The Australian midfielder is gaining valuable experience with Europe's best, and hopes it boosts his World Cup chances
It's a sunny winter’s day in Vienna, and James Holland is chuffed. Understandably so. He's a first-choice midfielder with Austria's record-breaking champions, and as the only Australian playing regularly in the Champions League, he's making a good case for World Cup selection.
“I’ve landed on my feet here, I’ve done well," he says as he drives around the elegant Austrian capital, looking for a park. "It was the break I needed.”
He's also a realist. Austria Vienna sit bottom of their Champions League group, and go into their final match, on Wednesday night against Zenit, with little more than a mathematical chance of progressing to the Europa League. “It’s almost impossible,” he admits.
For both club and player, this has been a bittersweet campaign in the Champions League. They’ve picked up a couple of points on the road, though their goal tally – one for, nine against – speaks of a side still a long way behind the likes of Atlético Madrid, who top the group. “It’s a different level," he says. "Switch off for a second and you get punished. But at the end of the day, it was a good experience for us. And it gave us some street cred in the Austrian Bundesliga.”
As their first-choice defensive midfielder, it's been a chance for Holland to take on the likes of Porto playmaker Lucho González – “one of the best No10s I’ve played against. He’s such an intelligent footballer” – and Zenit's incredible Brazilian, Hulk. Is he as terrifying as he sounds? "He’s one of those players that can create something from nothing,” says Holland. "Defensively he’s a little bit lazy, but with the ball, he’s a fantastic player." Not good enough to break down the Austrians’ defense in their first encounter though, a goal-less stalemate in St Petersburg, and Holland gets another shot against him in this week's return fixture.
There are other Australians in the Champions League this season – Robbie Kruse at Bayer Leverkusen, Mitch Langerak at Borussia Dortmund and Tom Rogic at Celtic – though Holland is the only one getting a full 90 minutes. Yet not so long ago he wasn't getting any games at all. He left Newcastle Jets as a championship-winning teenager in 2009 for the Netherlands. There, he almost faded into obscurity until Austria Vienna came knocking at the start of last year. “It was a difficult period, those three years. I wasn’t really getting anywhere and I was lucky enough to get this opportunity, which I was very, very grateful for.
“Then we won the championship last season and we actually broke the competition’s point record. We only lost three or four games all season and we were winning games before we even went out there. It was the best season I’ve ever been involved in, at any club. We were untouchable. It was a fantastic year. Something special.”
They haven’t been quite the same without coach Peter Stöger (who’s now working his magic at Cologne) and they may have to settle for second, at best. Still, it’s been a season which has taken Holland from the Iberian Peninsula to the Gulf of Finland, and he’s hoping it will end with a ticket to Brazil.
He’s become a regular in the Socceroos squad this year, though he faces some tough competition for a starting role, namely from Crystal Palace captain Mile Jedinak and Melbourne Victory’s Mark Milligan. He was left on the bench for Ange Postecoglou’s first game in charge, and he isn’t sure he made the best impression on the new boss in Sydney. “Personally, I wasn’t satisfied with myself. I didn’t train my best that week. I would have liked to have gotten some game time, but I’ve got to let my football do the talking.”
As for Australia’s horror World Cup draw – almost the most-lopsided fixture any team has ever faced there – he’s all smiles. “It’s a challenging draw, but it’s a World Cup, so that’s to be expected. Anything is possible and we are Aussies, so the underdog tag is something that we are comfortable with. Ange has instilled a belief in us that we are capable of competing at the top, and this gives us the perfect opportunity.”
A place in Europe may be slipping away, but as an Australian defensive midfielder, he’s got a very busy year ahead of him.