When we found out that NCEL striker Lee Holmes had announced his retirement at the end of the season, we had to have a chat with the Non-League legend and ask the prolific striker about his career, retirement and the state of the NCEL and football in general.
You’ve decided to retire?
“I have. I’ve had a good chat with Ryan, the missus, the kids and a few people in and around that I’ve been involved in football with for many years. It just seems like the best time and the best solution for me, going forward.”
I bet your wife’s happy!
“Kind of! She’s fully supportive of anything football-wise that me and the kids do because I do the junior sections as well and various other teams. It does take up a lot of time but, on the Saturday side, she knows it’s time for myself and it’s time for me to wind down. When I go down and I play; football doesn’t feel the same and aches and pains are becoming more and more difficult. I’ve got a knee problem at the moment, which isn’t helping at work, so it just became kind of an easy decision to make.”
What clubs have you played for?
“I started at off at Rossington then I moved on to Retford United. I did a couple of seasons at Retford United when they won the NCEL One and the Premier Division then into the EvoStik. I then came back to Rossington, had a short spell at Staveley and Worksop Parramores, which is now Handsworth Parramores. I did a stint at Harworth as well, then Rossington, but Rossington’s always been somewhere that I’ve gone back to, ended up and played a lot of my time at.”
You’ve managed to win most things in the region: the NCEL’s Division One and Premier Divisions, the EvoStik South to name just a few. What’s been your proudest moment?
“The proudest moment’s been becoming Rossington’s all-time scorer, more than anything. It’s something that I’m incredibly proud of. It’s something that’s always with me for ever; I don’t think it’ll get beaten for a long, long time, with players tending to move for small amounts of money now. I can see that sticking for a long time!”
As you say, you’ll probably be top scorer for a while. Do you think anyone will even ever eclipse that? There’s little loyalty in football, like you’ve shown.
“I’d like to think somebody could beat it because it means the club would do well. It means the club’s playing well, they’re achieving. At this time in football if someone can emulate the goals that I’ve scored then the club will be a success. Going forward, that’s something that I’d like to see: hopefully the lad whoever beats it one day. I’d like to be a part of watching as well as me taking part in that.”
You’ve scored 275 goals for Rossington. Can you pick out your most important goal for Rossington?
“There are a couple that come to mind. I got a hattrick in the Wilkinson Sword semi-final against Louth, which is probably one of the most memorable nights I’ve had with the club. My favourite goal was one that I’ve put on my Facebook today, which was against Worksop Parramores away from home. The video shows about twelve or thirteen passes and then just a tap in but it was the best team goal I’ve ever been a part of. That’s the one that always gets talked about by all the lads that I pal about with from Rossington, and it’s one that will stick in my mind for the longest.”
Now, looking forward, what’s the plan for next season?
“I’m probably going to have a couple of weeks off, just chill out, relax, recharge the batteries, see how the knee is. Like I said on my statement, it’s retiring at this level more than anything. I’d still like to go out and play a bit of football, whether it’s every now and again on a Sunday morning, just keep my eye in, or maybe even helping the second team out when they’re short every now and again. That’s something that I’ll still keep my eye in with but, at this level, the commitment, the travelling, the training and the knocks and injuries, I just feel like there’s nothing more I need to do at this level.”
“It is the end, but it’s not going to be quite the end. It’s just keeping my eye in with the second team possibly and helping the young lads come through there. Regarding next season, I’ve had a chat with Ryan. There’s possibly a role on the horizon with Ryan but it’s early days really. I have been helping him for the last several weeks, assisting Ryan so hopefully, moving forward, we can make something happen and see what we can get planned for next season.”
Is that the ultimate aim, to go into a coaching role and eventually maybe become Rossington’s Manager again?
“I’ve already been there; I’ve got the t-shirt! I was very young, very naïve, learned a hell of a lot from it but, short term-wise, it’s not something that I think I’d like to get back into and especially with Rossington. It’s too up close and personal for me to go back into that role at that particular club at the moment.”
