On 15 March 1890, Johnny Holt lined up for England against Wales in a 3-1 victory Wrexham. In so doing he became Everton’s first player of international standing and started a tradition that would include such luminaries as Dixie Dean, Ray Wilson, Neville Southall and Tim Cahill.
Holt was one of Everton’s ‘virgin blues’, the coterie of players who kickstarted league football on Merseyside, and, with Edgar Chadwick, he would outlast all the original pioneers, partaking in all of Everton’s early glories and near misses. He had started out playing junior football with Kings Own FC and Church FC before being spotted by Bootle, Everton’s arch rivals at the time. Everton were slightly fortuitous to assume a place in league football ahead of their near neighbours and Bootle’s consternation was heightened by the acquisition of Holt.
He was an unlikely centre back, standing around 5ft 4inches tall and weighing only 10 stone. But despite the slight physique he had real presence, even in the air where his teammates stood over him. A newspaper report of a performance against Blackburn Rovers attested to this unlikely prowess: ‘Holt’s cranium had a rare grueling, and as the little man was in his best form it is to little to be wondered at that the Rovers were not often successful in their attempts at combinations.’
League football represented quite a transition for Everton and over the course of their debut season they used a solid and eager defence as the cornerstone of their progress. Some, however, said that Everton’s defenders were too zealous, notably Alec Dick, but also Holt – known as the ‘Little Devil’ – as well. Thomas Keates, Everton’s first historian, told of how Holt was ‘an artist in the perpetuation of clever minor fouls. When they were appealed for, his shocked look of indifference was side-splitting.’ He had a reputation for winding up opponents too. ‘Holt especially enjoyed great success in outing short aggressive tendencies by the Wanderers,’ recorded a journalist of one performance.
But such uproar was caused by Everton’s conduct that William Barclay felt obliged to write a defence of the club in the local press. ‘A deliberate attempt is being made in certain quarters to disgrace and bring into disrepute the club and its players by distorted accounts of matches and untrue and biased statements about rough play on our part,’ he wrote. ‘The result is when we play away from home we play before a hostile crowd, which is prepared to hoot at and ridicule any actions of ours it imagines to be of a shady character. I strongly protest against a continuance of this state of affairs.’
Holt did not let himself be distracted by such uproar. He was, said one newspaper tribute, ‘without doubt one of the best half-backs in England, his tackling capabilities being what the old Dominie, termed “Prodigious!”’ Another journalist said he was ‘a veritable thorn always’ ‘the hardest working on the field [who] scored triumph upon triumph.’
Holt succeeded Andrew Hannah as Everton captain in the 1891/92 season and a year later led them out as captain at their new home at Goodison. He had been part of the League Championship winning team, but his Everton career might be characterized by its near-misses: twice league runners up, twice third, twice FA Cup runners up. In September 1897, 3000 turned out to see a joint benefit for Holt and Edgar Chadwick. They were, wrote the Liverpool Mercury, ‘two of the most popular players in the Everton team.’
Although his talent was prodigious, he was not a man who got on easily with the Everton directors. The club minute books from this era are full of references to meetings between the board and the player. Although he was a regular through the 1897/98 season, his failure to attend a friendly match against Gainsborough in April 1898 saw him suspended.
There was talk of emigration to Canada and giving up football altogether but Holt resurfaced the following season at Reading in the Southern League. It seems as if Everton retained his playing registration and the move was the cause for some dispute. But Holt’s career in Berkshire enjoyed a revival and he was recalled to the England team, adding six international appearances to the four he had made while an Everton player.