Profile of Paul Holland’s career as a player at Mansfield Town

By Martin Shaw

In January 2002 Paul Holland returned to Field Mill as Mansfield Town youth team coach. He had left the club 6 years earlier, after playing 4 full seasons for the Stags, and being involved in a promotion, a relegation, and a play-off campaign.

Holland was the only player in the Stags history to play for England under-21 side whilst at Field Mill. Many fans regard Holland as one of the finest players in the Stags history, and he would probably get in most fans' All Time Best Stags XI. His reputation was one of a tremendous box-to-box player with remarkable commitment, but one who ultimately suffered more than his fair share of injuries.

Born in Lincolnshire on 8 July 1973, and having gone to school in Sleaford, Holland joined the Stags in August 1987 at associated schoolboy level, and then became an apprentice in July 1989. He was a product of the FA School of Excellence, and had already represented England at Schoolboy level and under-19 level by the time manager George Foster handed him his league debut on 11 May 1991, in the final match of the season away to Crewe. Before the game, Foster said "He’s only 17, but if you’re good enough, then you are old enough, and Paul has a very mature attitude. He is a man in a young man’s body and I’m sure he will hold his own at this level. Paul is fortunate that he is a good strong all-round player. He could probably do a job up front if I asked him. But it’s at the back or in midfield that he will make a living." The Stags lost the game to Crewe 3-0, but Foster was full of praise for the youngster who played in midfield: "I was very pleased with Paul. He had an excellent debut in difficult circumstances. To look at him on Saturday at 17 years old, you would have thought he was an experienced pro if you didn’t know better. I’m sure Paul will be fighting for a first team place next season if he can keep that up." Meanwhile club captain Steve Charles also praised Holland saying "The only positive feature of the game was the debut of young Paul Holland. In recent weeks I have played alongside him in the reserves and he has always played well. Like myself he has represented his country at under-19 schoolboy level and proved a success. The professional game is much tougher, but I feel if Paul keeps his head and continues to work hard then, with the right advice and encouragement, he could do very well."

Pre-season of 1991/92 started well for Holland as he blasted a 25-yard volley after 77 minutes to rescue a draw at Stafford Rangers. The Chad described the goal as: "you will be fortunate to see a better goal in any class of football in the coming season". He kept his place in the first-team for the opening game of the season away to Scarborough and earned the Chad man of the match award for his classy performance in midfield. Once again Foster enthused: "I was delighted with young Paul Holland. He’s only 18 and no-one would have guessed he was only playing his second game. Without getting carried away, he was excellent." After just 4 games, the Football Post was asking if readers could spot the likeness to Paul Gascoigne. In the third league game of the season, Holland became an instant hero as he smashed home a brilliant 25 yard drive to seal a 2-0 win at Chesterfield and earn another man of the match performance. Modest Holland said after the game: "It dropped nicely for me and I just had a go. Sometimes they hit the corner flag, but this one flew in. It was a marvellous feeling. Although I’m not from Mansfield, I’ve been with the club since I was 14 and been involved in the rivalry with Chesterfield since then." Meanwhile assistant boss Billy Dearden said : "I don’t think you’ll see a better finish than Paul’s if you watch TV until the end of season. He struck it as sweet as a nut."

Holland scored his second goal with a flying header in a 2-0 win at Rochdale in the 10th game of the season, to propel the Stags to the top of the Division 4 table. It was another man of the match performance from Holland. His next goal came 6 games later in a 4-3 win over Gillingham at Field Mill, as his low crisp drive found the net. Just after Christmas 1991 he netted against Chesterfield in a 2-1 win at Field Mill, heading home from close range. This was despite playing at right-back as cover for injured Paul Fleming. Two games later he scored again in a 2-1 win at York, heading home, after Kevin Gray had headed on Gary Ford’s corner. Holland was sent off for striking Dean Barrick in a draw at Rotherham in January 1992 but was soon back with a vengeance, and played a couple of games in central defence. Commenting on this, Holland said "Before this season I always thought centre-half was my natural position, so it wasn’t difficult for me to fit in. When I made my debut in the last game of last season it was the first time I’d really played in midfield but I’ve enjoyed playing there ever since. Playing alongside Steve Spooner has helped me a lot because he is always taking me on one side and giving me advice on where I’m going wrong and I think I’ve benefited from that." Holland then became the Mansfield Observer’s player of the month for February.

