Brett Holman interview: Green, gold and Oranje-infused – Around the world in 80 riffs for ex-Aussie star

Brett Holman scribed his name a couple of times in Australia’s World Cup history books in 2010, in a tournament that came with its own distinguished Socceroo soundscape. Music, in fact, was often an unmistakable support act for the Croydon Park kid, in a career largely spent light years from home.

Only six have ever scored for Australia at a men’s World Cup and Brett Holman is part of the even more exclusive club to have done so more than once. The attacking midfielder is instantly linked to those moments in green and gold on the greatest stage, enjoying too an impressive club career predominantly spent in Dutch football.

An Eredivisie title winner with AZ in 2008/09, the Sydney native would fly on to the English Premier League and UAE Pro League before his return to the Aussie club game with Brisbane Roar in 2016. Nigh on two decades as a pro owed to various attributes in his armoury, and perhaps also, a guiding hand at a crucial juncture or two.

You won’t find it on the storied list of coaches and managers he had, but the 63-cap Socceroo remembers times when a track that could strike deep and true was as powerful a support as any.

“Yeah, (music was) huge. Away from football but also with football, I think it was definitely in the foreground.

“Mum and dad always used to listen to music, the radio was on, there was always songs playing. There was always a time where I was making playlists or cassettes.

“Leaving Aus so early, going over to Holland alone at 17, I was sticking to that rock and roll sense but also getting into the nightlife. Then you’re talking about DJ Tiësto, Armin van Buuren, all those sorts of DJs, that was nuts.

“It was a huge part and it got me through tough times as well, because you reminisce when you are by yourself and you fall back on music. It’s a motivator and it was a huge role for me in football.”

Long before ‘Brett Holman, World Cup scorer’ had his backing track, the ‘office’ was a little different, but the lust for a raw and raucous wedge of cutting edge was just the same.

“The one that I can actually remember, that I bought myself, was probably Korn ‘Life is Peachy’. I left school pretty early and started playing professional football early, but I was still working as well – I think I was working at McDonald’s then – so it was the best thing to actually pay with your own money.

“I followed in my brother’s footsteps, because he was always into the music side; he played piano, he played guitar, he was into that sort of rock scene as well. I still listen to it today; the gym playlist at the moment, you’ve probably got a bit of Korn on there, Foo Fighters, Metallica, Rise Against could be on there, Linkin Park.”

As he will detail later on, the 2010 World Cup was the culmination of Brett’s most enjoyable spell in football. The image of him with arms out in celebration after racing forward to cut a low shot from range into the Serbia net in Mbombela (Nelspruit) remains synonymous with his career.

A game earlier and a few hours west, in Rustenburg, it was him arriving on the scene to stick away Mark Bresciano’s fumbled free-kick against Ghana in game two of the group. It saw the one-time Parramatta Power youngster join Messrs Cahill, Aloisi, Moore and Kewell (and later, Mile Jedinak) in scoring at a men’s World Cup for the Aussies.

There is something of a strong sonic shareholder in the memories of those weeks in South Africa for the Socceroos players, as highlighted by number 19 from that tournament, Richard Garcia, in the early days of this site in 2011. The ex-Hull City and Colchester United attacker highlighted the prominence of goalkeeper Adam Federici’s playlist during that time together, and it is remembered vividly by Brett as well, a decade on.

“Richie Garcia hit it, because you’re in camp so long, you’ve got the preparations, it’s a massive tournament, and you’ve got one or two songs that stand out. I think the song was ‘Wile Out’ (DJ Zinc featuring Ms. Dynamite); even before training, you’d just crank it on, and it turned into a massive joke.

“A joke plus a big thing for us, because you look back on the movie Gone in 60 Seconds, when they turn the music on and they’re just getting ready to rumble before they go out and start stealing cars, that was our type of moment. That was where Fedders used to come up with the goods in that sense.

“I think there was a big one also around the (2001) Under-17s World Cup in Trinidad & Tobago; I’m not certain, but I think when Red Hot Chili Peppers just brought out ‘Californication’. That was a big one for me, personally.”

Highly significant as his international career was, it was also just one segment of his near-two-decade playing voyage. Jetting off by yourself as a teenager to join a famous European name like Feyenoord, 10,000 miles or so from home, is certainly one way to sharpen your independence.

