Updated: Jul 21, 2020
All good things have to come to an end. A term so often used, because it is just so accurate. In football, this is very much the case. Throughout a lifetime supporting a club, many players, managers and staff will come and go. Some you will be glad to see the back of, others, it will be a shame to see them go. Then…then there are those who have become club legends, or fan favourites. These are the ones that it is hard to see go. The ones who feel like they have left behind a hole that is incredibly difficult to fill. The ones who felt like family. We all have them, and I question anyone who claims otherwise. Hell, to this very day, I still mourn the absence of one Mile Jedinak, not that I ever mention it!
So where am I going with this? A good question, but don’t worry, I have a reason. The last year has seen quite an upheaval in playing staff at Crystal Palace Women. It has seen long term players such as Nikita Whinnett and Ciara Watling make their departures, among several others. It has been sad to see each of them go, the blow only cushioned by the knowledge that the moves are part of a process, and thankfully both players are able to flourish elsewhere. However, on the 17th June, news broke that after 6 years, five of which were spent as Captain, Freya Holdaway was leaving the club. For those that have seen Lethal Weapon 2, it was like when Martin Riggs attached chains to the stilts holding up a house(on stilts) and pulled them out from under it.
When you have a player who has been at the heart of everything for six years, to lose that player is always going to be a massive blow to the club. When that player is also the club Captain, it doubles the ferocity of that hammer blow. In a sport where longevity, be it players or managers, is in such short supply in the modern day, it becomes so much harder to see those who we have supported for a long time, depart. It will certainly take some adjusting for the team. Sure, injuries have deprived Freya of playing time in the latter stages of her Palace career, but her absence will no doubt be felt not only on the pitch, but off of it too.
Unfortunately, the women’s game does not get the media coverage that is so rightly deserves. While this is slowly improving, it is nowhere near the level of the men’s game. I mean, the men’s Burnley 3rd choice left back can’t go on a night out without hitting the back pages of all the national tabloids, yet this summer is seeing several club stalwarts departing various clubs in the women’s game, with only the club websites and the odd Twitter news account providing any coverage. For me, that just didn’t sit right. When a player like Freya has been Captain for five years, most probably the biggest five years in the club’s history, then she deserves more recognition for all that she has done for us.
Those years will have seen an influx of fans, meaning many have had various forms of exposure to Freya as a player, and her achievements with the club. I wanted to make sure that everyone would know just what Freya had done for the club in her time, and for me, there is no better way to do that then by hearing from Freya herself. I was delighted when Freya agreed to the interview, and I am so pleased to be able to share it with you all.
Now, while her Palace career started six years ago, I felt to get started, to get to know the woman behind the Captain’s armband, we needed to start by going back further than that. So, to start the interview, I asked Freya what route her career took before she arrived at Palace.
“I started playing football in Mid-Wales on a boy’s team at school. It was still an era where it was frowned upon. I had to fight to even get on as a sub. My Dad has always said ‘It was character building’. He was right, it made me resilient and taught me to never take no for an answer. My first women’s team was Newtown Ladies, when I was 14, and I played in the women’s league. I was fortunate to get a call to the Arsenal Academy at 16. Emma Hayes was the manager at the academy at the time, as I signed for the Arsenal Reserves. Once I finished my education at the Academy I moved to the USA to start a scholarship. Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia became my home for 6 years. I played for 4 years whilst I did my undergraduate, and then stopped playing whilst I completed my Masters.”
Now that we knew the background, I asked Freya how her signing for Palace came about, and what made her decide it was the right move for her?
“When I returned from the USA, I moved to London to begin my professional career outside of football. I worked with King’s College London. I was speaking to one of my colleagues who knew the reserves manager Clint, who is now the First Team Manager at Watford. I gave Clint a call and ventured to Bromley for a training session. Knowing that I hadn’t played for 3 years, I was nervous but as excited as I was when I attended my first Saturday morning football session at 7 years old, back in Mid Wales. Training went really well, and in the second session they asked me to train with the first team. My first games I played was with the Reserves. We played West Ham away, I scored the winning goal and got player of the match. I knew then that this was the right place for me to be.”
Moving to a new club can be a huge upheaval for a player, especially when you are Florian Marange and you come over from France, only to be dropped within weeks of signing! Some clubs aren’t for everyone, so I asked Freya what her first impressions of Palace were in those early days?
“I’ve always known that Palace had the most loyal fans around. My first game for the First Team was an FA Cup game Vs Reading (no pressure). We lost but got through on a technicality. The fans that day did not stop signing the entire game. I knew, with the support of the fans, that Palace would soon be a club at the top of the women’s game.”
The last two seasons have seen Palace play at their highest level, in the form of the Women’s Championship. They have been two seasons of difficult games and lower table struggles as the team and players adapt and build. Prior to that though, Palace had enjoyed some great success. I asked Freya if she could say what that success was, for our newer fans who may not know?
