Jose Holebas is a very complex person. Misunderstood? Perhaps. He certainly believes so. But in his first major interview since joining Watford last summer the defender hopes to dispel several of the misconceptions people have about him. It’s time to meet the real Jose Holebas.
First off, we must confess, it wasn’t easy to sort out this interview, which took place at the fag end of last season. It was a case of second or even third time lucky. An earlier attempt to sit down with the left-back ended in disappointment. He left the training ground fairly abruptly, despite being told we were waiting in the club’s new media room at London Colney.
So there was a touch of apprehension when, two weeks later, Holebas strolled in to speak. How would he be? Disinterested? Bored? Engaging? Fortunately it was the latter. Once the 31-year-old got going, he didn’t want to stop. In fact, it was a shame one of the media team felt it was time to wind it up when he was in just getting into his stride.
“I think people have the wrong idea about me,” he says. “Most people listen too much to people who don’t know things. They don’t paint their own picture. Most people don’t know the real me. That is my point.”
Perhaps that is partly of his own making. There seems to be a facade to Holebas. He has the words ‘Don’t Care’ tattooed across both hands and ‘Trust Nobody’ on his chest. It strikes us as a strange image to convey.
“’Don’t Care’ isn’t finished,” he explains. “It’s a little confusing. It’s meant to read ‘Don’t Hate. Care Love. But I haven’t finished it because it was so painful. ‘Trust Nobody is my motto. I have grown up like that, to trust nobody unless they are your friends or family. It is what we say in our family.”
So let’s try to get to know Jose Holebas. He was born in Aschaffenburg, a city in north west Bavaria. He says he was brought up in a poor neighbourhood. He didn’t have many luxuries but he did have a football.
Holebas’ talent was clear from an early age. At 13 he was offered an opportunity to join Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt’s Academy. It was a chance he felt couldn’t be turned down. His mother thought very differently.
“This guy from Frankfurt came to my house,” Holebas says. “He tried to explain the situation but my mother didn’t want to hear him. She wanted me to finish school like a normal kid. My mother wasn’t interested in football. She didn’t know about academies and how they work with schools. She said to this guy: ‘No, forget it. My son will finish school’. And then she shut the door. End of conversation.”
Holebas would go on to finish school but, like many teenagers finding their way in life, he made mistakes.
“I had the wrong friends next to me,” he admits. “Every guy does stupid things when they are young. I was no different. I got into a bit of trouble. I would drink and other stuff.”
But then came the moment that has ultimately shaped Holebas’ life. At 18 years of age his then girlfriend, Vita, fell pregnant with his daughter Tanisha. Holebas had a life-changing decision to make.
“I asked myself: ‘What’s more important? Football or my family?’ It was easy. I had to make money. So I stopped playing football for 18 months. I became a normal guy who worked hard in his job.”
Holebas had two jobs, doing double shifts on either the production line at a microchip factory or as a warehouse assistant. The hours were long but he supported his young family, demonstrating great maturity in the process. Football was no longer the be all and end all. Earning money was. But Holebas’ uncle, Alfonso Smith, wasn’t prepared to let his nephew waste his natural talent. He forced Holebas back into the game, and he joined local side Aschaffenburg-Damm.
“He kicked my arse, shall we say,” Holebas chuckles.
From there Holebas’ career snowballed. Two years after returning to the game he joined 1860 Munich, who were then playing in the German second division.
“This was the moment where my life changed,” Holebas says. “I put everything on one card, stopped working and took the chance. I wasn’t up to a professional level when I joined. I didn’t know about tactics or fitness. I had to learn everything in three months. The other guys had been learning this for five years.”
Holebas made remarkable progress. He spent one year playing with the club’s second team before being rewarded with a switch to the first team. At the age of 23 Holebas played his first game as a professional. He hasn’t looked back.
Holebas nailed down his position as the club’s left-back, a role he was successful tried in by Ewald Lienen. He spent three years with Munich before following Lienen to Olympiacos in the summer of 2010.
Lienen would last just six weeks at the club. Holebas would stay four years before moving on to Roma in 2014 after impressing at the World Cup for Greece, the country of his father. In the Italian capital he would battle for the left-back spot against former England, Chelsea and Arsenal defender Ashley Cole. It was a battle he would win.
“Ashley was ahead of me at the start,” Holebas says. “I couldn’t argue. But step by step I got into the team. I had a little luck because Ashley had a bad game and then an injury, so I was able to finish the season as first-choice.”
And then came Watford. His move to Vicarage Road was complicated. Holebas’ signing was announced without him ever seeing a contract.
“It was a funny story,” he says. “I ended up laughing. I was in Dubai on holiday when I saw that I had signed with Watford. How? I asked.”
Eventually the deal was done and Holebas joined up with his new teammates for pre-season. He settled in quickly, larking about with the coaching staff at Watford’s training camp in Germany. He also featured in all but one of the club’s friendlies. On the pitch he was happy, but it didn’t last long.
Holebas started three of Watford’s first four Premier League games but was then cast aside by Quique Sanchez Flores. He didn’t play a single minute of first-team football for three months. It was a difficult time for the defender.
“It was hard for me,” he says. “Life was very different to that in Rome. It took me a while to settle. I wasn’t happy.”
Holebas expected to leave Watford in January despite returning to the side against Chelsea on Boxing Day. But a three-game suspension for Nathan Ake, the man who’d become the Hornets’ first-choice left-back, meant a second chance for the experienced Greek international. He played 90 minutes against Newcastle United in the FA Cup and against Southampton and Manchester City in the Premier League. Holebas didn’t let the Hornets down but was dropped from the squad entirely on Ake’s return.
However, he’d start against Chelsea at the beginning of February, impressing again and would have won the man of the match award before some late heroics from Heurelho Gomes. A man of the match performance did follow soon after, in the FA Cup fifth-round win over Leeds United. He felt he was starting to produce his best football.
But then came a kick in the teeth. He was dropped to the bench a week later against Bournemouth, with Ake restored to the starting XI. Holebas vented his frustration on social media. ‘#Sickofthiss***’ read a message on Instagram.
“It had nothing to do with the game,” he stresses. When you’re out of the squad, you have to come into training. I knew we were going to be doing running and other stuff. It’s why I said I was sick of this….
“That is what I meant. I should have put another picture. It was really misunderstood. Maybe I was a little bit mad and I chose the wrong picture. I shouldn’t have put that up.”
It left a lasting impression. Certain fans of his, and he has quite a few, could understand his frustration. Since posting the message Holebas completed 90 minutes on four occasions for Watford. But, when it came to the crunch games, the FA Cup quarter-final at the Emirates and the semi-final at Wembley for instance, Holebas was left at home.
It’s why his time at Watford looked likely to come to an end this summer until Sanchez Flores left. There is clearly some bad blood between the pair, a clash of personalities. Holebas isn’t happy with how he’s been treated. He just wants a fair crack.
So there you have it. Jose Holebas, a glimpse behind the curtain. Does he believe people will look at him differently after reading this interview? After reading the sacrifices he made and his incredible rise in the professional game?
“I don’t know if I’ll have changed how people think,” he says. “I just play and show who I am on the pitch. It isn’t about my private life. That is my stuff. People should look carefully and then decide. That is all.”