There are also few places quite like the cut and thrust of a football changing room to get used to thinking on your feet. Spending the next four seasons in the Netherlands’ top two divisions on loan with nearby SBV Excelsior, his decade of Dutch football took him later to NEC Nijmegen and AZ.

Given the moves he made and the teams he had to integrate into, surely Brett can’t have emerged from it all without the initiation spotlight having found him along the way?

“‘Under the Bridge’ (Red Hot Chili Peppers) was the go-to; I knew it off by heart so it was an easy one. I just banged it out because I wanted to get it done and dusted!”

Despite his liking for the Chilis, one of the acts he has seen live, he confirms he never quite took it as far as attempting the choir section of that signature classic. At least not in front of a baying crowd of staff and teammates anyway…

Along with Anthony Kiedis and company, he has got to see plenty of the pros at work down the years.

“Festivals, not really; gigs, definitely. If you really talk about something that blew me away, I’d probably say Sting, but then if I go completely off-track, I took my little girl to Pink and she was amazing.

“For a performance where you walked out of the entertainment centre and you were just like ‘wow’, whatever’s been said in regards to what (Pink) does, it’s all true. She was definitely up there.”

Like the regular closing question to come, there is always ample room for fantasy on Beats & Rhymes FC, so in true Wayne’s World 2 ‘if you book them, they will come’ spirit, who would headline Brettstock, if he had his pick of any bands or performers from all-time?

“I think top of the list would have to be Pearl Jam. I think acoustic Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder, just chilling out, having a schooner and listening to those guys just jam, you’ve won the lottery there for me.”

While he recalls Louis van Gaal mic’d up and acting as compère of sorts at an AZ team dinner, Brett never got to savour the sight and sound of a manager stepping into musical territory with a vocal rendition. He admits, though, he would have dearly loved to have witnessed the example of that put to him: Roy Hodgson’s full-throttle singing along to Men at Work’s ‘Down Under’ during his time as Fulham boss, as recounted by striker Bobby Zamora.

Staying temporarily in fantasy land, if Brett was to ever bravely cross that treacherous border into the music world and record a song, let’s say a cover version, which career teammate(s) would he get along to join him?

“Richard Garcia would definitely be involved. Chris Coyne would be involved.

“Just no-nonsense type of blokes, because they’re the type of guys who would go out and just enjoy it, and that’s what we did with the Socceroos. In terms of a band, they would be the ones pulling me along, definitely.”

Indeed that little bit of support can make all the difference. In a career that encompassed time under managers like the high-profile Dutch triumvirate of Ronald Koeman, Dick Advocaat and the aforementioned van Gaal, Brett considers the kind of approach that hit the mark most with him.

“I think it was different at times, because you get older, you get a bit wiser and you understand the game, you understand what you need. There was probably two huge coaches.

“One was Mario Been, third/fourth year at Excelsior in Holland, and I was just in a dead end; I signed for Feyenoord and I was on loan three years, and I wasn’t going anywhere. He took over the club and gave me a bit of confidence.

“I knew him as a sort of friend of a friend, because he was still a coach at Feyenoord and then took over at Excelsior. He just sort of gave me that confidence and freedom and said ‘just go out there and play the way I think you can play.’

“I became top goalscorer of the club that year, got promoted, and then he took me with him to the next club, at NEC, and obviously I kicked on from there. I think that quiet sort of type, but also understanding me, where you need to give me that freedom, but also when I do need a rocket up the arse, they know when to give that as well.

“He was huge for me because I was at a dead-end point; it was like ‘if I fail now then I’m going home’ basically.”

The second of those standout coaches was a compatriot of former Feyenoord and Genk boss Been, and someone who sadly passed away last November at 63. Brett was named (men’s) Footballer of the Year at the Australian Football Awards in 2012, but he is eternally grateful to his former Socceroos boss here for standing by his side in the stormiest times.

“Pim (Verbeek) was similar (to Mario Been), and because I was there so long, I think I was made for that Dutch type of football mentality and system. I was copping heaps in the Australian media at one stage and he just basically took me under his wing and almost sort of blocked everything out, and defended the hell out of me.

