Growing up, all of my pals were Carlisle fans. I had posters of the players on my wall, and all the shirts. I was a proper fan, and still am to this day.

I used to go to games at Brunton Park with my dad. Flask of coffee, sandwiches, crisps and a Brunton Pasty. We always got a programme too. That was our routine.

We’d drive to away games with friends. I remember doing Wigan at Springfield Park, sitting on the old bank there when there was no stand. I saw the big games at Carlisle as well, including seeing Liverpool in the third round of the FA Cup in 1989. John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, John Aldridge and Jan Molby were all playing. Unbelievable.

Even now, Carlisle matches are the only ones I can go to and not watch as a coach. When you get into coaching, you analyse everything. Every little detail. But at Carlisle that goes out of the window. I’ll be in the stands shouting and moaning at the players, even though I’m friends with a lot of them. I can’t help myself. It’s your own team, and they’re the only side I can get truly passionate about.

People ask if I sit in the posh seats now, but believe me there are no prawn sandwiches at Carlisle. Not a chance. The prawn sandwich equivalent in Carlisle is sitting down; if you’re doing that you’re in the elite section!

I loved the Carlisle team of the mid-1990s. I had posters of the players, and books signed by them. I was heartbroken when we were beaten in the Auto Windscreens Shield final by Birmingham in 1995.

I went to a do up in Carlisle a while back in support of Tony Hopper, who sadly died far too young in October 2018. The whole team from the mid-90s era were there. I was sat at a table and happened to look over to the bar, and my mouth dropped.

I nudged Ian Arnold, who was sat next to me. “Is that Rodney Thomas who’s just walked in? The Rodney Thomas?”

I couldn’t believe it. Rodney Thomas, walking into the same room I was in! He was great at Carlisle, and should have played at a much higher level. What a player. So I started singing, “Walking in a Rodney Wonderland” and I put my drink down, got up and walked straight over to him.

“Hi, I’m Grant Holt.”

“Are you joking? I know who you are?”

“Can I get a picture?”

“Are you taking the mick?”

“No! You’re a hero!”

I got my phone out, and bang! A photo with the legend that is Rodney Thomas. I was genuinely starstruck meeting him.

It’s only happened one other time, and that was with George Oghani. I absolutely loved him. He still lives in Carlisle, George, and I met him at a testimonial.

I was in the Premier League at the time, and he also thought I was taking the mick when I asked for a photo!

At the time I was coming up against some of the best players in the world, but those two people meant much more to me.

I always said if I ever played for Carlisle I wouldn’t kiss the badge, I’d lick it. I thought I’d got my chance when they brought me in as a youth player at 12, but it turned out to be my first lesson that things don’t always turn out how you expect in football.

It was brilliant being involved in their youth teams, but if I’m honest it stopped being fun quite quickly. I played mostly at centre-half, which I enjoyed, but I wasn’t allowed to play Saturday or Sunday mornings for local teams any more. We were travelling down to Liverpool and getting spanked 5-0, and sometimes I’d be getting just a few minutes. What was the point? All I wanted was to play football as much as I could.

I spoke to my dad about it and he told me to do whatever would make me enjoy football the most. So I left Carlisle at 15, and in hindsight it was a fantastic decision, as it meant I was free to play a lot more.

It taught me to enjoy football for what it was.

I joined the under-16s at Northbank and started playing central midfield. I then joined Harraby, and the manager Eddie Jardine told me I needed to play up front.

He was the first one to put me there. He told me I was scoring too many goals from midfield, so I may as well play up top!

I’d also been playing with a men’s team called The Avenue, who my brother played for. I was right-back for them and as fit as a fiddle.

I never felt overawed or intimidated in the men’s team. My mentality was if anyone was going to kick me, I’d just kick them back harder. The size of the person didn’t matter. Nothing fazed me, probably because I’d been around dressing rooms with my dad since I was a kid.

It was good to test myself against 35-year-old men who’d try and flatten me. I never got into much trouble because I was on the same side as my brother and people I knew. A lot of opponents realised that if they started something on me, it would end up in a 22-man brawl!

Before leaving school, I worked in a milk factory. We were lifting massive crates of 24 pints, so I started to really fill out. I was on £20 a week, plus pocket money from doing chores around the house. I knew I could get a Chinese and eight cans of Foster’s for £7.50 so it was a win-win situation!

Me and my pals would go to junior discos in town, which always seemed to end up in a fight. You always got groups from different areas around Carlisle and someone would always try something with another bunch of lads.

I don’t think I’ve ever started a fight in my life, but I’ve been involved in a few.

Nights out would never stop me playing football the next day. Sometimes it would be tipping it down and you’d think, ‘I can’t be bothered,’ but I always made it. Besides, the walk from my parents’ house to the ground was always enough to sober me up!

Those were the days when people would smoke in the dressing room. So maybe you could get away with turning up with a stinking hangover more than you might be able to today.

A Real Football Life, by Grant Holt with Dan Brigham, is published by Twocan and is available via

Tomorrow: The day Carlisle fans gave me pelters