“I joined in January 2015 and I don’t remember too much from that season. My first full season was incredible. We won the league and went unbeaten all season. We won 20 games and drew 2. We won the cup final where the chairman surprised us with the white kit that the men’s team wore. We felt like champions in all white walking out prior to kick off. The season after that was difficult. Moving up a league and going from winning every game to being on the wrong end of 1-0 losses proved difficult. Football is always fun when you’re winning. We lost out on promotion by the skin of our teeth BUT the restructure of the leagues presented an opportunity for us to get promoted(to the Championship) with the backing of the Men’s Club. It really did bring about the One Club ethos.”
As fans, we always have fond memories from successful seasons. I asked Freya, as a player, if there were any standout moments from those successful years?
“My favourite memories from that season were the games we had no right winning. The games where we were 2-0 down at half time then score the winner in injury time. That grit, coming together as a team, and belief that we would win regardless of the time on the clock, was unbelievable. We also had opportunities to play at Selhurst Park. All I remember from that occasion was, ‘I can’t mess my first touch up on this carpet’. We also did a lap around the pitch at Selhurst with the two cups. That was a lot of fun.”
As I have mentioned, Freya has been the Captain for the past five seasons. I asked when did she first find out that she was getting the armband, and how did it feel?
“I remember being really proud. I’ve always played a leader role. I was captain at Marshall University after my first year and captained the side for 3 years. I try to lead by example and always have a good relationship with the players. I remember Dean(Davenport) saying that I deserved the armband after the season and a half. I proved myself a leader and I was excited to lead the team.”
I have always held the Captaincy in high regard, as for me it is a role of high importance. Several of my favourite players over the years have worn the Captains armband(Jedinak, Southgate, Derry, Milivojevic to name a few). What I wanted to know from Freya, was what the role of Captain meant to her, and what responsibilities did she feel fell upon her shoulders for being in that role?
“Being captain is being proud of the club you play for, having pride in what you do, and being the pinnacle of representation. I held myself to a very high standard. I also wanted players to strive for the level. I was always an ear for the players. Always there to offer support and build confidence. Football can be tough if you aren’t playing well or the manager isn’t playing you. Players would call me for advice. I was the bridge between players and coaches/manager."
The move up to the Championship has proven to be a big step for the club, and I asked Freya how she found making the step from the third tier?
“The biggest challenge was the mental toughness. We found ourselves scrapping at the bottom of the table. Every single point counted. We came into the Championship with a relatively inexperienced side with regards to playing in the league. Most players were used to winning in the league below.
I really enjoyed playing in this league. The season before I got my call up for Northern Ireland. I knew there was a big step from playing in league 3 to playing internationally. Playing in the Championship brought the gap down and I could challenge week in and week out with international players from other clubs.”
As Freya mentioned, her time at Palace also saw her get called up by Northern Ireland. I asked her how that came about, and how she found out?
“It was January 2018 when I had my first conversation with the manager. I was in brilliant form and my teammate Ciara was playing for them. I remember her saying ‘It’s a shame you don’t have any Northern Irish in you’. I then declared that my grandfather was born in Belfast. A phone call from Ciara was made to the manager and he called me up for my first camp away in Turkey. I thought that international duty had passed me at the age of 28, but it just shows you, it’s never too late.”
The next inevitable questions for me, were to ask how many caps she got and what representing Northern Ireland meant for her?
“I managed to get 12 caps in 18 months before sustaining my last concussion. My grandfather has always been my number 1 fan. Playing for Northern Ireland brought a huge amount of pride to him. I was so proud to be able to play on a stage like that against incredible players. Playing the European Champions in the Netherlands at PSV Philips Stadium in front of 30,000 blew me away. It was such a surreal moment.”
Injury has certainly played a part in Freya’s career the last couple of seasons, especially in the form or repeated concussions. I asked Freya just how those concussions have affected her?
“It’s been really difficult. I’m very grateful that I was older when I sustained those concussions. It’s such a difficult injury to monitor the recovery. There were days, sometimes weeks or even months, after the initial impact where I didn’t feel myself. The hardest part for me was to not be able to give 100%. During my last recovery period, I had to take a month off work, so that I wasn’t looking at a laptop for 8 hours a day. My recovery was very slow, and I was getting frustrated. Christmas presented a perfect time where there was a natural break of football and work was quiet so I took time to recover as advised by my doctor.”
Given that Freya suffered from three concussions, I asked if each one created a nervousness regarding getting back on the pitch, in case she would suffer another one?
“My first concussion, I had an egg on my head. The second I had a seizure at the time (I’m very thankful for the medical support I had received pitch side), and my last one didn’t seem to be a big bang. It was more of a couple of awkward headers.
The first two recovery periods I couldn’t wait to get back. I was climbing the walls to kick a ball. Giving less than 100% is abnormal for me, and I knew once I was back on the pitch there would be no stopping me. I had no worries about heading the ball.
The last concussion was a little different. There wasn’t a big collision. This concussion concerned me the most. It took longer to recover. However, I knew, when it was time, I was ready. I didn’t back out of any headers. I don’t think I have that discipline in me. If a header is there to be won, I’m going for it. If I need to put my head in front of a shot, I will put it there.