“Ronald Koeman stands out as well; it was so short (at AZ) but also so memorable, because you just felt the presence of the guy and what he meant to football, just in the world in general.”

Playing for Verbeek, for whom he was the only Socceroo to feature in every qualifier for the 2010 World Cup, ties in with the time he looks back on as the happiest and most complete in his career overall.

“It was 2009/2010. It was just leading up to the World Cup as well, and I had a bit of time off because I had a little ankle injury.

“Dick Advocaat was the interim coach at AZ and he basically just said ‘look, we’re doing okay, focus on your rehab.’ He worked together with Pim as well, so he knew what Pim was thinking for the national team for the World Cup.

“So I got super-fit leading up to the World Cup, had a big four-week camp with the Aussies, and it was around that time where I just put my head down and was completely selfish in a way, because it was just completely football. That’s when I was like ‘yeah, I’m killing it.’

“Then when you’re talking about training with the likes of Timmy Cahill, Lucas Neill, Craig Moore, Harry Kewell , Mark Bresciano, but even then I still felt ‘I’m coming through now and I’m still young. I’m gonna play and I’m gonna do well.’

“Sort of that feeling of being invincible in a way, not in an arrogant sense, but more in the sense of ‘I feel great and nothing’s gonna stop me.’ I kicked on after that and got a really good move to Villa, but that period before that, that was the big one.”

A pre-contract agreement was finalised in early-2012 for him to join Aston Villa from AZ, though the manager who signed you quite literally being on his way out the door as you arrive is not the most reassuring start. Villa had been a strong contender in the top half of the Premier League under Martin O’Neill, also finishing 9th in Gérard Houllier’s near-season in charge, but clear signs of the well-publicised later decline were to surface, with Alex McLeish replaced by Paul Lambert after a 16th-placed 2011/12 campaign.

For Brett, he was arriving at 28, with a young family, plus a decade of top-level footballing experience, all in marked contrast to rocking up in the Netherlands as a teenager. He has spoken previously about the strain of that year in England in particular on wife Femke, which he details a little more as he looks back on the overall adaptation.

“We were going left and right, games a hundred miles an hour, so I was travelling every couple of weeks. We had internationals, travelling back to Sydney, Melbourne and God knows where, so it was just a whirlwind in a way.

“The tough one was we had Emma, who was 15/16 months, and my little bloke Mick; we moved over when he was ten days, so the whole travelling in regards to the family side was tough for my wife. Her mum and dad were in Holland, I was by myself when you’re travelling a lot and in hotels.

“Villa was amazing, though, it was top-drawer. To say we loved Birmingham, I wouldn’t say, because for one reason or another, it didn’t suit us, it didn’t work out.

“Not because of the football, not because of the life, it was just the total package, but I was walking in there and literally Alex McLeish is walking out with his box. He’s saying ‘I’m done’ and I’m like ‘yeah but hold on, you’re the one who signed me.’

“He’s like ‘don’t worry, you’ve already signed, but you’re getting a new manager.’ As everybody knows in England, the managers are the ones who basically make the decisions.”

Nevertheless, his 2012/13 is one that he is able to reflect on fondly. Aided by a young Christian Benteke in his goalscoring pomp, Villa ultimately finished five points clear of relegation in 15th, and Brett featured 29 times for Paul Lambert overall.

Netting at Queens Park Rangers in the league, he struck again in the 4-1 win at Norwich that put them into the League Cup semis, though Villa would be the latest top-flight scalp of Bradford City on the League Two side’s astonishing run to the final. A player who would land in the Premier League a year after Brett departed, albeit some way south of Villa and the Midlands (with Southampton), is the first teammate who comes to mind for the most colourful he shared a dressing room with.

“Definitely Graziano Pellè. Graziano Pellè was a huge character, so self-confident.

“Even when he wasn’t playing (at AZ) and he was struggling, he would always walk in, the chest out, cleanly shaven, gel done; the guy was the sexiest man in the dressing room, and he knew it as well, that was the problem! He’d always look good and he’d let everybody know it.

“That would help as well, and maybe it helped him to get by, because he was in a difficult period. He was a joker but he definitely had a good mentality, because he was a hard worker, but he was funny as, he was hilarious.

