The below interview first appeared in March’s Everton magazine. To buy or download singles issues, click here. To subscribe, click here.
Mason Holgate walks into the dressing room at USM Finch Farm, chucks a book into Ashley Williams’ hands and tells his teammate that he found the paperback buried away in a cupboard at his parents’ house.
It’s a copy of My Premier League Diary
, a first-hand account by the Wales captain of Swansea City’s maiden season back in the top division during 2011/12.
“A few weeks ago I was back in Doncaster and my mum told me to clean out my wardrobe,” Mason explains. “I found the book so I brought it in to show Ash. He didn’t know what to say – I think he was actually excited! It’s a bit weird to think that I read his book and now we are friends. I’m actually reading it again now to catch up on it.”
Holgate, always relaxed, chirpy and cheerful, says that back in high school, Williams’ chronicles of coping with the demands placed on top-level footballers proved as valuable as any maths, science or geography textbook.
“I was in the Barnsley academy at the time and I wanted to read it because I played in the same position. Ash was quite surprised when I was recalling his life story to him!” Now Holgate gets to hear those anecdotes, experiences that have propelled Williams to the summit – domestically and internationally – from the horse’s mouth.
“Ash has taken me under his wing,” the 20-year-old reveals. “Support from someone who is in his position and has played so many games is good to have. Now that we are friends, I can see his lifestyle. We live about 15 to 20 minutes away but I’m always at his house – his wife must be sick of the sight of me!
“When I do play alongside him, he helps me out a lot due to his experience and telling me what to do and where to be. To have someone like that, it’s assisting my game massively.”
Williams isn’t the only person having a “massive” influence on Holgate’s early career.
The young defender is sat talking in the classroom at the Halewood training base, a laptop perched on the desk in front of him displaying the Championship league table.
“They’ve still got an outside chance this year, Barnsley,” he says, eyes fixed on the screen as he assesses the Tykes’ Play-Off chances. “They are still the first score I look out for. The start they had to the season was unbelievable.
“Barnsley lost a couple of players in January but it doesn’t seem to have affected them. They are still doing just as well. They still seem to have a good team spirit, especially with Paul Heckingbottom as manager.
“I’ve worked with Hecky since Under-16s level. It seemed that whenever I went up an age, he did as well. He was a coach in the first team when I was there and I would say he has had the biggest impact on my career. I still phone and speak to him now. He watches my games, still gives me advice and tells me what I should be doing.
“When I was at Barnsley, Hecky and I used to do a lot of one-on-one work to improve my all-round game. We would watch clips together and stay behind to do extra work, all geared towards helping me get to the next level. I thank him for that, and [former manager] Danny Wilson, who gave me my first-team debut [in December 2014].
“In lower divisions it’s hard to find a manager that will play young people. He gave me a chance and I took it. He didn’t have to keep playing me because when I got my opportunity it was only through injuries and suspensions. Once I did well, he kept me in. I was only 17 at that time so for him to keep faith was encouraging.
“I’m massively grateful for my upbringing at Barnsley. It has made me into a player that can perform at this level.”
It’s evidently clear that Holgate remains close to his routes – his broad South Yorkshire accent gives that game away. Ironically, despite progressing through the youth system at Oakwell, Holgate grew up in the nearby rival town of Doncaster. His heritage, however, stretches beyond that, 4,500 miles in fact across to the Caribbean.
“I’m from a place called Balby on the outskirts of Doncaster – there’s actually a few footballers who come from Donny. Danny Rose at Tottenham is one. His mum and dad live on the street next to mine and I’m good friends with his brother [Mitchell Rose], who plays for Newport.
“My family have helped me out a lot. My mum and dad watch me at every game and my older sister – she’s 24 – comes to quite a few games as well. They all love football and have supported me from the Under-9s right the way through. They were there, watching me play at Crewe for Barnsley’s academy on a freezing cold day!
“My grandma and grandad were both from Jamaica, so I could play for Jamaica. My mum and dad actually got married there when I was younger.”
