Rob Holding was a £2m signing from Bolton Wanderers in 2016
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The caffeine and the adrenaline were still flowing through Rob Holding’s veins when, in the early hours of the morning, he decided the time had come to treat the world to an unexpected live performance. Unable to sleep after Arsenal’s win at Brighton last month, he picked up his guitar, put Oasis on the speakers and started a live broadcast on his phone.
“I am surprised it came across as well as it did,” laughs Holding of the Wonderwall rendition that followed. “I am really not as good as people think. People think I am actually good. I just showed the three chords I know — the rest was a nightmare.”
Inevitably, the brief video prompted some playful jibes from his colleagues. “Robert go to bed,” wrote Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish in the comments. The show was certainly unusual but it was also further proof that, even in this strange world that professional footballers inhabit, Holding has never been afraid to do his own thing and be his own man.
The two-time FA Cup winner still comes across as a cheery lad from Stalybridge, and he still feels like it too. “If I want to go into town, I will jump on the tube,” he says. “I don’t think about getting a private car so I don’t get hassled. If someone recognises me and wants to chat, I’ll have a chat. The novelty of that doesn’t wear off. In Manchester everyone is a bit nicer so everyone chats, but in London it’s a bit quieter.”
Holding is in high spirits, and that quip about southern surliness is delivered with another of those laughs. He has every reason to be happy right now, having just signed a new deal at Arsenal after emerging as one of their most reliable performers this season. “A new contract shows you are part of the manager’s plans,” he says. “It is that security, and I think it is proof of the hard work I have put in since lockdown.”
Mikel Arteta has come to rely on Holding in the middle of his back four
The contract, which ties him to the club until at least 2024, is also proof of how quickly things can change in football. Only a few months ago, at the start of this season, Holding was on the verge of joining Newcastle United on loan. Arsenal had signed centre-backs Gabriel Magalhaes and Pablo Mari in the transfer window, and had welcomed William Saliba back from France. They started the season with eight central defenders.
“We signed two centre-halves over the summer and I was thinking, ‘am I even going to be involved in this?’” Holding tells Telegraph Sport. “At 25, I have to focus on playing. I spoke to the manager and said there was a loan opportunity that had come up, that I needed football. After my injury [a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in December 2018] I needed a year to play.
“It was all agreed, and the club thought it would be the best move for me. But in the week before the Community Shield against Liverpool, the boss pulled me aside and said he wanted to check that I was focused for the weekend because I was needed. I told him that, wherever I am, I will always play my hardest and put 100 per cent in.
“I played the game, we did well and we won. And then on the Monday, he called me into his office. He said it made no sense to let me go if my end goal was to play here. He was saying I was going to play, that it was my shirt to lose. That was the confidence he put in me. I had a chance then to prove myself, to say to myself: ‘right, if I am going to stay, I am going to play and I am going to try to be the best player.’”
Holding has since started 13 games in the league, including 10 of the last 11, and is arguably more established now than at any point since his move from Bolton Wanderers in 2016, for a fee of just £2 million. “Knowing you are in the fold for games, it gives you that push,” he says.
Holding went toe-to-toe with Chelsea and Diego Costa in the 2017 FA Cup final
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A few years ago, after a famous tussle with Chelsea’s Diego Costa in the 2017 FA Cup final, former Arsenal defender Per Mertesacker (now academy manager) described Holding as the bad cop to his good cop. Holding is now creating a similar dynamic with Mari, his centre-back partner since Christmas. “I am a bit nastier than Pablo,” says Holding, who is expected to play alongside Mari against Crystal Palace on Thursday. “Pablo is the most positive person on the planet. You see him and he will just make you happy.”
Arsene Wenger once said he was “sorry that Holding did not cost £55m”, and the focus of the fans has tended to drift towards more expensive arrivals over the years. Since Holding joined, no fewer than seven centre-backs have been signed by Arsenal. Yet here he is, leading the defensive line and playing as well as he ever has.
“I’ve survived each round,” he says. “It’s only natural for a footballer to see someone sign for your club in your position and doubt whether you are wanted or if you are going to be playing. But I don’t look at it and think I am giving up because we signed a new defender. I am up for a fight. If I have put 100 per cent of the best I can be into it, and that guy still plays over me, then I’ll hold my hands up and say OK, maybe he is better than me. But I know I can look myself in the mirror that night and say I gave my best that day.”
It is this attitude, alongside his performances, that has endeared Holding to Mikel Arteta. In a huge squad, with a range of characters, he is known to be one of the most hard-working and professional. He says that discipline comes from his father, Stuart, who has a background in the military.
A home match against Liverpool in August 2016 was baptism of fire for Holding
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“My dad loves rules,” Holding says. “He is very military in style in terms of timings. If I am a minute late, he is fuming. So I am never late for anything. When I was younger we would drive to Bolton after I finished school, and we would get there an hour and a half early. That was my dad and it has rubbed off on me.
One of the more remarkable stories of Holding’s career is that his first ever trip to the Emirates was on the day he made his Arsenal debut, in a 4-3 loss to Liverpool in August 2016. On his first Premier League appearance, Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane produced a masterclass of attacking football. “Jeez, they came out flying in the second half,” he remembers. “It was crazy.”
It is a sign of how much he has grown, then, that he went toe-to-toe with Mane at the Emirates at the end of last season, throwing the Liverpool winger to the floor and then exchanging words with the visiting bench.
“There were words said, and Jurgen Klopp got involved,” he says. “We were all giving each other a bit of stick. I remember it getting [Alexandre] Lacazette going, he got really hyper off it. People were telling me to relax and keep my head, but I was fine. I don’t mind that. It was a little thing that ignited the team. And for me personally it was important to do that, to stand up for myself.”
Standing up for himself, and standing up for the club. That is the approach that has always been taken by Holding, a survivor and a fighter who is now at the heart of the Arsenal defence.