With people beginning to doubt whether Ryan Lowe will take the vacant managerial position at Plymouth Argyle, more eyes are turning back towards Ian Holloway as an option to lead the club into a new era.
Ian Holloway has had a long and varied managerial career. He’s managed seven different clubs for a total of 951 matches, winning 343. He’s achieved three promotions, but won no league titles. He’s appeared in three Championship play-off finals and won two – no individual has appeared in or won more.
And yet, he’s been relegated three times, jumped ship at Bristol Rovers in the middle of a relegation battle which they ultimately lost, and was sacked by Millwall with the club staring relegation in the face. He was also sacked by Crystal Palace after losing 7 of the first 8 games of their first season back in the Premier League.
Having started out at Bristol Rovers as a player-manager, he stayed with the club for four-and-a-half years before leaving to join QPR, who were struggling a division above in what we now call the Championship.
Holloway was unable to keep QPR up, or achieve a play-off finish in his first full-season at the club, but he did reach the play-off final the next year, which he lost to Cardiff City. In 2003/04, he won the first promotion of his career, finishing runners up behind yours truly, Plymouth Argyle F.C. He had QPR comfortably mid-table in his first and second season, but Holloway was placed on gardening leave and ultimately sacked as a result of persistent rumours linking him with Leicester City, foreshadowing future developments.
Holloway next turned up at Argyle, pushing the team forward to establish us as contenders in the division with a first-team rich in quality. Yet, his unsustainable spending played a role in Argyle’s financial trouble and near-extinction in the following years. In the end, he did end up at Leicester (in acrimonious circumstances), but was sacked after leading the club to relegation to the third tier for the first and only time in their history.
Finally, things clicked into gear for Ollie. He joined Championship side Blackpool and led them to the Premier League via the play-offs with the smallest budget in the division. They were relegated on the final day at Old Trafford, but he immediately returned them to the play-off final in 2012, losing to big spending West Ham. The next season, he left the Tangerines in November to join Crystal Palace and achieved his third play-off final, and second victory, in four years.
If the early years of Holloway’s career were defined by climbing the managerial ladder – walking out on Bristol Rovers for QPR and Argyle for Leicester – and the middle years a renaissance, in which he found his style and achieved his greatest successes, then his most recent seasons has been its nadir.
He joined relegation threatened Millwall and barely kept them in the division, only to be fired the following season with the club favourites for the drop. He then returned to QPR, but could not inspire the team. He just about kept them up in his first season and achieved a lower mid-table position in his second, before the club fired him in the summer of 2018.
By this point, his football had become uninspiring and results had followed. For the past season, Holloway has been unemployed and worked as a pundit.
Holloway’s philosophy revolves less around tactics and is far more about mentality. Rather than being a manager who would design a team to dominate its opponents, he prefers to focus on extracting the very best from the players. His approach is about motivating his squad – both as a collective and individuals.
Holloway uses that motivation to install belief and encourage his players to make high-risk passes and attempt dribbles. He uses it to draw attacking football out of them. Whereas Ryan Lowe used tactics to induce an all-out-attack style, Holloway often attempts the same using a mental approach.
This focus on motivating a team to produce their all, instead of constructing a team using carefully planned tactics, has prevented Holloway from consistently delivering league success. His teams routinely go through significant periods of declining form as a result. However, when faced with pressure situations, his teams come out on top more often than not.
A great example of this is their play-off semi-final victory against Nottingham Forest in 2010. Forest were unbeaten at home since mid-September (coincidentally it was Blackpool who beat them then too). In that time, they won 17 out of 19 matches, scored 40 and conceded just 5, keeping 14 clean sheets.
Blackpool were only 2-1 up on aggregate; any smart person would have bet their money on Forest to turn the tie around and reach Wembley. But Blackpool handled the pressure. Twice, Forest took the lead on the night and levelled things on aggregate, only for Blackpool to strike back.
With just twenty-minutes to go, Blackpool equalised for the second time and it looked like they were going to have to weather the storm in order to book their place in the final. Less than two-minutes after the goal, ‘keeper Matt Gilks made a superb one-on-one save with his feet at the near post and the rebound was cleared off the line.
You’d have expected Blackpool to panic, sit back and cling on to their lead. Instead, they pushed on, committed men forward and delivered a devestating counter-punch.
The goal symbolised their attitude: the desire to get the ball forward and seal the tie; the belief in their own abilities to cut through the defence and make the chance; the composure to finish it.
Even after scoring again, they committed men forward once more and scored a fourth, twice as many as Forest had conceded at the City Ground in 2010 as a whole.
Indeed, Holloway’s ability to extract higher performance levels during pressure situations explains his success in the play-offs. To win twice in four years is nothing short of remarkable. This is without even noting that he did so with the lowest budget in the league the first time, and only the 12th largest budget with Palace.
Even in his lost play-off final against West Ham, they created the better chances and should have probably won the game on the balance of chances created. That time around, Blackpool’s wage budget was only the 18th largest.
