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José: The Calculating Rebel

Nick Catley says a fond farewell to Mr Holebas


Fans love players for all sorts of reasons, and José Holebas hit just about all the marks from the start. Querying whether his transfer was valid after it had been officially announced, petulant social-media sulking when he wasn’t selected, agitating for an early exit when his team were in an ultimately unsuccessful relegation fight. The classics.

Sorry, my mistake, these are all the reasons footballers don’t match up to those from previous generations, all the Things That Are Wrong With The Modern Game.

So why did so many of us end up loving José Holebas quite so much?

Partly, of course, it was because he was a seriously good player. It’s probably fair to say he was as valuable going forward as defending. His left foot could be a thing of beauty, whether delivering set pieces or crossing from open play, and he was regularly near the top of our assist chart, topping it in 2018/19 with seven. He scored a few too – his goal to round off our 4-2 comeback win at West Ham in September 2016 was impressively struck, although it should probably have been saved, and earned me a brief appearance on Match of the Day, jumping around in the front row with a joyous lack of coordination.

He was a solid enough defender, too – pacy and strong, if with an occasional tendency to be caught out of position, unsurprising given his attacking tendencies.

He always worked better with a safety net of three central defenders to fall back on – playing with two sometimes left him, and us, horribly exposed.

Clearly, though, these are not even close to the reasons we took José to our hearts. I don’t particularly subscribe to the idea that modern players aren’t really bothered – if nothing else they know that tens of thousands of people, maybe millions, are holding them up to personal scrutiny. But José left no room for debate whatsoever. It mattered. You could tell in the ground he covered getting back into position, and in the alacrity with which he snapped into tackles. But mostly, you could tell from the beautiful regularity with which he threw his toys out of the pram. He lost it with opposition players. He lost it with teammates. He lost it with officials. He lost it with coaches. He lost it with errant blades of grass. Indeed, my brother and his companions used to run a sweepstake on the timing of the day’s first Holebas Strop. Anything over 45 minutes was a very rare winner.

Tied in with this was his disciplinary record. José liked a yellow card, picking up 40 in 114 League matches at the lowest games-percard rate in Premier League history, while his 14 in 2016/17 remains a record. His prowess in this area became notorious across the land. Secretly – maybe not-sosecretly – we loved to see him add to his tally.

So is this the José we loved – an aggressive, mindless hothead who stuck it to The Man by booting fancy players up in the air?

Well – again – not really. It’s a difficult case to argue, but José wasn’t a particularly dirty player. If he had been, he wouldn’t have avoided straight red cards - the only one he got, for denying a goalscoring opportunity against West Ham, was later rescinded, meaning we avoided having our left-back suspended in consecutive Cup finals – it turned out José had read the situation better than the referee. Many of the cautions resulted from ‘taking one for the team’, impeding players escaping into gaps he’d left on forward runs – runs we needed him to make for us to be an effective attacking force. Add on the bookings for dissent, and you’re left with a pretty standard number for a Premier League defender.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the 40 bookings were in 40 different games. José walked a tightrope as impressively and assuredly as Charles Blondin at Niagara Falls. This lack of second yellows was no coincidence - his record suggests he never actually lost his temper at all, he just put it carefully in a drawer for safekeeping, whether to motivate himself, intimidate opponents, chivvy teammates or make refs think twice about their next decision. Far from his wild-man image (one you suspect he was not unhappy for people to hold), he was deeply calculating and professional.

He also played a key role in a defence that often lacked leadership. He perhaps wasn’t a classic organiser, but he got amongst people.

He made things happen.

The Cup semi-final against Wolves was a classic example. It would be stretching a point to say his throw-in created Gerard Deloufeu’s wonder goal, but he was the steadying, driving, shouting influence who kept us going when it all looked over. If he hadn’t moved heaven and earth to prevent the festival stage from being destroyed in the storm, Deloufeu wouldn’t have been able to play on it with such virtuosity and panache.

It was this kind of inspiration that was sadly lacking in our post-lockdown run to relegation. Things went wrong, and no-one seemed to have any idea how to put them right. This made it particularly difficult to understand why José was given just 18 minutes in that period, especially as he contributed to two goals No doubt there were off-field ‘differences of opinion’, but still…

José’s spell at Watford ended in as much confusion as it had begun, with news of his early departure effectively being confirmed by his wife’s posting of packed cardboard boxes on Twitter. Somehow that seemed wholly appropriate. We’ll miss you José.