Holland has Gillingham on his mind

MATT Holland has sent a good luck message to his Ipswich Town team-mates ahead of their crunch Division One clash with Gillingham tomorrow.

MATT Holland has sent a good luck message to his Ipswich Town team-mates ahead of their crunch Division One clash with Gillingham tomorrow, writes Derek Davis.

The Blues skipper has been forced to miss the vital league game due to an international call-up and will end an amazing run of starting 296 consecutive league and play-off games.

The game at Priestfield would have been Holland's 290th consecutive league game. He went 36 in a row for Bournemouth and has now notched 253 for Ipswich. If you add the seven Nationwide play-off games, Holland is only four short of 300 successive starts.

Ipswich would have needed three international call-ups to get the game postponed as they have been able to do in the past, but with Hermann Hreidarsson injured (and now with Charlton) and Darren Bent missing out on an England Under-21 selection, Town have to play without their inspirational leader.

The Blues skipper said: "It is a bit of a blow and really galling to break the run, especially as I'm fit to play, but they are the rules.

"I'm proud to have played so consistently for so long but I'm more upset at missing a vital game at a crucial stage of the season than any records. It is very frustrating."

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With Darren Ambrose and Hermann Hreidarsson signing for Newcastle and Charlton respectively, Holland will be the third main absentee at Gillingham – although the former two would probably have missed out with injury again anyway.

Holland said: "We have a good squad of players although it is diminishing. The lads have played and won without me in cup games before now so I'm sure they can get on and do the job.

"They know what is needed to be done and while we know we have to hope Wolves slip up we have to keep the pressure on by winning our games.

"I will be giving the lads a call to wish them well but they won't need a pep talk from me, they will be up for it anyway."

Blues boss Joe Royle is likely to hand the captain's armband to former Northern Ireland skipper Jim Magilton.

Royle said: "Matt is a big influence and has been a terrific player wherever he has played for us so will be missed but we have Tommy Miller back fit so he will slot into midfield."

With Kenny Cunningham back from injury, Holland is likely to relinquish the captaincy after leading the Irish side out against Scotland last month, but he may be asked to be vice-captain by new manager Brian Kerr.

Although he picked up a dead leg earlier in the week Holland trained on Wednesday without problem and the squad flew into Tbilisi, Georgia last night.

After two group defeats under Mick McCarthy the Republic need to win both games in the next few days to stand a chance of getting to the 2004 finals in Portugal.

Holland, who will win his 28th cap, said: "If this had been a friendly international I would have asked to play for my club but these are important European Qualifiers.

"We have given ourselves a mountain to climb but it is still possible."

The Irish go from Georgia to Tirana in Albania for their next group fixture on Wednesday with Holland meeting back up with his Ipswich team-mates next Friday in time for their clash with play-off contenders Nottingham Forest.

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