I always played well on my return and still got international call ups, my confidence wasn’t knocked. I knew I was still able to impact the game.”
Concussion is a very serious injury, one that is still very much being learned about, as sport continues to adapt in order to protect players. I asked Freya if there was any advice she would give to players who may suffer from concussion, given the serious nature of the injury?
“I would say exactly that. It is a serious injury. There isn’t enough research around the long-term effects of constantly heading the ball. If you don’t feel right, don’t play. If you feel okay, give it a week before you go to the next stage. I thought, many times, that I felt 100%. Looking back, I wasn’t, and then I progressed into the returning to play process too quickly and regressed again. TAKE YOUR TIME! Don’t let anyone else dictate when you are ready. You need your brain.”
So, with concussions hopefully behind her, and her departure confirmed, I asked Freya why she decided that now was the time to part ways with Palace?
“I’m not convinced I’m 100% recovered from my head injury. I’m taking time out of the game to recover and it was the right thing for both parties. The club is driving forward in a direction where players need to be as fit as possible in order to allow for rotation.”
A leader until the end, thinking about the needs of the club while dealing with her own personal health. In the interview with the club website, Freya mentioned about the possibility of coming back in a coaching capacity. I asked if coaching was something she was keen to do?
“I am really interested in coaching. I think I have good interpersonal skills. I can relate to the girls, and I understand how to handle different types of individuals. I enjoy developing people. I enjoy watching training sessions become evident on a match day. I think respect is a huge aspect of coaching and it’s a two-way street.”
For a long time now, in the men’s game we have seen the progression of players retiring and then moving into management. This is a natural progression that sees the game continue to adapt and move forward. Personally, I think it would be fantastic to see this same progression within the women’s game, with players going on to become coaches and managers. After all, who knows the women’s game better, than those who have played it? So, this naturally leads me onto the big question, as I asked Freya if we could one day see her on the side-lines as manager of Crystal Palace?
“What an amazing story that would be. I think for clubs to have a clear player to coach path is important. A lot of players feel lost once they end their playing career. More needs to be done around this to ensure that the development path is visible. If I’m one to help create that path then I’ll be proud.”
It is certainly something I know I would love to see one day, and I am sure many others would agree! So, looking back on six years in the famous red and blue, I asked Freya who has been her favourite players to play with?
“What a question. I have played with many, many players. I would try and list a few but we would be here all day. Different personalities and talent. I have been blessed to play with the girls I have shared the badge with.”
Typically wanting to push the topic further, I asked Freya is she had to name three standout players she has played with at Palace, who would they be?
“I can’t answer that one. It’s too hard. I’ve probably played with over 50-60 different players.”
I could see the Captain’s diplomacy shining through, and so I moved away from players and asked what memories she would treasure most from her six years at the club?
“The games we shouldn’t have won in the early seasons. The games against the likes of Chelsea. I remember a specific game against Lewes, where Dean said the only way they will score is from set pieces. We didn’t give away 1 corner that game. They didn’t score. I’ll never forget that. The fans! Never forget the fans. Finally, all the girls that have been part of my journey. I can’t thank them enough, it’s been a blast.”
While Freya’s time here is sadly at its current end, I asked her where she could see the club being in ten years’ time?
“The women’s game is constantly evolving. Keeping up with the fast changing environment is crucial. It’s important to have continued support from the Men’s club to ensure Palace is evolving with the game. With the right support I can see the club progressing into the WLS and becoming a force to be reckoned with.”
With the interview drawing to a close, I wanted to mention us, the fans. I know that we are incredibly sad to see Freya go. After six years of building a connection with the supporters, I asked Freya if she had any final words for the Palace faithful?
“THANK YOU. Thank you for the memories. Thank you for making my experience so unique and special. I know there has been a big turn over in players and some players might not understand how engaged the fans are, but be loud! The girls will soon realise they have the best fans!”
With that said, to close out the interview, I asked Freya if there was anything that she wanted to add, that these questions had not covered?
“To girls who are just starting out, never give up! Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do it or it’s too late! Work hard and remember you can always learn! Be the best you can be and listen to those around you who want to make you better.”
Wise words from a fantastic leader! So, there you have it, the end is here. I hope that for those of you reading this, it has given you a good insight into a player who has been a leader and an inspiration for our football club. You can’t buy loyalty and dedication, and so it will be incredibly hard to replace Freya within the squad, a task that I do not envy the club for having to carry out. So, it is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to a player who may not have her early routes here, but has certainly earned the right to be called ‘one of us’. I hope that this article has served to provide the recognition and end to an era that Freya deserves. I know I am not alone when I say that we wish her the very best in getting 100% healthy, and in what ever she decides to do next. Hopefully one day we will see her back at Hayes Lane, and maybe…just maybe…hear the Palace Loyal singing ‘Holdaway’s Red & Blue Army’.
All Photos Credited To Tara Hook Photography