Holland scored again against Carlisle United at Field Mill in April 1992 as Stags came from behind to win 2-1 and maintain their position in the top 3. Holland’s goal came as he headed home a Gary Ford free kick. Stags gained promotion in a famous final day of the season as rivals Blackpool lost at Lincoln whilst Stags defeated Rochdale 2-1 at Field Mill. Holland said "Words cannot describe the way I feel. We had a shaky start, but when we started winning confidence grew and we just went from strength to strength. It’s been an absolutely brilliant season, I couldn’t have asked for anything better. I never thought I’d be in the side, let alone a promotion-wining side. I felt very young and a bit out of place to begin with. But since Christmas I think the other players realised I can play a bit and have let me do my own thing. I’ve tried to keep my feet on the ground and the rest of them keep me in line. Most of the practical jokes tend to be on me! Now all I want to do is keep my place and find success with Mansfield. Obviously I can no longer play for England Schoolboys. The under-21s is my next aim if I can be lucky enough." Holland was runner-up in the Mansfield Observer’s player of the season competition. He ended the season with 6 goals from 38 league games, missing just 4 games all season.

At the start of the 1992/93 season, Holland was moved into central defence to partner Kevin Gray, and he was immediately man of the match in the opening 2 league games of the season before being stretchered off unconscious during the Coca-Cola cup tie against Newcastle at Field Mill, when the Stags were narrowly beaten on aggregate. However he only missed one game, and soon scored his first goal of the season with a flying header in a 5-2 win over Bradford, after Greg Fee had flicked on Gary Ford’s corner. By this time, George Foster had moved Holland back into midfield saying "Our most consistent defender this season has been Paul Holland, but despite playing in the heart of defence I feel that he is better value to us in midfield at the moment." Holland was again the Mansfield Observer’s player of the month for August and September. However knee surgery in early October kept him out for a month before returning with a man of the match performance in a FA Cup defeat away to Shrewsbury.

Holland continued in good form but Stags were sitting in the bottom four of the Division 2 table. His second goal of the season came as he slid home a Gary Castledine cross as Stags led Swansea 3-1 when Holland went off injured. The game ended 3-3! Stags were already relegated by the time Holland scored his third goal of the season in a remarkable 5-1 win at Preston. Holland scored crashing home a drive unmarked. At the end of the season Holland collected both the Chad and Mansfield Observer player of the season awards. He had scored 3 goals from 39 league games.

The following year, 1993/94, was the only season in Paul Holland’s career at Mansfield in which the club was not involved in a promotion, play-off, or relegation. Holland played most of the season in midfield, and had to wait until November 1993 for his first goal with a brave header in a 2-1 home win over Gillingham. The following month Holland scored the only goal in home win over Northampton, side-footing home into the roof of the net. He then rescued a point with a late equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Scarborough in January, poking home a Kevin Noteman through-ball. This was at a time when new boss Andy King played Holland in defence, midfield and attack in successive games.

Holland scored the winner in a memorable 3-2 success at Scunthorpe in February 1994. Holland had earlier gifted Scunthorpe a goal with a bad pass, but captain Steve Parkin told him to forget the mistake because he would go on to score the winner! He scored again in the next game at home to Crewe as the Stags were beaten 2-1. His goal game when Kevin Lampkin launched a long ball from the back and Holland beat his marker before rounding the keeper to score. Holland’s outstanding form earned him second place in Match magazine’s Division 3 player of the month for February 1994, and boss Andy King said "Paul has all the attributes to go right to the top … he reminds me very much of Roy Keane." Around the same time, Mansfield rejected a derisory bid for Holland of 35,000 from Chesterfield. At the end of March, Holland scored in successive games, firstly with a fierce right foot drive at home to Bury in a 2-2 draw, and then he looped a brilliant overhead kick into the net at home to Colchester in a 1-1 draw. Holland ended the season having scored 7 goals from 38 league games, and was, for the second season running, player of the season, as awarded by the Chad.