“I got along really well with him; really good, funny, ‘great for the dressing room’ type of bloke. He jumps out straight away.”

Brett’s next destination after Villa was the United Arab Emirates, with the Dubai-based Al-Nasr SC, the club he was with when announcing his national-team retirement at 30 in April 2014. He had played a sizeable part in Australia’s qualification for that year’s World Cup, netting an extremely significant equaliser against Oman in Sydney in the fourth-round qualifying group.

Brett speaks in glowing terms about his time in UAE, which included a later spell at Emirates Club in RAK City, though because the move from Villa happened so rapidly, he does look back and wonder if he had a shot at sticking in the Premier League. He was a headline signing for Brisbane Roar in 2016, returning home to play in the A-League for the first time.

Under former Socceroos striker John Aloisi, the Roar came 3rd and reached the semis stage of the Finals series in his first season. In year two, they came 6th and went out in the Elimination Finals, before Aloisi resigned nine games into a 2018/19 season in which they would finish 9th. After 11 goals in his first two seasons, a knee problem would rob Brett entirely of his third year at the club.

He remains Queensland-based, but given his origins, are there any plans to settle back in Sydney?

“Obviously born in Sydney, but I think if Brisbane Roar didn’t pop up, we’d still be in Europe; we still had a place in Holland near my wife’s family. I suppose from being so young and not knowing actually where you fit in the world, it’s a bit hard.

“We are in Queensland, we’ve moved from Brisbane up north, probably about an hour/two hours away, away from the city and sort of more to the coastal area. There’s no intentions of going back to Sydney; I think the next one if we decided to move would be back to Europe.

“At the moment, we’re good, the kids are settled back into their schools and I’m retired now, and we’re pretty happy at the moment.”

First meeting during their time at NEC Nijmegen, with Femke working at the club back then, Brett tells how he and his wife still converse in Dutch today. Having done punditry work with Optus Sport, he has recently started the Brett Holman Football Academy as part of his early post-playing endeavours.

“Luckily enough, we don’t have that financial pressure at the moment, where you have to say ‘Monday morning, I’ve got to go and get a job to put the bread on the table.’ It’s almost like I’ve got to find my way again.

“I sort of want to stay in football but I don’t, because I want to do something completely different, out of the picture, out of your comfort zone and just go for it. The hard thing is, when you’re not used to anything else and football’s been your life forever, it’s just hard to figure that out, so I’m a little bit in that space at the moment.

“I’ve started a little football academy up here, it’s going great and it’s really enjoyable trying to bring across some of the things I learned to some of the kids. Optus has died down a little bit, obviously with what’s happened with COVID and that sort of stuff, but I really enjoyed that analysing side of it, it was so much fun.”

In his final encore here, it is back to rocking out in the arena he knows best…well, almost. For the majority of the nine years of Beats & Rhymes FC, the interviews have concluded with the subject asked to envisage a 5-a-side game, for which they are asked to put forward four of their career teammates to fill their line-up (alongside themselves, of course).

There is no emphasis on choosing the outright best they have ever played with, more so on throwing out some examples of the players they know they would love to have on their team again. So, we have had the headliners of Brettstock earlier on, who would be the star names for this one?

“If it was a bit bigger I’d put Mark Viduka up there, but because it’s a 5-a-side game, I’d definitely have Harry Kewell in there, he’s a freak. (After a long pause to think…) Some of the most quality midfielders I played with…I’d probably say Mousa Dembélé; he would have been the one where I was like ‘yeah, he’s unbelievable’.

“Mounir El Hamdaoui would be up there as well; great touch, great technique. I don’t know whether he went too early to Tottenham but obviously Martin Jol loved him.

“I think he went on loan to Derby, then came back to Holland, reinvented himself, went to AZ, became top scorer, won the league. Moved to Ajax, and then even after Ajax he didn’t kick on, when he should have.

“If you’re talking about 5-a-side, those two, Dembélé and El Hamdaoui, would probably be kings, so I could basically sit back and they could just go and run the show. (Asked if he wants to go without a keeper for his final choice) Yeah, no keepers.

“Who was good in the small areas?…Demy de Zeeuw…I’d probably go Steve Ireland; he was absolutely magic on the ball.”

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