an example of the most common pitfall a player encounters early in their career, or, as Holland puts it, “the battle of not playing.”
But although first-team minutes were not forthcoming, a whole new tactical education from one of the most influential footballing cultures in European history was.
“Growing up in Australia,” Holland continued, “you’re a little bit behind the eight ball because, when I compare it what the youth academy at AZ was like or at Ajax Amsterdam, you’re miles behind. They are so far ahead there. It’s probably an overload of information, but for me it was a really big part in my career.
“There is the battle of not playing and toughing it out, mentally hardening myself. That was also an important part of [my development], but the technical and tactical knowledge that you gain in a place like Holland is priceless.”
Tactical understanding was improved in Holland’s namesake country. All he needed next was somewhere to apply it. Austria Wien, January 2012, would become that somewhere and, there, a little more history would be made.
“That was an unbelievable season and it came at a really important time in my career,” he said, “because in Holland I felt like I was on a treadmill for three years, where I was working my arse off but wasn’t really being given my opportunity. So I got an opportunity to go to Austria, and I jumped at it, and there I had a coach that believed in me.”
The coach in question was Peter Stoger, who most recently managed at Borussia Dortmund. His arrival at Austria Wien came six months after Holland joined and would see the club embark on a title-winning campaign: “We broke points records and made it to the final of the cup. We had a fantastic group of boys, fantastic coaching staff and for me it was important to get that consistency in my game where I was playing week in, week out in Europe, getting match-hardened, and also building that confidence back up, because those three years in Holland were mentally tough.
“That was an amazing season and got me back into the national team again. It put me back on the map.”
Besides setting a new Austrian Bundesliga-record points total of 82, which RB Salzburg only this season broke, Holland was part of the first Austria Wien team to take part in the Champions League group stages, making him the only Australian playing regularly in Europe’s most prestigious competition at that point. That campaign’s highlight came in the form of a 4-1 win over a Zenit side boasting Hulk and Axel Witsel. Holland anchored the team’s midfield in Vienna that night, winning a game-high three tackles.
The subsequent summer, he would go to Brazil as part of Australia’s 2014 World Cup squad. This time out, however, Holland has missed the cut. Given his role in LASK’s late-season surge, having started every game of the decisive seven-game win streak, he could be forgiven for feeling frustrated, overlooked while playing in a league Holland believes “doesn’t get the credit it deserves.” Any ultra-competitive athlete would. In any case, one particular off-field scenario from the intervening period between Brazil and Russia did not help.
“The Hail Mary play”
Today, Holland can look back on a successful season with LASK. Added to the Europa League qualifying spot, they picked up a big win against this season’s semi-finalists of the aforementioned competition, RB Salzburg. They are in fact one of only two teams to do so before they had already wrapped up the title. And then there was the 3-1 away victory over Holland’s old side Austria Wien, one in which he recorded an assist.
A couple of seasons ago, however, he was back in A-League with Adelaide United due to a shortage of suitable offers. And he had a decision to make.
It would ultimately result in a difficult five-month stint with Liaoning Whowin, a Chinese Super League side for whom Holland played just once. He cannot go into detail about what exactly happened there. Suffice it to say, Australia’s PFA were brought in to mediate a dispute. They issued a statement condemning “the club’s repeated failure to honour its contractual obligations” as Holland terminated his deal there.
“The move to China for me was, in my head, my final Hail Mary play to get back to Europe,” Holland explains. “Because I never initially wanted to leave European football in the first place.
“All of a sudden I was faced with this situation where I didn’t really have any good offers and I had to go back over to Australia. Nothing against Australian football at the time, it was purely just to do with my own desires and the dreams I’d worked so hard for, that were in Europe at that time.
“Then in January, I had this opportunity to go over to China where, if I left it, it would have been a lot more difficult for me to leave Australia. So I took a bit of a gamble… Let me say it this way, the [Chinese Super League] season was short and I thought it could be my next step back to Europe.”
No career break is totally the result of luck, but the timing was good and the gamble paid off. The name Holland had made for himself in Austria, and the relationships he had established, paved the way for his return to European football upon leaving China. After an agreement could not be reached with Austria Wien, his first port of call, an exciting opportunity elsewhere in the division emerged.
“I knew the LASK coach was a brilliant coach – that’s something I’d heard a few years before, that there was a young coach coming through,” said Holland. He is referring to Oliver Glasner, a “product” – as Holland puts it – of the RB Salzburg coaching team who has previously worked with the likes of Liverpool forward Sadio Mane.
“[Glasner] was over the moon about the opportunity of getting me over here because he thought highly of me and never thought he would have the opportunity to sign me at this time in my career, where generally you’re playing your best football.”
The club outwardly expressed an aim to stay in the division. Internally, a fifth-place finish was the target. Holland was a little more optimistic.
“When I came here I said we were going to make the top three,” he said, “Obviously, when you’re the team that got promoted, the expectations aren’t necessarily there. But I think LASK is not a normal promoted team. Traditionally it’s a big club and the coach and the technical director have fantastic footballing brains. You could see the team they had put together could do something.”
The outcome was of course somewhere in between the predicted finishes of Holland and the club’s hierarchy, but the byproduct – a qualifier for next season’s Europa League – is the headline achievement. “That’s a big thing for the club, it’s maybe a bit premature. It wasn’t in their plan when they got together and decided to rebuild the club, but it’s definitely a pleasant surprise for everyone involved.”
So will Holland finally be able to settle? “After my last couple of years in football, it’s a little bit hard for me to say. But the one thing this club’s given me again is that enjoyment of football, which I’d lost a little bit. It was a difficult period for me, but I’ve found that here again, which I’m grateful for.”
After the nomadic career Holland has had, settling would seem a new concept. But, as the saying goes, you’re never too old to learn. Someone just needs to tell Van Gaal that.