Season 1994/95 was a season of great excitement as Stags reached the Division 3 play-offs with free-flowing football, and knocked out Leeds in the Coca-Cola Cup. Before the season started in July 1994, it was reported that the Stags had rejected a bid of over 150,000 from a first division club. Chairman Keith Haslam said "It was a fairly substantial offer for a club at our level to turn down. But we really want to go all out for promotion this season and the last thing we want to do is sell our best players. To have lost Paul now would have been a dreadful blow as we know how important the early part of the season is." Manager Andy King added "I’m delighted he’s staying. It doesn’t surprise me we’re getting offers like this as I rate him as the best mid-fielder in our division, and better than most in other divisions too." Holland himself added "The offer came as a bit of a surprise. It was flattering but I wasn’t disappointed to discover that the club had turned it down. I still have another year left on my contract at Mansfield and I have been concentrating totally on giving my best for this club. Obviously I am ambitious and if I can play consistently well this season, I will hopefully attract interest from bigger clubs." Holland added that he believed he had blossomed under the management of Andy King: "He encourages me to get forward which is the way I’ve always preferred to play. Since he arrived at Field Mill I have played the best football of my career." The season started well for Holland as he scored in the opening game of the season at home to Colchester with a brave diving header from Steve Parkin’s cross, as Stags won 2-0. Holland said after the game "I broke my nose in an earlier challenge and I took another bang on the nose when I scored. I probably straightened it out the second time." Holland scored again at home to Northampton in September nodding in Ian Baraclough’s left wing cross at the far post as the game was drawn 1-1. He then scored in successive games in October in 2-0 wins over Gillingham and Hartlepool. Away to Gillingham, Holland scored with a chip over the keeper after a defence-splitting pass from Wilkinson and at home to Hartlepool he swept the ball high into the net from Simon Ireland’s right wing cross. In between the two games, Stags enjoyed a memorable victory over Leeds United in the Coca-Cola Cup earning a 1-0 aggregate victory with a 0-0 draw at Field Mill to gain nationwide media attention. Holland said "There is a lot of excitement at the club and I am enjoying being part of it. Our league form is getting better and there is a feeling in the dressing room we can beat anybody, the place is really buzzing since the Leeds game."

A month later, first division Port Vale offered 180,000 for Holland and the player travelled to The Potteries for talks over personal terms but after 24 hours mulling it over, Holland decided to turn it down saying "It just didn’t feel right. If it had been an offer from a big club that would have benefited me footballing-wise, it might have been different. But they didn’t come over as much of a bigger club than Mansfield and I am quite happy at Mansfield. I am enjoying my football. There is a buzz around the place and the lads still believe we can gain promotion." It was revealed at this stage that Port Vale had been the first division club who had made the earlier 150,000 bid in July. At this stage of the season, Stags were lying below mid-table.

A week later, Holland was handed the captaincy from central defender Lee Howarth and injured Steve Parkin with Andy King saying "I didn’t have a leader out there. I really need someone who can shout and organise. I’ve no-one who can do that at the moment but Paul leads by example". Two weeks later, Holland scored, sliding home a cross from Mark Peters as Stags won a thriller 4-3 at Scunthorpe but failure to win either of the next two games left the Stags with just 22 points from the opening 18 games in mid-December. In the FA Cup, Holland was the hero with 2 goals against Northwich Victoria in a 3-1 win in the First Round, his first goal coming with a firm header from 8 yards from Baraclough’s curling cross, and his second with another header from another Baraclough cross. In the second round, Holland was the hero again with a 90th minute winner over non-league Halifax as he scored with a firm downward header from yet another Ian Baraclough cross in a 2-1 win to set up a tie with mighty Wolves. Meanwhile Stags were about to embark on a fabulous run of ten wins from the next 15 league games scoring an incredible 47 goals in that time. Holland himself was on the scoresheet in a 4-3 win over Wigan slotting the ball home from six yards following Steve Wilkinson’s mis-cued effort. Then he scored two goals in a 4-0 win away to Wigan just 3 games later, firstly heading home Simon Ireland’s corner and then heading home from an Ian Baraclough cross. Two games later, Holland scored again heading home a Simon Ireland cross in a 4-0 win over Gillingham. By this stage, Stags were firmly in a play-off place but at the beginning of March, Holland tore knee ligaments at home to Rochdale and Andy King proclaimed "He won’t make another league game for us this season. I can’t replace him as there’s no-one in the division or the country like Paul Holland. There’s only Roy Keane and he isn’t available." But within a month, Holland had made a shock return to the side as Stags made a final push for the play-offs and they secured it with a 2-2 draw at home to Torquay United. Holland admitted "I would be telling lies if I said I hadn’t thought about Wembley during my lay-off. Even a lot of the top players have missed out on Wembley appearances. I will probably never be in a better position to realise my dream. My knee is still sore and I haven’t been able to train properly." The Stags were in the play-offs for the first time in their history and in the first leg of the semi-final at home to Chesterfield drew 1-1. Holland played most of the game as an emergency centre forward after Iffy Onoura was injured early on. In the second leg, Holland put the Stags ahead after just three minutes with a header from an Ian Baraclough free-kick, but it all went wrong in extra time as Stags lost 5-2 on the night, after having two players sent off.

