Ironically for Sky Blue FC Head Coach Christy Holly, soccer wasn’t his first love. In fact, it wasn’t even his second love.
"I was exposed to a number of different sports, and oddly enough, my parents would probably tell you that soccer was never my number one sport," Holly said. "Soccer was really secondary to swimming and probably Gaelic football and hurling, as I grew up, and maybe even to rugby as I got a little bit older."
Growing up in Derry, Ireland, the Gaelic games—Gaelic football and hurling—were not only all around him, but also in his blood.
"I come from a huge family, not just directly, but in terms of cousins. I think at the last count my grandma had, before she passed away, she had 60 grandchildren on both sides of the family, so we were very fortunate that, I guess, quite a few of them did very, very well in sports," he said.
Holly’s father, brother and a number of cousins have all represented the county in Gaelic football and hurling, the highest level of the sports and a major source of pride in Ireland. His mother was an Irish champion swimmer, and his sister has had success both in women’s Gaelic football and karate, winning several Irish championships in the latter.
With that kind of pedigree, it was only natural that Holly would pick up Gaelic football, hurling and swimming, but swimming was his main focus growing up.
"Swimming was a sport, I guess, I took a liking to at a young age, whether that was because I didn't want to drown or because maybe I had some success, I'm not too sure," Holly joked.
At approximately nine years old, Holly was in the swimming pool training six days a week. As a member of the City of Derry Swimming team, Holly was given the opportunity to first come to the United States for transatlantic competition.
"There was two parts [to the program]. It was a reward for a commitment and a bit of success at home and an opportunity to come over here and compete and swim against swimmers of a higher level and train with coaches of a higher level of experience, or different perspectives is probably a better way to put it," Holly said. "But it was also, the reason this program was originally set up back years prior to me, it was also an opportunity to get young individuals from the city I was from away from The Troubles, so, because of what with the conflict, it was very…[the conflicts] occurred very often in the town I come from."
That program brought Holly away from the conflicts of Ireland and to the shores of New Jersey, where he lived with a host family who had children his age. He soon developed a bond with the family, one that remains intact today, and he continued to spend his summers on the Jersey Shore all throughout the rest of his schooling.
"So I was very fortunate in that aspect and they brought me back year after year and, I guess, during that time, I had a bit of success within the swimming side of things as well, which helped me enjoy it," he said.
Holly continued experiencing success back home in Ireland as well. With his swim team, he won multiple all-Ireland titles, and his relay team set several national records, one of which may still be standing to this day.
But as Holly progressed into his teen years, his focus began shifting from swimming to soccer, which he had started playing competitively when he was nine or 10. Growing up playing Gaelic football, the similarities between it and soccer made it both logical and easy for Holly to pick up the sport.
"We were always told growing up that you can turn an Irish Gaelic footballer into a soccer player, but you can't turn a soccer player into a Gaelic footballer," he laughed.
Unsurprisingly, Holly quickly showed a natural talent on the ball. That, combined with the natural athleticism in his genes, made him quite successful on the field, even being named captain of different youth teams.
When Holly was just 16 years old, he was brought onto Limavady United in the Irish Premier League, the highest level of soccer in Ireland.
That led him to John Moores University in Liverpool, England, where he played soccer during his college years. However, it was not so much what happened on the field as on the sidelines that was most influential for Holly.
"Once I got to college, I was involved with the team from a playing perspective, but I also got involved a little bit with the coaching side of things whenever, you know, whenever any help was needed," Holly said. "And, I think I was very fortunate at times to be living at college with a guy who, as he grew up, all he wanted to do was be a soccer coach. Fortunately he actually works in the English Premier League now, so he was a great person to stand next to and kind of say, ‘I kind of like your perspective’ because the playing career is kind of tough to do."
The difficulty of a career as a professional athlete and Holly’s coaching experience—he had begun "dabbling" in coaching various sports at the age of 15—led Holly to pursue a career coaching.
After graduating college, Holly was offered a coaching job that brought him back to his "home away from home," New Jersey, and he accepted. Although he continued trying to play some while beginning his coaching career, a torn ACL told him it was time to make the shift solely to coaching.
Holly began coaching in the youth system in New Jersey and gradually worked his way up. He served as an assistant coach for two years at Georgian Court University in Lakewood, New Jersey, before moving up to serve as an assistant coach for the Sky Blue FC Reserve Team. That opened the door for him to become assistant coach for the full team in 2013 before being promoted to head coach in January 2016.
