Grant Holt: I’ve won over my critics

Grant Holt celebrates after his first-half header  brought Hibs back into the semi-final, main picture
Grant Holt celebrates after his first-half header brought Hibs back into the semi-final, main picture
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Grant Holt knows his presence in the Hibs team hasn’t always been unanimously appreciated by supporters, but the veteran striker believes that, over the course of the season, he has vindicated Neil Lennon’s decision to sign him last summer.

Despite celebrating his 36th birthday earlier this month, the former Norwich City and Wigan Athletic forward has been a regular for the Championship-winning team this season, starting 27 competitive matches and featuring 36 times in total.

As a man with more than 150 career goals under his belt, Holt is disappointed by his tally of five this season. However, he feels that, after taking some time to build up his fitness and sharpness in the opening months of the campaign, he has proven to be an effective foil for top scorer Jason Cummings.

“I know I’ve not scored enough goals this year – that’s been well documented – but I think everything else I’ve been doing has been great,” he told the Evening News. “The last four or five months, I feel I’ve got fitter and got better. It was difficult when I first came in because I hadn’t played much in the previous two years, so I was still working to get my sharpness back. But I’m happy with what I’ve done this year.

“I’m still enjoying it, I play with a smile on my face, and I think the fans can see what they get from me – I work hard, I want to win and I don’t stop. I think they appreciate that. That’s why we’ve got a goal machine [Cummings] who stands up front and does what he does. That’s why he’s got no knocks and no scratches on him this year! Yes, I’ve not scored the goals I would have liked, but if you look at my all-round game since about December time, I think people will be pretty happy with that. That’s me turned 36, so I don’t think I’m doing too bad for myself.”

Holt is out of contract at the end of the season, but is keen to stay on for next term as Hibs return to the Premiership following a three-year absence. He has enjoyed being at Easter Road at a time when the bond between the team and the support is as strong as it has been for some time, as evidenced by the rapturous ovation the players received at Hampden after the agonising 3-2 defeat by Aberdeen in Saturday’s Scottish Cup semi-final.

“I’ve enjoyed it here,” said Holt. “It’s a great club. To get 15,000 fans week in, week out in the Championship and 3000 heading up to Dundee United on a Friday night, that just shows how big a club this is. To have 20,000 fans still there singing and cheering for you after you’ve just lost a semi-final says a lot about what type of supporters they are and also how highly they think of us.”

Holt believes Hibs are entitled to be excited about next season. Life in the second tier hasn’t always been plain sailing, with several points spilled against less illustrious sides, but the striker is adamant his team, who have fared well against top-flight opposition in knockout tournaments, will be better suited to the Premiership.

“People don’t realise how hard the Championship is,” he said. “There’s a reason Rangers were in it for two years and a reason we’ve been in it for three years – it’s a tough league. You go to tough places every other week, and then at Easter Road you have teams coming and sitting in, trying to counter-attack you. It’s not easy. This team, this squad and this club will be far better off up in the Premiership.

“We’ve played 40-odd games this season, with no international breaks, no winter breaks or anything likes and we’ve just taken the second-best team in Scotland to the wire. That shows where we are as a football club, so roll on next year.”

Much of Holt’s bullishness stems from the fact that, over the last three months alone, Hibs have defeated a Hearts side who will finish in the top six and then gone close to doing likewise against a Dons side who look nailed on to finish second despite gifting them a two-goal start following uncharacteristic lapses by Darren McGregor and Ofir Marciano.

“Make no mistake, we wanted to get to the final and win it, so we’re disappointed,” said Holt. “We started sloppy, gave two goals away, changed the formation, got back into the game and were in the ascendancy. We were getting at them and if Jason did a bit better with his chance we could have been 3-2 up.

“I really fancied us at that stage. It was very disappointing to lose from a deflection because Aberdeen didn’t have much in terms of chances in the second half. We had a good run at it and had a good go, but if there are any positives to take from it, it’s that not many teams will come back from 2-0 down against Aberdeen, especially the way they’ve been playing, and really put them to the sword. We made them change formation a couple of times. They went five at the back at one point, which is a measure of how we were playing at the time.”

Although there was solace to be taken from the way Hibs fought back, Lennon was unable to view the match in a positive light. The manager was forced to take midfielder Fraser Fyvie after just 33 minutes in order to change formation as he sought to address a shambolic start from Hibs. Despite their rousing recovery, Lennon was in a downbeat mood afterwards as he delivered a scathing assessment of his team’s performance and inability to seize victory once they got back to 2-2.

“The gaffer was hurting because we didn’t win and he feels we should have won,” said Holt. “He wanted to be in a final, as we all did. We worked hard and lost in a way where people were able to take positives from it, but at the end of the day we got beat. The gaffer doesn’t want that – none of us want that. He’s a winner and he makes difficult decisions, he doesn’t shirk them. Other managers might have waited until half-time on Saturday but he stuck his neck on the line after 30-odd minutes, to the detriment of Fraser, which is nothing to do with what he had done. We just needed a change of formation.”

Hibs return to action tomorrow night as they face Raith Rovers in their penultimate home game. Holt is hoping his team can turn on the style in their last three matches of the campaign to ensure they sign off for the summer on a high.

“We won’t rest on our laurels,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll mix the team up and bit give some players game time but we want to finish with a bang. We’ll have big crowds at Easter Road for our home games against Raith and against St Mirren when we get the trophy, so we want to end with a swagger and get as many points as we can and show everyone why we are the best team in the division and why we’ve won the league.”