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Tuesday, 02 September 2014

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Raiders boss has no time for putting his feet up

AS the man taking on the challenge of leading Barrow Raiders into a new era, Darren Holt has a big task on his hands. But, as he tells PAUL TURNER, the Craven Park coach has taken on the task with relish and is ready for just about anything

IT’S a cold winter’s afternoon and summer rugby seems an eternity away.

Outside, the Craven Park pitch is a frozen expanse, the hard frost having taken hold of the playing surface and showing no signs of relenting with its steely grip.

There is an icy wind whipping in from the Irish Sea, the cloudless blue sky mockingly cruel in its refusal to bring any warmth to this small corner of Furness, where in just a few weeks’ time Barrow Raiders will start a season as big as any in recent years.

Darren Holt has just been for a walk out on the grass, boiling hot cup of coffee in his hands, steam rising into the air as he declares the rutted pitch perfectly playable with more than a slight wry grin on his face.

The truth of the matter is easy to see as he returns indoors to the Jimmy Lewthwaite Suite. He points out his own portrait on the wall of Barrow greats on the way up and questions where Pat Trainor’s is, then wraps himself up in his fleece and takes tentative sips from the cup, now surely no better than lukewarm after its venture into the frigid Furness climate. You always imagine Holt as being slightly bigger than he is.

Half-backs have never been the giants of the rugby league game, yet when you picture him in the mind, Holt seems somehow half-a-foot taller, though no less stocky.

The deceptive size is due in no small part to his character – bigger than that of even the most gargantuan of prop forwards, more lively than the sprightliest winger and with intelligence some cynics would tell you is impossible in a professional sportsman.

Yet here he is, arms folded around himself as he realises someone forgot to put the heating on upstairs, a good few inches smaller than me, though with significantly more bulk – he’s not fat, it’s just that I’m the exact opposite.

This is the man who in November took his immense personality and nous and decided to apply them to the biggest challenge of his rugby career.

Three months after taking charge of a Barrow Raiders team that had no players, had been relegated because of financial irregularities under the previous board and was facing record debts, all is remarkably rosy.

“It’s already been too long,” he jokes when I point out just when he took charge. “I’ve done well, I’m surprised I’m still here!

“I haven’t even had a fall out with anyone yet, it’s amazing! Just wait until the season starts though.”

He won’t have to wait long.

Despite the frostbitten grass and metaphorical polar bears wandering the terraces just beyond the window, his first season of summer rugby league as a coach is on the horizon.

That Barrow enter that season with a level of optimism unthought-of on that equally chilly November afternoon when he was unveiled as the new man in charge, is down in no small part to the magic he has worked in only a short time.

With 295 first-team appearances for Raiders to his name – thus earning him the honour of that picture on the wall – and having spent the majority of his playing career at Craven Park, Holt knows exactly what rugby league means to this town and this club.

He also knew the size of the job ahead of him when he took the coaching reins, but in less than 100 days he has signed on 28 players – many unexpected – put in solid performances in four pre-season games (okay, three-and-a-half) and had Barrow installed as one of the favourites for promotion. While the new board have been working hard to ensure the club survives off the field, Holt has been doing his utmost to see to it that they thrive on it.

“It was double-edged when we took over,” he says. “Yes, we were building from scratch because of what had happened, but at the same time it was a blank canvas.

“We weren’t governed by things that were already in place, it was the case that we could come in and implement our own systems, our own operations down the ground in terms of training, logistics and certain other things. We put them all in place and the fact it was a brand new start actually helped us settle in.”

He goes on: “I was anxious when I took the job. Don’t get me wrong, I had already done a lot of spadework before I took the job – I’m not that silly!

“I had an inkling of what would happen, but obviously this is a professional sport and it is money-dependent.

“Although we have the same parameters in terms of the salary cap, with the recent goings on down at the club, I thought that might be an obstacle.

“But the response I have had from the players has been absolutely superb.

“We’ve pretty much signed every player that we wanted to sign, which not many clubs will be able to say.

“I was a bit anxious about how it was going to go, but it has panned out nicely.

“Compared to other teams, it’s a big squad and I think it’s a good one.”

