Below is a feature written for the original Les Rosbifs in June 2011, detailing the brief stopover Grant Holt spent in Singapore en route to the Premier League with Norwich City.
Singapore has a reputation as being something of a graveyard for English footballers. Those normally attracted to play in the tiger state are the type of journeyman who are looking to prolong their career for another season or two, on the promise of a decent salary in warmer climes. The Englishman normally comes with a story or two to tell about their professional lives back home. As such, they are highly respected – more so than they would be at home – and usually find the standard of the league one in which they can be a dominant player. Former Wimbledon and Brentford striker Gary Blissett and former Peterborough United midfielder Simon Clark are prime examples.
It is a rare beast who goes to Singapore early on in his career though. Even rarer that he returns to the UK, not just a better player but also one who climbs up the leagues. Grant Holt is an exception to the rule. Just one month ago Holt, as club captain and top scorer, was leading Norwich City back to the Premier League promised land. Having established himself as a quality and tough-to-defend-against forward with clubs such as Rochdale and Shrewsbury, Holt has now scored over 50 goals in 90 league appearances for the Canaries, becoming the focal point of their meteoric rise back to the top flight.
Yet rewind nine years. Holt was a struggling, 20 year old non-league defender-cum-striker, getting intermittent matches at the likes of Workington, Halifax Town and Barrow. After giving up football briefly following the death of his father, Holt received a call from Englishman Trevor Morgan, a family friend who was in charge of Sengkang Marine. A four month deal was offered and Holt flew out to the country.
Sengkang Marine were one of the perennial strugglers in Singaporean football. In their previous guise as Marine Castle United, the club had won the “Wooden Spoonist” award for two years running, before a slight improvement to 11th (out of twelve) in 2000 and 2001. 2002 saw a name change in the hope that they could appeal to more fans in the Sengkang area of Singapore.
The year proved to be something different for The Dolphins. Managed by Morgan, they were likened to a traditional English team, in that they played a strict 4-4-2 system that relied on crosses to two big men – Holt and Daniel Hill. Expectations were kept in check though, as is the lot of the fans of the club, with anything better than not finishing in the bottom two considered an achievement.
In a league ruthlessly dominated by Singapore Armed Forces (who lost just one of their 33 games, winning the league by a commanding 20 points), Sengkang Marine got off to a good start, winning 3-1 away to Gombak United on the opening day of the season. There followed a run of five matches without defeat, lifting expectation at the club to unprecedented levels.
As opposing teams got to grips with their style, a run of five straight defeats tempered the thoughts of a title run. Australian forward Simon Harland was scoring the occasional goal, but Morgan was finding out that his side needed something else. Midway through the season, on 5th June 2002, that something else made his debut for the Dolphins in emphatic style. Holt scored a hat-trick as Marine beat Jurong 4-2. With one performance, spirits were once again lifted at the club thanks to the arrival of Morgan’s friend from England.
Despite what may seem like an easy time of it, Holt told The New Paper, “It was actually tough in some ways. There were a lot of good athletes around who were also good technically.” So it proved in his next match against title-challenging Home United. A last minute equaliser from Holt ensured a share of the points, but it also brought home how difficult things were for Marine. As if to compound this thought, they lost their next match to Woodlands Wellington, 4-1, with Holt adding his fifth in three matches.
Despite scoring regularly, it took Holt until his sixth match to experience another win, when a weak Clementi Khalsa were beaten 4-3 thanks to another last minute goal. Scorelines did tend to be crazy in the S-League during this period and while match-fixing was said not to be a problem, an air of suspicion did hang around. A 9-0 home loss in the next match to Geylang United was an embarrassment to Holt, but compared to their next match – a 5-5 draw with Sembawang Rangers – it appeared normal.
Holt made it eight goals in as many games in that match, and bagged another a fortnight later in a 3-1 win over John Wilkinson’s Woodlands Wellington. He would score once more (in a 3-2 loss away to Jurong) before coming back to Barrow in England. He did miss out on the SFA Cup semi-final against Tampine Rovers, which ended in a defeat on penalties for his former team-mates. Perhaps with Holt in the side, they may well have won the match as well as go on to win the competition, seeing as Jurong would have been their opponents.
The season ended with the Dolphins finished a respectable 8th, a performance matched or better just once in their S-League history. Crowds improved as the season went on and the goals went in, with some attendances edging near the 3,000 mark on some occasions; healthy crowds at the time for the competition and a cause of optimism for the club.
For Holt, it was worth the effort. According to The New Paper, he said, “It wasn’t the best league in the world, but it was competitive. It definitely gave me a wider perspective on football and how differently the game is played in different places.”
Holt finished the season with twelve goals in 14 league and cup matches. Even by S-League standards, this was a strong return. Fans of Hougang United, as they are now known, still speak fondly of the Norwich striker and last year, he was named the second best foreigner to ever play for the club, behind former Queens Park Rangers midfielder Michael Currie.
Grant Holt’s time in Singapore set his career going. A goal every two games for Barrow followed, before Sheffield Wednesday took a chance on him as a 22 year old. Rochdale, Nottingham Forest and Shrewsbury Town followed, before his £400,000 deal in the summer of 2009 which took him to Carrow Road. In some interviews, Holt as alluded to his time in Singapore as the moment that made his career, in that it enabled him to mature, and realise that being a professional footballer was what he wanted to do.
Holt and City have not looked back since. Both parties though owe a major part of their recent success to those four months in Singapore.