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Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Weary West Country Needs Another Holloway

There is plenty about Ian Holloway which defies the conventions of the modern Premier League football manager. First he actually likes talking to the press. A lot. The sports journalist fraternity can barely conceal their excitement ahead of a season of post-match press conferences peppered, they hope, with such immortal lines as ‘Our performance today would have been not the best looking bird but at least we got her in the taxi.’

Second, Holloway manages Blackpool, a team so unfashionable it makes Hull City look like Kate Moss. Before the Pete Doherty phase. Sure, Stanley Matthews, Jimmy Armfield and Alan Ball all once graced their ranks but today’s team of hardworking journeymen have about as much chance of avoiding relegation as North Korea have of making it out of Group E in South Africa.

It’s not like Holloway is an up-and-coming young manager either. He has done the rounds in the lower divisions, plying his until now unremarkable trade at the likes of Bristol Rovers and Leicester City before making it to the big show at the age of 47.

Unusual as his route to the big time may be, there is one thing that makes him stand out among most other managers and players in the Premier League: his place of birth. For while England’s top division is as multicultural as they come; chock full of Bulgarians, Togolese and Hondurans, how many top flight managers from the South-west of England can you name? Or players for that matter?

The Bristolian is one of a select group of individuals from his native land to have made a name for themselves in professional football in the past few years. The other notables can be counted one hand: former West Ham United hard-man Julian Dicks; ex Southampton captain Jason Dodd; and Cornwallian goalkeeping legend Nigel Martyn immediately spring to mind. After that, and if you really feel like clutching at straws Theo Walcott grew up in the Newbury area, which is quite near Swindon. The above are all decent players, but provide slim pickings for anyone hoping to fill a hall of fame.

Things might have been different if Bristol City had made it to the Premier League two years after reaching the 2008 Championship play-off final. Instead it was Bristol rather than Hull that found itself saddled by The Telegraph with the ignominious title of the UK’s ‘most narcoleptic sporting city’. Indeed, the last West Country team to ply its trade in England’s top division was Swindon Town in 1992-1993. They lasted a single forgettable season before relegation and descent into the lower leagues followed.

As a West Country man myself, the region’s lack of representation in football’s top echelons has long been a source of discomfort. The argument generally wagered is that the South West’s predominance as a rugby-playing territory has condemned football to always playing second fiddle. But if that were true then why has Wales, with a population just over half the size, been able to achieve such success in the beautiful game; if not on an international or club level, than with the production of players of the calibre of Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy and managers such as Johan Toshack and Mark Hughes (both quite handy players themselves too)?

Another explanation is that as a region whose economy was traditionally founded on its agricultural and maritime prowess, the South West lacks the large industrial towns that were the catalyst for the clubs spawned by the ironworks of East London or the cotton mills of the North West. Yet if this historical anomaly has stunted its development then why not that too of East Anglia – a region whose most successful team, Fairs Cup winners Ipswich Town, are nicknamed the Tractor Boys?

For a dedicated football fan, watching the sports bulletins on Points West is depressing fare indeed. This year’s highlight? Swindon’s League One play-off final – and defeat – against Millwall. At least next season I have Holloway’s familiar Bristolian twang to look forward to. And with Blackpool likely to be on the receiving end of a fair few drubbings I can probably expect to hear plenty of it on Match of the Day. Ok, it isn’t much, but it’s worth getting out the cider for. Will Hodges

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