“Never say never! Possibly one day it could happen but, short term, I can see myself just sitting back, enjoying myself and reflecting a little bit. Possibly helping Ryan next season and assisting him in moving the club forward and trying to progress some of these lads up and through the ranks.”
The club’s not had the greatest of seasons, if you’re honest about it! Why do you think that is and what do you think they can do to move forward?
“Brutally honest, this season we got it wrong from Day One. The appointment was rushed over the summer, I felt. Me leaving at the end of last season was a bad move. I think Lee’s a fantastic manager. Whoever gets hold of Lee next is in for a massive treat because the work he does, on and off the pitch, and what he gets out of his players is just phenomenal. I was disappointed to see Lee go.”
“We had a very young, very naïve side at the beginning of the season and we struggled. I think we would have been relegated, in all honesty, the way we were going. It turned messy, then with Carl leaving we lost direction again and it made it very difficult for Ryan, who was trying to implement his own style. You need a little bit of guidance doing that and, when the main man at the club leaves, it leaves it hard for Ryan. To be able to have someone you can talk to, communicate with, organise and we just haven’t had anyone really to take up that role as yet. The lads who are there at the club, still do a fantastic job but you can never replace what Carl had and what Carl brings.”
“It’s been difficult but we’ve started to turn a corner as of late. The performances probably haven’t merited some of the results we’ve got but I can see a bright future. If we can keep Ryan next season I think the sky’s the limit with Rossington with their facilities and their fanbase. It’ll only grow stronger. I don’t think we can get as low as we’ve managed to find ourselves this season with our performances and our mentality. I think we’ll only learn from it and come back stronger.”
There are four promotion places in Division One next season. Do you think it’s time for Rossington to really push on and finally make it into the Premier Division: something that they’ve never managed to achieve?
“With four places up for grabs you’re going to find 10-15 teams thinking they’re going to be one of the teams that are able to get it. I firmly believe in the staff we have at Rossington, the locals, the youth system and it’s more than do-able. You look at some of the achievements of other teams in the League this season – Dronfield, Worsbrough – who have struggled of recent years but they’ve really stepped up and, if that’s the case next season, we could be a part of that group who step up and takes the League by storm a little and surprise a few people. Why not?”
“There’s no reason why any team in this League can’t win it. Obviously budgets are a budget and teams do suffer with lower budgets at times and teams with the higher budgets tend to always peak at the top, but I think if there are four, it will become wide open. A little bit more money might be ploughed into the division for certain teams and it’s definitely a challenge I think we’re more than up for and capable of achieving.”
You mentioned money there. Do you think that money’s a massive part of the game? On the flip side, Dronfield and Worsbrough don’t pay their players and they’re currently sixth and seventh, which is a fantastic achievement for them.
“It’s a great achievement and it’s something that both clubs should be proud of. I know a lot of the players who are in and around their squads and they’re great guys. They just work hard. They’re a group of friends, which goes a long way in football. If you’ve got your mates playing with you, you’ve got each other’s backs, you know each other inside out and it works.”
“The two lads who run both sides I know them quite well as well. They’re genuine lads and they just love football. They create an atmosphere in and around themselves and people want to be there. They want to work hard. They want to do the dirty stuff and they roll up their sleeves and get on with it. You don’t see anyone moaning about it. They’re not holding their hands out for an extra £5. They just get on with it, they do their job and it’s refreshing. It’s been a great asset to the League this season, to be honest.”
Do you think that other clubs could learn from that?
“I think a lot of clubs should learn from it because money goes to players’ heads. I’ve spoken to a lot of lads this season who don’t want to play North Counties Eastern football for less than £50-£60, yet they’ve never played at that level before! It would be the highest they’ve ever played and they want the money first.”
“I’m a big believer in you earn the right to have your shirt and if you get a little bit of money for it, you’ve done really well and you can be proud of that. First and foremost, you have to work hard and you have to earn the right to have your own shirt, whether that be a sub or a starting place. Just go out there, put a smile on your face, sweat on your brow and enjoy yourself.”