There are few who would argue with that assessment, with other coaches expressing their admiration for a squad which contains former Super League player Andy Bracek alongside fresh-faced amateurs Dan Toal and Andy Litherland, experienced heads such as Jamie Butler and Liam Harrison lining up with cross-code converts Andries Venter and Mike Botes.

A squad of 28 is unheard of at Barrow in recent times, especially since the reserve side folded.

In recent seasons, there have been barely 20 players on the books and loan players and dual-registration signings have become de rigueur – that will certainly not be the case this time around.

Instead, Holt has the challenge of keeping a large squad happy when not all of them will be playing every week.

It is not a task that fazes the Barrow chief though and he says: “Keeping everyone happy is probably the biggest challenge with a squad this size.

“How do you keep a squad of 28 people happy when, realistically, only 18 are going to be in the squad come game day – including the 18th man?

“In that regard, I have tried to be as fair as I can with the players. We have had four friendlies and we’ve got the Northern Rail Cup that we are going into.

“When we signed these lads on, I promised them that they would all get an opportunity to impress and to showcase what they can offer the team and the club.

“Everyone will have had that opportunity, so when the first competitive team is picked, it will be picked on the players’ merits, their performances and their efforts and attitudes at training.

“I don’t think any player initially will have any grounds to gripe.

“Going forward, we have got a big squad, there will be rotation through the year to give players game time, but that’s what I am here for, that’s what I’m paid to do.”

He adds: “I wouldn’t have signed them if I didn’t think they could step up and do the job.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s still early doors and there are still some players who are new at this level and they have to be blooded – you can’t throw them in at the deep end in the first competitive game.

“You think about our first game at Leigh in the Northern Rail Cup – they are one of the best teams outside Super League. When you take into account that some of our players are coming out of the amateur game, young lads who haven’t played at anywhere near that level before, it would be a bit irresponsible to throw them in there at the deep, it could give them a big knock.

“We’ll take every game as it comes within the squad and there will be different reasons why the squad will be picked along the way. I will explain it to the players and I’m sure they will be mostly happy and they won’t complain.”

The size and quality of the Barrow squad has brought with it heightened expectations both among supporters and in the wider rugby league world.

Fans have watched the recruitment of players such as Bracek and Andy Ballard with surprise that they should return to Barrow, while Toal and Andrew Dawson have been exemplary in their displays for players who have only just stepped out of the amateur game.

But the expectations away from the dressing room have not led to a change in the goals or ambitions within it. Holt is happy with his lot, but he is by no means getting carried away and he laughs down any suggestion that Barrow are certain to do anything.

“We haven’t moved the goalposts,” he states firmly. “With the squad we have signed now, now that we have them together, yes my expectations have risen.

“I think the squad we have assembled is definitely good enough to challenge for promotion this year, but I suppose every coach at every club in this division is saying the same thing at the minute, but I’m confident.

“The pre-season games that we had, I didn’t have any expectations. All I wanted to see every week was things being taken on board, things that we wanted to implement and improve on out on the pitch.

“For the majority of the games, that has been the case. I think we had a slip in the last game, but that was a bit of a mish-mash of a game, trying to give 27 people game time, and I don’t think you can read too much into that.”

He adds: “I’m not for one minute saying that we are going to go out and we are going to win everything.

“I understand, it’s a natural thing for the fans. They support the club, they see the squad that we have got together and they will be feeling positive, especially after what has gone on in recent years and at the end of last season.

“I think there has been a bit of a buzz around the place with a predominantly local squad and I hope they do get their hopes up. It’s my job to come in as coach and deliver. If I don’t do that, then I won’t be here for very long – it’s as simple as that and that’s the way it should be.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with confidence. I think you need it to be competitive at this level and if I can get that confidence across to the majority of the squad, then I think it will be beneficial to this club.

“I think that’s what we need when we go out on the pitch – confidence.”

Confidence is certainly something Holt has never lacked, whether it be out on the field staring down a charging prop as he launches a kick down field, or with a microphone in his hand and his shirt on the floor as he performs his best karaoke – a sight and sound forever engrained on the memory of anyone who has witnessed it.

That confidence, more often than not, bring with it success.

He is hoping the same in his new job and, taking a final sip of coffee now as cool as the air outside, he adds: “The end goal for the end of the season is simply to get up into that next division.

“If I do that, then I can say my job is done.”

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