Walking out of Riccarton for the final time wasn’t what Jason Holt expected aged 21.
Having been a Hearts player since ten years old and a lifelong supporter of the club, he left Edinburgh with a heavy heart last month to join Sheffield United on loan. By his own admission, it was a jump he simply had to take.
Holt’s Hearts contract expires this summer and he was frustrated being a bit-part player at Tynecastle this season. The fresh challenge of life in England’s League One, and the prospect of more game time, held serious appeal. Sheffield United have an option to sign Holt permanently when the loan agreement expires in May and the midfielder is eager to prove himself worthy of a contract.
“I’ve been at Hearts a good number of years but I think it just came to a point where I was looking for more regular football and maybe a new challenge at the same time,” he told the Evening News. “When that opportunity came about I jumped at it. I think it’s something I had to do. I’m at a stage in my career and an age where I didn’t want to be sitting about. I was coming on in some games and starting the odd game at Hearts. I think I just needed a new challenge.
“It was strange actually, going into Tynecastle and collecting my stuff and then walking out. Then I went to the academy to collect some stuff. I was saying goodbye for the time being to all the boys and to Gogs the kitman and people like that. It was weird. I’d gone on loan to Raith before but that was a few years ago, so it felt strange.
“I was used to just going in every day at Hearts, but sometimes in life you need a new challenge and I think it was the right time for me. I would go back to Hearts in the future, why not? But for the time being I’m trying to make an impression down here and get something sorted if I do well.”
Holt found himself marginalised as new signings like Morgaro Gomis, Prince Buaben and Miguel Pallardo commanded the Hearts midfield places. A substitute role wasn’t for him. The departure came earlier than anticipated for a player reared in the Riccarton youth teams and who graduated from the academy as Scotland’s Under-19 Player of the Year. Holt explained why he will forever be grateful to Hearts for his development.
“I’m thankful for everything they did for me and the opportunities they gave me. England wasn’t on my mind but when this opportunity came I knew I had to take it. I’m 21 now so I’m at the stage in my career where, if it’s not going for you, then you try something different. I’ll always be thankful to the coaching staff at Hearts and the managers who have given me opportunities. I’ll always be grateful for that.
“I spoke to Robbie Neilson [head coach] a lot throughout the season. He was always honest and open with me and that’s all you can ask for. He told me his thoughts and I told him my thoughts. I think both of us agreed I just wasn’t going to play as much as I wanted to. It’s just one of those things in football.
“It’s always frustrating when you’re not playing. The team has been doing so well this season so it’s hard to go and say I want to play. It’s just frustrating. I don’t think you can let it go and take the huff. You need to stay professional as a player, go into training and try your best. That’s what I tried to do.
“My agent told me there was a possibility of going to Sheffield United and when he told me they were interested I was really keen. I’ve been down here a couple of weeks now and the games are coming thick and fast, which probably helps.”
United were away to Notts County last night in their fifth game already this month. An impressive 3-1 win at top-of-the-table Bristol City on Saturday boosted hopes of promotion to the Championship. Holt played an important part in his team’s first goal by prodding the ball goalwards after the City goalkeeper Frank Fielding parried his initial shot. Matt Done, the former Hibs winger, rammed it into the net and took the acclaim, but Holt has launched an attempt through official channels to have the goal credited to him.
“I’m definitely trying to claim it,” he laughed. “The manager, Nigel Clough, has told me to go and be positive. When I get the ball he wants me to do what I’m good at, which is driving forward and making those attacking runs. I’ve taken all the advice he’s given me so far on board, as is the case with the coaching staff and senior players. It can only improve my game.
“I’ve come on in the middle of the park in the number ten position. I’ve played in the middle and further forward and it’s suiting me well. Those are the positions I like to play. It’s just good to be getting some game time in a different league and our result at the weekend was brilliant. I can’t have any complaints so far.”
For a player more diminutive than domineering, Holt stressed he has no issue with the physical side of English football. He has watched similarly slight players from his local area make light of their size at Bramall Lane. “I knew Marc McNulty and Stefan Scougall, who are from Edinburgh,” he said. “I’ve played against them and with them when I was younger so that helps. All the boys made me feel welcome so I’ve settled in well so far.
“Sheffield United play a good style of football. They’re all about trying to pass the ball and play the right way. It suits me down to a tee really. I fit in well, I’ve enjoyed the training and the matches I’ve played so far. If you’ve got the ball down on the deck and playing then the physical side isn’t really a problem. Even up in Scotland there are physical guys, so it’s no different. If you play football, you won’t have a problem.”
Holt left his boyhood heroes Hearts hoping to do just that – play football. The next three months are pivotal to his career as he bids to secure that permanent contract in South Yorkshire.