“Prove people wrong because a lot of kids come through and they get a little bit of abuse and they get told they’re not good enough. I was 16 and I came through. I made starts out wide; I played wide right for the first three or four seasons. Essentially I wanted to be a centre forward and I got my head down, I worked hard and I managed to achieve some of the things I did and that comes from dedication, working hard and the want to prove people wrong, the want to challenge yourself to get the best out of yourself.
I see that dwindling a lot in some of the youngsters that are in and around the League at the moment. They just take it for granted. They need to remember: you work hard and you’ll reap the benefits. You will jump up leagues, teams will want to get hold of you and you could be a part of something great.”
Who do you think are going to win the Northern Counties Eastern League Division One? Grimsby Borough, Campion or Hallam?
“All three teams are very different and Hallam have a certain style that works for them that no team in our League are good at. They really are a tough side to play against. Same as Grimsby. They move the ball around really well, they pull you out into areas you don’t want to be in and they’ve got some very good strikers that seem to finish it really well and are very solid at the back.”
“For me, I thought this season that Campion was the best side we’ve come across. They had everything: pace, ability, strength, height, willingness. I’d like to think Campion, but my heart tells me Grimsby will probably just pip it!”
It’s a shame that the second placed won’t go up. Their points in the NCEL won’t be enough.
“The League and the FA need to look at that because the North East Counties is the strongest league in the area. It’s really tough. The players in and around that sort of area, they could play a lot higher. The money involved in this League is ridiculous. The set ups are getting better and you see teams move sideways to get a quick promotion. You look at Teversal: they finished something like second or third bottom the other season, moved sideways and came second with virtually the same team.”
“It just shows how strong a league the North East Counties is and it is going from strength to strength and it is going to be a hard challenge each year for somebody to try and get promoted out of it. For the teams that are in it, the people that are running the teams and the players in and around that it’s tough. Hopefully we can be one of those teams who rise to the top and start progressing.”
Do you think that the League is so competitive that they’re effectively being punished with the League’s points per game system? Some leagues only have to play 22 games and can win 15 or 16 games to achieve promotion easily from second place.
“I think removing the play-offs was a massive factor. The play-off system was the best thing put into this League in all my time in playing in it. It kept the League going for longer. The last three or four games we’ve been a part of, they’re dead games. The crowds tend to die down and people lose interest with it because it’s not as competitive. I know the managers and a lot of players will say “no, we treat it like it’s the same” but they honestly don’t.
You’ve seen Penistone. Penistone went up through the play-offs, I believe, and they’ve gone from strength to strength. It shows that not always the best teams do go up and the play-offs give those certain teams that little bit of help and they progress from that.”
“The FA need to look at this. They need to establish what level we’re playing at. Are we the best in the area at this level? I believe we are. I played at the Central Midlands and when I played there for six months there were only three teams that were worthy of playing in it. So even in that set-up they’re all comfortable to go into the North East Counties and do well. Retford FC are a great side. I’ve watched them this season and they will surprise a few heads next season.”
“The bridge between a lot of leagues is too big. I think we’ve got the strongest by a long way and I do feel we’re getting punished and hopefully it can be reviewed and a proper system can be put into place that’s consistent, year in year out. Changing the rules each season and changing the promotion styles just causes havoc. People don’t know whether they’re coming or going. Players and managers move because they’re trying to be successful and moving the goalposts delays that and it has a knock on effect through the League.”
“Hopefully they will get it right and they’ll stick to it! It’s better viewing. As a supporter I’ve travelled round. I get out and watch a lot of games and it’s just better to watch. It’s more competitive but when one team’s running away with it, it can be done and dusted with five games to go. It leaves the rest of the games dead and buried, causing havoc at the end of the season and hopefully they get it right!”
A huge thank you to Lee for his time and to Ellie Dalglish for her excellent transcribing skills.