His man management techniques should come as little surprise, given the charisma he often displays in public. For example, back in 2013, ahead of their final day victory against Peterborough that guaranteed their place in the play-offs, Holloway delivered this speech to fans ahead of the game to motive them:
His best successes in his career have tended to come when fighting against the odds. Leading Blackpool and Palace to promotion via the play-offs. Almost keeping Blackpool in the Premier League. Inspiring Millwall to safety with an eight match unbeaten run.
His ability to enable players to believe in themselves is his greatest attribute as a manager and the underlining attribute of his managerial philosophy.
Style of play
Despite his undoubted success, Holloway has never been a tactical visionary. Instead, he’s tended to follow the curve and implement the most popular formation of the time: 4-4-2 at Argyle, 4-3-3 at Blackpool, 4-2-3-1 at Palace.
However, Holloway isn’t a total dinosaur when it comes to modern ideas about how the game should be played. He would have never made it as far as he did without a level of understanding of those parts of the game.
In his masterclass on the play-off final between Blackpool and Cardiff for The Coaches Voice, Holloway demonstrated a clear understanding of how he could use his tactical system to counter Cardiff and build sustained periods of attacking pressure:
While Holloway does not have a signature style of play as such, it would be unfair to not use one obvious word to describe the way he wants to play: attack. It was about encouraging his team to shoot when they get the chance; to play in a risky, creative, attacking way to open up opportunities to score. It was about expressing themselves in a positive manner.
Even in the Premier League, with an incredibly limited squad – many of whom wouldn’t have looked out of place in League One – he was able to extract exciting, attacking football. His side netted 55 in the Premier League – as many as 5th placed Tottenham – ranking them joint eighth for goals scored. They only failed to score in eight of their league matches. Blackpool even scored two goals at home and away to champions Manchester United.
Against teams with budgets far exceeding theirs, whose first-teams were more than a class above man-for-man, Holloway extracted moments of sheer quality from his limited squad by encouraging their attacking instincts.
However, this has soured in recent years. As Holloway has become visibly older, his teams have begun to look stale. After returning to Queens Park Rangers, he worked with the biggest wage budget he’d ever had access to, and yet he was unable to inspire his team.
In 2017/18, exactly half of all of QPR’s goals came from open-play crosses or set-pieces. Holloway transitioned from a manager who encouraged individual skill and passages of fearless attacking play, to relying on set-pieces, direct football, errors and long shots. To watch every goal from his final and only full season at the club since he returned was thoroughly uninspiring. You can see why the fans were dissatisfied.
On a smaller budget, and with less time to mould a team, Holloway had previously created more potent, fearless, attacking forces. Not at Millwall. Not at QPR. He almost seemed a shadow of his former self.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a manager who plays an unattractive style of football, especially if it’s successful, but Holloway’s was not. And if one thing is for certain: the dour style of play on offer at Home Park for a significant portion of Derek Adams’ period as manager was a factor in the fans wanting change. What was the point in removing Adams if it was only to hire someone who would operate in the exact same way?
One of the main benefits to Holloway’s arrival is that his lack of a distinct style of play means he can adapt to the squad that will be available to him, instead of the squad having to adapt to him. So while the arrival of Lowe could require specific types of players to make his tactical plan successful, Holloway would be able to walk into the stadium and begin to assemble his best eleven from what is already available before having to go out shopping for more.
Holloway could also meet Hallett’s desire to successfully promote more players from the academy. He has rarely shied away from promoting young players and giving them a chance before. Just take the debuts he gave to Dan Gosling, Gary Sawyer, Scott Laird, Cherno Samba and Ashley Barnes.
Holloway has also been saying all the right things with regards to seeking out a long-term project. As he stated in an interview earlier this month:
“I want to get back to work but I don’t want it to be at a club where there is every chance I could be moved on after six or 12 months. At the stage I’m at in my career, I’m looking for a project. I want to be at a club I can move forward. I want to develop young players – for me, it’s all about learning and teaching now.
“And I want to play in the way I played at Blackpool. That is what I want, it doesn’t matter about the level. It’s all about the project and making a football club better. That’s what I’m looking for”
Yet, let’s not forget that – in the past – his word has hardly been something to hold him to. He jumped ship at Bristol Rovers and Blackpool – and of course Argyle – while his time at QPR was cut short by persistent rumours that he was planning to leave for Leicester.
However, Holloway does represent an exciting opportunity to a significant portion of the fanbase. He brings back nostalgic memories of attacking football in the Championship, of Peter Halmosi, Akos Buzsaky, David Norris and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake.
There is no doubt that his arrival would boost season tickets and expectations for the next season. His reputation in Plymouth has been rebuilt somewhat by his success with Blackpool and Palace, plus the passing of time.
Meanwhile, Holloway finds himself at a crossroads in his career, in need of re-inventing himself once again, or stalling and seeing his career come towards its close. Should it be the latter, then he will exit the stage as a manger (and performer) who achieved a lot and left his mark on the game.
Yet, returning to Home Park, with the club seeking an instant return to League One, and the opportunity to continue the progress the club has made on and off the pitch over a five year period, might just be the spark he needs.
After all, it wouldn’t be the first time he’s used a spell out of football to reinvent himself to great success: