In an interview originally published in Everton’s matchday programme for this month's meeting with Burnley, Mason Holgate talks about the unusual injury that stalled his season, a fearless mindset among Carlo Ancelotti’s squad, the defender’s misleading on-pitch persona and ambitions of following in the boots of Club greats.
It was the anguished yelp of Simone Montanaro that told the story of Mason Holgate’s increased standing at Everton.
Montanaro, the Club’s Video and Tactical Analyst, was positioned in Goodison Park’s Main Stand for a pre-season friendly against Preston North End last September.
The cause of the Italian’s involuntary eruption was the sight of a visibly uncomfortable Holgate instinctively reaching for his foot after sliding to make a tackle.
Montanaro, as his title would suggest, doesn’t miss a trick and he’d have known the defender’s name was written in indelible ink on Carlo Ancelotti’s teamsheet for Everton’s opening Premier League match, at Tottenham Hotspur, the following week.
Holgate is the player whose quality “surprised” Ancelotti following the manager’s arrival, the self-assured Yorkshireman who so emphatically muscled in from the periphery last term that his colleagues voted him the Club’s Players’ Player of the Season.
A slow, often frustrating, process towards becoming an Everton mainstay was reaching fruition and it felt cruel on Holgate when he was sawn off by the most curious of injuries on the eve of this campaign.
“I grabbed my foot,” begins Holgate, reliving the immediate aftermath of his challenge on Preston midfielder Brad Potts, “and it felt like my toe had clicked back in.
“I said to the physio [Adam Newall], ‘I think I’ve dislocated my toe'.
“The big toe is so strong, it wouldn’t normally jump out of place, but with the amount of force that went through it, and the position it was in, it popped out.
“Our medical staff had never come across it – it is more of an NFL injury, football wouldn’t usually generate that force through your toe.
“Even before the scan results came back, with how my foot swelled up and the way it hurt, I knew I wasn’t going to play any time soon.
“The toe had come out of its socket and I’d torn two ligaments.
“We had to wait for the toe to settle and the ligaments to come back together.
“I had been confident I was going to start the season in the team and really excited to get going.
“Suddenly, it felt like pre-season had been pointless. It was hard to take.”
Holgate is one appearance short of his Everton century.
For a long while, it seemed he would limp to that milestone, if he reached it at all.
“There have been points I wasn’t sure I would get to that mark,” he confirms, modestly acknowledging “a great achievement because Everton is a massive club.”
Holgate has played more than half of his 99 games – 51 – since the beginning of last season.
When he began Ancelotti’s first match in charge – against Burnley on Boxing Day 2019 – it marked the first time since joining from Barnsley in August 2015 that Holgate had started 10 successive Premier League fixtures.
He remained immovable and in March 2020 his reward for persistence and potential and ability – and showing the mettle to seize his playing opportunity – came in the form of a new five-year contract.
The past 12 months, however – to use Holgate’s words – “have not been straight sailing… it’s not gone as I’d have liked or expected”.
Listening to Holgate describe the two freak injuries which sandwiched his toe issue, you imagine he hopes there is more than a grain of truth in the proverb about bad things happening in threes.
He immediately knew he was in bother after challenging Giovani Lo Celso in a game at Tottenham towards the end of last season.
“I ruptured a vein in my leg because of the impact of the tackle,” says Holgate.
“I looked down and my sock was filling out, I panicked and went down, but I couldn’t feel any pain because of the adrenaline.
“I initially tried to play on but it was getting more painful.
“The vein needed to settle, I came back [10 days later] against Aston Villa but as soon as I started running it began swelling again (Holgate was replaced after 16 minutes).
“Both injuries, the vein and toe, were hard for the medical staff, they are not common injuries and there are no set formulas for recovery.
“Everyone was learning as they were going along but my focus stayed on getting it right and ready to go again.”
Holgate was training in his home gym one week after damaging his toe.
“I fell over, put my hand down to break the fall and broke a bone in my hand,” he says.
“For a few weeks I was walking around with a boot on my leg and a pot on my hand.”
Holgate is laughing at the absurdity of his misfortune now.
He’s an innate optimist, likeable and, removed from his professional environment, very easy-going.
The 24-year-old is expressive and forthright, too, characteristics reflected in his football.
Holgate appreciates those watching him at work might rush to the wrong conclusion over such a palpably raw and competitive character.
But Holgate has no thought of cultivating a polished public profile, his social media activity limited to an Instagram account exclusively devoted to football.
“I don’t see the benefit from letting people see my private life,” says Holgate.
“What would people get from knowing about it? And what I would get from people knowing?
“I think most people who know me will say I am a nice guy.
“Others might see me play football and say I am arrogant and aggressive but that is not what I am as a person.
“I am not trying to gain anyone’s approval, only to do my best for my family and Everton and the supporters and myself.
“I get on with what I am doing and the people who know me will probably vouch for me being fun and a normal person.
“I don’t need to go out of my way to show people any different.
“When I am out, or at home, I don’t see why I’d want to show people what I am like, or what I am doing.
“I am happy with myself and the people around me, I don’t need everybody else to say I am a good person.”
Holgate did, however, open a window into a relatable and rounded personality when speaking to 92-year-old Evertonian Alex during the spring lockdown, as part of the Club’s Blue Family campaign.
The player actively sought involvement in Everton’s continuing effort to support the most vulnerable and socially-isolated members of the community during the pandemic.
Holgate listened intently as Alex related first-hand memories of watching Everton royalty such as Dixie Dean.
On the eve of this season, he sat with teammates looking at footage of the Club’s greatest moments and most celebrated players.
And Holgate imagines a time when he and his fellow ambitious twentysomething colleagues are recalled with similar affection.
“I have been here six years and know exactly what Everton means to so many people and the history of the Club,” he says.
“To be able to say we were part of a new generation of winning trophies and having success is what we all want.
“It is a massive incentive.
“We are all young and hungry and want to do things for ourselves.
“Me, Ben [Godfrey], Dom [Calvert-Lewin], Tom [Davies] and Alex [Iwobi], we don’t want to be hanging round not winning trophies and being a mid-table team.
“That’s not the type of career any of us want.
“We want to challenge, to be the best we can individually and help the team reach its potential, which is huge.”
Mention of Godfrey segues neatly back to Holgate’s false-start to this campaign.
Down to two fit, senior centre-backs, Everton acquired the excellent Godfrey from Norwich City.
“The Club couldn’t go into the season with two centre-backs, I was under no illusions about that,” says Holgate.
“You look at it [Godfrey arriving] and think, ‘That is three [centre-backs] who are going to have a lot of game time while I am out, so it will be more difficult to get a starting position’.
“But bringing in a player of Ben’s ability is right for the team and that matters above anything else.
“The Club can’t leave themselves short, I knew it would happen and had to focus on being ready when I came back.”
Watching those tapes of the Club’s finest hours, Holgate would have seen two centre-halves captaining Everton to the highest domestic honours.
He has a long road to travel to replicate the achievements of Brian Labone and Kevin Ratcliffe but inched forwards on that journey when named skipper for a game against Leeds United back in November.
“Everton is such a massive part of my life, I have been here pretty much since I became an adult (he signed aged 18), so to lead the boys out was a very happy and proud moment for me and my family,” says Holgate.
“I feel I can offer that to the team, I am vocal and try to lead, so to get that acknowledgement from the manager – that he sees that in me – was very positive.”
The meeting with Leeds was Holgate’s second match post-injury and, by his own admission, picking up where he left off last season was more troublesome than anticipated.
“I felt everything was going to go straight back to how it was,” starts Holgate, who returned in the home Premier League defeat by Manchester United on 7 November.
“Which, looking back, was a bit silly.
“I was still feeling the injury, it took a while to warm it [affected area] up and it was a bit sore.
“But that wasn’t really the problem.
“It is hard to get back to the tempo when everyone is a quarter of the way into the season.
“I found it difficult to get going and pick up the same pace.
“I felt my body wasn’t moving how I wanted, I was seeing things too late.
“It comes together with playing games.
“People might give you grace for a week or two, saying you’re not fit, but after a couple of games, they’ll think, ‘He’s not where he should be’.
“That’s how it works and I knew that.
“I had to do everything I could to be back at the level I wanted.”
Playing or watching professional sport in empty stadiums is a hollow experience.
The repetitive thud of boot on ball echoes through deserted stands as players warm up and commentators broadcasting to vast audiences are peculiarly self-conscious with all those dotted around them able to hear every word.
What these eerie occasions have managed, however, is to shed an element of daylight on magic, with shouts from pitches and touchlines clearly audible.
It is usually Holgate’s unmistakable White Rose tone responsible for the final gee-up before kick-off and over the course of 90 minutes he noisily delivers a stream of instructions to colleagues.
He doesn’t shy away from a conversation off the field, either.
Ancelotti knows Holgate considers himself a centre-back for the long-term.
The player has predominantly been used at right-back this season, although it is testament to his grasp of tactics and football intelligence that Ancelotti trusts Holgate to subtly alternate between third centre-half and full-back when employing the flexible system which – on one of its more recent outings – comprehensively undid Liverpool.
Ancelotti expects players to have tactical and positional versatility but, says Holgate, the most enjoyable aspect of the Italian’s management is his preference for a “simplified version of the game”.
“He makes it easy to play,” continues Holgate, who has started 15 of Everton’s past 16 league matches.
“You know what is required from you and everybody understands what they need to do in every game.
“Everyone in the team has their role and does it well.
“The manager knows centre-half is my favourite position but that I can do a job at right-back.
“The team needs me there and we have been getting good results and that is all that matters.
“Modern-day full-backs are like Lucas [Digne, left-back], though. They cause problems in the other half.
"That is not really my game and I know that.
“Centre-back is where I am at my best and feel comfortable on the ball… and that is what all my coaches have said.
“Last season was my first consistently playing there and I was getting in the groove.
“It is definitely my position.
“The talking is something I have always done.
“It helps when people speak to me, so I try to help by passing on what I can see from my position.
“It is good personally, as well, it keeps me switched on.
“It just comes from being competitive and wanting to win every game.”
Holgate makes a very valid case for the idea footballers are inherently imbued with champion mindsets.
“To get to this level of football, everyone has a winning mentality,” he asserts, “everyone is competitive and wants to win.
“It isn’t something you need to bring out of players.”
He makes a concession to the argument Everton’s mentality has changed across Ancelotti’s reign, nonetheless.
Consistently beating elite teams, recognises Holgate, represents a sea change from the first leg of his Goodison career and stems from attitude and talent in equal measure.
Players openly talk about going for Champions League qualification, evidence of Ancelotti’s welcome habit of talking Everton up rubbing off on those populating his dressing room.
Beating West Bromwich Albion last week, when Everton knew victory would temporarily elevate them to fourth, was significant for a squad fostering a redoubtable spirit.
“We’ve not been able to socialise as a team for a year but we know each other so well and being in our own bubble creates that spirit,” says Holgate.
“Our teammates are the only people we see every day and we have this target to challenge for the top four.
“It is on the horizon and we can see it, so we are all together, pushing.
“With the quality we have, this is a squad that could compete in the Champions League.
“We can’t get ahead of ourselves, but we have to aim for it.
“It is easy to say, ‘We don’t know, we will see what happens’.
“But it is achievable, so why wouldn’t we want to push for it.
“The mentality has changed, definitely.
“We know on our day we can compete with any team and have proved that this season.
“But we’ve dropped points when we shouldn’t have. “West Brom was a tough game and to get it over the line was important heading into the back end of the season.
“With what we are pushing for… those games are non-negotiable, we need three points.
“The Club has been trying to move in this direction since I’ve been here.
“It was never going to happen overnight but we are slowly building.
“The manager is demanding – like all managers at this level – and has won everything. He knows what it takes… it is about going out and getting the result – no matter how you do it.”
The former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand is tipping Holgate as a dark horse for England’s summer European Championship squad.
He is reportedly wanted by the national team of Jamaica, the country of Holgate’s paternal grandparents and where he watched his mum and dad marry.
“When the time comes, I will properly look at both options,” says Holgate.
“I’m not allowing it to sidetrack me, my focus is solely on what we are trying to do at Everton.
“My form will decide the options I have, so I need to concentrate on that, especially with so much to play for in the next few months.”
Mason Holgate and Everton hope Montanaro’s pre-season cry of despair is replaced by shrieks of joy come the final reckoning.
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