Holgate joined Everton from Barnsley in August 2015, although his move to Goodison Park may never have happened had it not been for a twist of fate.
“Before I left Barnsley, I went on a two-week trial at Manchester United,” he recalls. “I only did a week though because I got injured.
“It all came about as a bit of a surprise. I got called into the manager’s [Lee Johnson] office one day and he told me I was going to train with United for a couple of weeks. All I’d known at that time was Barnsley so I wasn’t sure what the next level was going to be like.
“It was pre-season and I trained with the Under-21s team, which was coached by Warren Joyce at the time. They were all good lads and I made a few friends, like Marcus Rashford and Ashley Fletcher, who plays for West Ham now.
“I enjoyed my short time there and it prepared me for going into a changing room where I didn’t really know people.”
Manchester United’s loss has proved to be Everton’s gain and this season has undeniably been one of substantial progress for the 20-year-old.
After taking up the manager’s position last summer, Ronald Koeman immediately recognised Holgate’s potential and elevated the young defender to the first-team frame. An impressive pre-season, which included shutting out Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney in the former Everton forward’s testimonial at Old Trafford, earned a starting berth in the opening day stalemate with Tottenham Hotspur.
Holgate has since played more than a dozen competitive games for the Toffees and was rewarded with a five-year contract extension in mid-December.
“It’s been good to get games and show everybody what I can do,” he says. “I’m just trying to get as many as I can. The new contract, it’s nice to know that the gaffer believes in me. Hopefully I will stay for more years than that!
“I have tried to take everything in my stride because if you do get caught up in it, it can become difficult. I’m enjoying playing in the Premier League.”
“COACHABLE AND UP FOR A CHALLENGE”
Paul Heckingbottom, the Barnsley manager, coached and mentored Holgate for a number of years. The 39-year-old’s recent career path mirrored that of the defender
, with the pair working together in the youth set-up at Oakwell before Heckingbottom, a veteran of over 400 Football League appearances, progressed to coach Barnsley’s first team and, ultimately, landed the top job in June 2016.
“When I was coach of Barnsley Under-18s, Mason was coming in on day release as a 16-year-old. That’s when he really started to stand out in terms of his attitude and application.
“What impressed me with Mason was his understanding. If you set him a challenge or explained to him why something would be happening, you would see him execute what you had then asked in a game. When you see that someone is coachable in that respect, it makes working with a player easier and you can approach things in a different way.
“Danny Wilson gave him his debut for Barnsley as a right-back, which I thought he would struggle with. We did lots of one-v-one defending for situations when he was exposed against the winger, so that was an area we worked on. I always thought he’d become stronger at centre-back but at the moment I would say he is equally comfortable at both.
“I’m proud to see him playing in the first team at Everton, as everyone is here. A lot of staff here have known him since he was really young.
“Having thought he might have been stretched in situations before then seen him respond, I didn’t think he would be fazed by playing in the Premier League. He seems to thrive and enjoy that extra challenge.
“Time will tell how far he can go. His priority has got to be knuckling down, playing week in week out for Everton and achieving success. Everything else is out of his hands.”
HOLGATE’S HERO – RIO FERDINAND
“I looked up to Rio because he was a ball-playing centre-half and there weren’t too many about at that time when I was growing up. When I was younger – 10, 11, 12 – he was playing at the top level with Manchester United and for England.
“I’ve met him now, which was a bit surreal. I was out with Ashley and I managed to have a quick chat with him. It’s always nice to meet your heroes.”
A FUTURE ENGLAND STAR?
Ashley Williams explains why Holgate, an England Under-21 international, has the potential to make the step up the senior side for the Three Lions…
“Firstly, I think he’s a really good talent and hopefully he has a massive career. I’ve got close to Mason. He comes to my house and I’m always chatting to him. We are good friends and I’m trying to help him as much as I can to see how good he is.
“He’s a really nice lad who wants to do well, wants to learn and even out in Dubai last month, I spent most of my time with him.
“The sky’s the limit for him as a defender, hopefully for Everton and England.”