Scotland’s young gun Jordan Holsgrove making his presence felt at Celta Vigo
Midfielder’s hard work has resulted in increased game time and a trip to Atletico
Celta’s Scottish midfielder Jordan Holsgrove comes under pressure from Villarreal Manuel Trigueros at the Balaidos Stadium in Vigo on January 8th, 2021. Photograph: Miguel Riopa/AFP via Getty Images
At the end of his first full professional game, Jordan Holsgrove got a message from his older brother trying to take credit for what he had just done – and, the way he tells it, Arran might just have had a point too. “He sent me screen shots: ‘look, this is what I said and this is what happened’,” the Scotland U21 international reveals. “Before the game he had sent a text saying: ‘if you get anywhere within 25 yards just hit it’. That was probably in my head a bit and as soon as it came, I just hit it. I’ve always trusted my technique, so...”
So the ball flew into the net. Holsgrove had only been on the pitch six minutes and was “just buzzing”, he says. “The manager had said: get on the ball, see if you can make us play, create some chances”. Chacho Coudet didn’t say anything about scoring a superb volley, but he did that too. It was some start. The problem was that Celta Vigo were already 4-1 down at Ibiza with three minutes left and finally went down 5-2, knocked out of the Copa del Rey by the team from the third tier.
“I was like, ‘can I celebrate?’ No, I can’t. I’ve got to run back in,” Holsgrove says. That was the bad news; the good news was that it wasn’t long before he was running on again. Three days later, he played the whole of the second half against Villarreal in the league. Last weekend, he was given the last half hour against Granada. On Monday evening, he travels with the squad to Madrid to face Spanish league leaders Atlético.
Born in 1999 in Edinburgh where his father Paul played for Hibernian, the son and grandson of footballers – Paul’s career took in 17 clubs, John played at Crystal Palace, Wolves, Sheffield Wednesday and Stockport – Holsgrove had long wanted to play in La Liga. “My dad got me into Spanish football from a young age,” he says. “I grew up watching Xavi and Iniesta; I loved the way they played. We used to watch so much Spanish football, the kind of football I thought suited me.
“The second I heard ‘Spain’ I was like: ‘yeah, I’m going’.”
It was the summer of 2019 and Holsgrove was playing a preseason game in Seville with Reading when he was seen by the sporting director of third-tier Atlético Baleares, who asked to take him on loan for a season. Baleares were top when lockdown began but having been ever-present, he was recalled by Reading and he missed out on the playoffs when football finally restarted in July. And without him, Baleares missed out on promotion.
The style was not exactly that “Spanish” dream – “I expected to go there and it would be all tiki-taka,” he says laughing – but he adapted and impressed hugely, a technical number eight but a dynamic athlete too, someone who sees himself eventually slotting into the middle of midfield.
“It looks like there’s nothing of him, skinny as anything, but then you go in the gym and he could bench press more than anyone: the strength in his arms, bloody hell,” one Baleares team-mate says, laughing. “He couldn’t understand a bloody word at first, had no idea on the tactical instructions, but the way he strikes the ball with both feet is insane, honestly. Just mad, man. Mad.”
Holsgrove laughs when that’s relayed back. “Well, erm,” he begins, “I had this same injury three times at Reading and I kept hearing: ‘you’re not physically ready yet, you’re not ready; technically, you’re good enough, but physically you’re not.’ And mentally that pushed me. Suddenly I became a gym freak, in there 24/7, and that has continued. I want to make sure I’m an all-round player, not just a technical one.
“I watched my dad at non-league level but I don’t have real memories of him playing professionally,” he continues. He’s seen tapes though: “Black and white,” he laughs. “He would be there pinging the ball about and his weak foot is better than mine still. He said to me: ‘if you want to be a footballer, I’ll help you.’ I said: ‘yeah, I want to be a footballer.’ So he said: ‘in which case, this is what you have to do.’ He insisted on me using both feet. We would spend hours practising: against the garden wall, turns, technique. I did it because I needed to, I knew.”
At Baleares, it wasn’t just team-mates who were impressed. Opponents were too and that opened a new door, with first division Celta Vigo making an approach. Did it help that he had played against Celta’s B team for Baleares? Is that where he got noticed? There’s a hint of a giggle. “Well,” he says, “we won 6-1 that day”.
Initially signed for the B team, Holsgrove got his first team opportunity in the Cup and others have followed. It’s a step up – he was especially impressed with Dani Parejo, “a proper smart player who I love to watch, so intelligent on the ball” – and far from easy. Still less with the pandemic, and naturally at times he has felt isolated. But the experience has been good for him. “It broadens your horizons, it’s a whole new experience, you learn a language, there’s so much to it. I’m lucky to have taken the step when I did because it’s going to become much more difficult now [with Brexit],” he says.
“The manager at Baleares didn’t speak a word of English, but that helped me learn it. I do a lot of lessons and spend hours and hours on Duolingo. I understood the football language fast and I’m better now. There have been times when it’s really difficult. There were games at Baleares when I had a couple of bad touches, people started saying things to me and I had no idea what they were saying, times where to be completely honest I was struggling. It’s really frustrating. But it was a learning curve to go through that.
“In terms of language, it’s easier now in the first team than with [Baleares or the B team]. Emre Mor speaks English, Aidoo, Okay, Denis Suárez. But I try to make sure I speak Spanish too, that I’m with the whole group, not extracting myself from that,” he says, running through the squad, the players he’s now learning from. “You see Iago Aspas, his input: all the young players look up at him as the man setting the level and he’s really nice as well. He talks to us, he’s helpful. It’s like he’s the captain.
“With the pandemic, I found it really hard. Even now. I was fortunate my family came at Christmas – I couldn’t go back because of quarantine rules – which was really important. It’s hard; I’m in a foreign country and I don’t have anyone with me. But it’s football and it’s what I want to be doing.”
He does it well, Celta fans impressed by the smooth touch, his assuredness on the ball, the ability to turn away from opponents. There are none in the ground to gauge the reaction – “I always dreamed of playing at this level in front of 30,000 as there would normally be here but that’s the way it is” – but social media offers a glimpse.
And he’s doing it all in the place he wanted to do it too, with a trip to La Liga’s leaders on Monday night. Could you see yourself playing out an entire career in Spain? “Yeah, for sure,” he says. “But for me now there’s no plan: just enjoy it. My dream was always to play in one of the top divisions. I’ve made my debut now and hopefully I’ll accumulate many more minutes. I just want to keep playing and then whatever happens, happens.” – Guardian