Holland was Mansfield’s Player of the Season according to Shoot magazine though Steve Wilkinson was the Chad reader’s choice. Holland was also chosen for the PFA Third Division Select team. Holland ended the season having scored 9 league goals from 33 league games, plus another play-off goal and 3 FA Cup goals.

Within a couple of weeks of the play-off disaster, Holland was celebrating a shock call up to the England under-21 squad for an international tournament in Toulon, France, in June 1995. Holland said "This came out of the blue and I’m pleased to have the honour of playing for my country again. I wasn’t expecting anything like this and it’s the perfect way to end the season." Holland played in all four of England’s games in the tournament against Brazil, Malaysia, Angola and France with the side including David Beckham and Philip Neville of Manchester United. The Daily Telegraph report of the Brazil game noted that Holland had one shot that went wide from close range as England lost 2-0 whilst, in the 2-0 win over Malaysia, the Independent noted that England’s first goal came when Joachim scored after Holland had flicked on a long kick from the England keeper. After a 1-0 win over Angola to reach the semi-finals, England lost 2-0 to France but only after they had to re-organise when, as The Guardian reported "the Mansfield midfielder Paul Holland went off injured with score at 0-0". Afterwards Holland said himself "I wasn’t expecting to play, I was expecting to be sub but I played in all the games. I thought I did alright. I enjoyed it."

Immediately after the England under-21 tournament, on 14 June 1995, Holland left Mansfield to join Sheffield United as their manager Dave Bassett flew out to Toulon to secure his signature, for an initial 250,000. Holland said "As soon as I found out it was Sheffield United it was hard to put to the back of my mind. I’m delighted and I never had any second thoughts. It wasn’t a hard choice to make. I had four great years at Mansfield but Sheffield United are a bigger club. I’m sad to leave, but to get on, I had to leave - it’s a great move for me."

It was a nightmare time for Stags supporters as the heart was ripped out of the side, with top-scorer Steve Wilkinson and goalkeeper Darren Ward leaving at the same time, and Ian Baraclough leaving shortly afterwards.

In his career at Mansfield Town, Holland scored a total of 25 league goals (plus 1 in the play-off) from 149 league games (plus 2 play-off games). He scored a further 3 cup goals in 25 cup games.

Holland only stayed at Sheffield United for 6 months, scoring 1 goal in 11 league starts, before joining Chesterfield in January 1996. In nearly 4 years at Saltergate, Holland scored 11 league goals in 108 league starts. He joined Bristol City in September 1999 for 200,000 and scored 1 league goal in 27 league starts, before being forced to retire as a player, and re-joining the Stags as youth team coach in January 2002.

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Photos of Paul Holland - taken from the Chad, Mansfield Observer, Football Post, Stags Matchday Programme, Chris Bradshaw.

Below: May 1990

 

Below: The Football Post compares Holland to Gazza in September 1991

 

Below: Holland with England schoolboy cap

 

Below: Holland scores at Rochdale in October 1991

 

Below: Holland scores at home to Gillingham in November 1991

 

Below: Holland scores at home to Chesterfield in December 1991

 

Below: Holland scores at York in January 1992

 

Below: Holland in action against Newcastle in August 1992

 

Below: Holland scores at home to Bradford in September 1992

 

Below: Player of the Season

 

Below: Holland scores at home to Northampton in December 1993

 

Below: Holland scores at home to Bury in March 1994

 

Below: Holland scores at home to Colchester in April 1994

 

Below: Player of the Season, 1993/94

 

Below: Holland before the 1994/95 season

 

Below: Holland scores at home to Hartlepool in October 1994

 

Below: Holland scores at Scunthorpe in November 1994

 

Below: Two photos of Holland scoring at home to Gillingham in February 1995

 

Below: National newspaper reports of Holland playing for England Under-21

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