Stepping into the role of head coach for a team he had worked with for three years may sound easy, but Holly immediately faced a major obstacle. Over the course of the off season, it was announced that a significant number of players, many of whom were starters, would not be returning for the 2016 season because of trades, retirements, injuries or other personal and professional reasons. That meant that Holly had to start rebuilding his team from the ground up.
"Something for me, which was very, very important to try to establish was who are we and what is our identities? I talked with the owners before I was appointed to the job and I asked, you know, ‘What was your motivation? Why do you do this and what do you want it to become?’ Once you establish that, then you can start measuring what you consider to be success," Holly said. "Then once we did that, we talked about, you know, what process we want and what values we want to always adhere to…and then, from that point it became something about bringing in people who met what we felt were our standards," Holly said.
To find the standard of player he wanted for Sky Blue FC, he first turned to the returning players—players like Kelley O’Hara, Taylor Lytle and Sarah Killion—to see what qualities they possessed, and it wasn’t long before he found the perfect embodiment of what he wanted in a Sky Blue player.
"You know, we're very fortunate to have Christie Rampone on this team, who is just, she is just a symbol of New Jersey soccer, she's a symbol of Sky Blue, but also the epitome of the perfect teammate. Hard work, blue collar, and humility, and doesn't carry around an ego," Holly said.
With that ideal in mind, Holly began rebuilding his roster. In January he brought in one of the strongest draft classes of the 2016 NWSL draft, signed former USWNT forward Tasha Kai in February, and brought in several key players from open tryouts and the preseason.
When the final roster dropped, there were seven players hailing from New Jersey, and that was by no means a coincidence.
"Thankfully when I was promoted into this position, I had a better understanding of what soccer meant to New Jersey people and the enthusiasm that they have for it and ultimately the values that the state carries around with themselves," Holly said. "I think it was--not think, I know it was--part of the rebound that I was looking for, which was to bring a bit of pride back and passion back to Sky Blue and to have people playing for Sky Blue that knew and understood what it meant to represent Sky Blue and the people of New Jersey."
Holly said, besides bringing more Jersey pride to the team, he also wanted to bring self-pride back to his players as well. Although the nature of the league makes it impossible for every player to live a life of luxury, Holly made it a point to make sure every player felt she was valuable and appreciated, on and off the field.
"It was key for me that when they walk off the field, they feel professional, they feel that they've been treated properly, they feel that they have the highest amount of value, and they're, you know, they're not just viewed as a soccer player on the field. It's getting to know them as a person, let them get off the field to relax, but in good housing conditions where they can enjoy their own personal time and, you know, I think ultimately, live a real professional life, which is getting better every year because the salary cap is getting higher. But it's things like that that hopefully I'll be able to make a different impact to, not just to the players, but to the club from top to bottom," he said.
Another element Holly brought to the team was an emphasis on the team over self to create more of a family dynamic on and off the field. That dynamic is something Holly’s players have cited time and time again throughout the season as a reason behind Sky Blue’s success this year.
"Christy Holly says all the time that it’s a family, and we definitely have the family type of atmosphere," second-year defender Kristin Grubka said back in July. "We're just close with everybody, so I definitely think it's a family feel and knowing on the field that, trusting each other enough, that everyone will get their job done on the field."
Rookie defender Erin Simon expressed the same sentiments as Grubka, saying, "We're just a family. That's the best way to describe it. We have each other’s back. We have this chemistry and connection. We're all trying to help each other and be there for each other as a family. It’s not just as a team, and it's not just a job for us. Our group is a family."
All of the changes that Christy Holly brought to Sky Blue turned it from a bottom-of-the-table team into a serious playoff contender for much of the season, surprising fans and critics alike. In its opening game of 2016, Sky Blue handed the defending two-time NWSL Shield winners Seattle Reign FC their first ever loss at Memorial Stadium. They also tied the four-game series with regional rivals Washington Spirit, the top-ranked team for a major part of the season, with two wins apiece.
That success led many people to mention his name in connection with the NWSL Coach of the Year award, a conversation that continues now despite Sky Blue failing to make the playoffs and finishing in the middle of the table.
Whether Holly wins any awards for his first season at the helm for Sky Blue or not, there is no doubt that he has laid the groundwork for an even more successful 2017.
"We’ve already got our eyes on next season, we've already got our eyes on what we can do to make this a better team and to have further success because, what they've done this season, it's been brilliant, it's been top class. But being probably a needy coach, I want more, and I know we can get more from this team," he said. "There's no way we're taking a step back next year."