Saturday 8 April 2023

Holden bares his soul

Dean Holden gave an in depth interview to The Times yesterday, reproduced below.  He comes across as a person of considerable qualities, one fan who read the report said that it reminded him of Curbs.

When Charlton Athletic were losing at half-time against Oxford United in Dean Holden’s second game, he showed his players his frustration. “The tactics board got snapped in half,” Holden recalls.

“That’s not in my nature normally but we were terrible in that first half [with] players not running and a performance I wasn’t prepared to accept.” His players reported in for training at Sparrows Lane, New Eltham, for what they feared would be a loud, challenging debrief on the League One defeat. “They were expecting a bit of a video nasty,” Holden adds.

Instead of a video, Holden showed them a cherished photograph of him with his daughter, Cici Milly, who contracted meningococcal sepsis while on holiday in Lanzarote in 2012. The blood infection spread rapidly to Cici’s brain and she never recovered. Cici was 17 months old.

“I know that trauma has made me a better parent, better husband and better manager because of the empathy it gives you,” Holden says. “I was open to the players about the situation and what that meant to me in my life. I said to them, ‘Don’t waste tomorrow, don’t waste today, you’re a young professional footballer, it’s the best time of your life.’ ”

Seize every second. Charlton won their next two games. Such has been Holden’s impact that he has been given a three-year contract and they head to Bristol Rovers on Friday afternoon on the back of a five-game unbeaten run, including Saturday’s 6-0 thrashing of Shrewsbury Town.

His players come into his office to open up about any concerns or problems. On the wall opposite Holden’s desk is a picture of him with his family, a larger photo of Cici and the exhortation: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”

Talking in his office on Tuesday, Holden looks at the picture. “When Cici died, I couldn’t get through the day,” he says. “The stats within two years of a child dying — 88 per cent of parents separated. I said this to the players after the Oxford game that there was an 88 per cent chance against me and my wife Danielle [Nicholls, the television presenter] making it and we did.

 “It’s about hope. So if we’re 12 points away from the play-offs or 2-0 down at half-time, it’s just about our mindset. It’s always around having the humility to appreciate what we’ve got. The sun’s shining, yes we just won 6-0, but now we’re back into work again.”

The Charlton players respected their manager opening up. “I made myself vulnerable. I had a player, nowhere near the team, knock on the door and speak to me about personal things in his life, big things. Players know I have their back. When you show your own vulnerability I don’t think it makes you weak.

“Normally players would be scared of speaking to the ‘boss’, opening up, [saying] ‘I’ve got some issues with my girlfriend,’ as he might leave them out of the team. I’d never do that. I’m definitely a better manager because of my experiences.

“Look, I have to make big decisions, who we keep at the club, who plays on a Saturday, but I don’t see why you have to be an arsehole about that. I’m honest and truthful with them. That helps.

“At a previous club, this player trained badly for a couple of days. He found out he’d had his underfloor heating on for two years and he didn’t know. He got this bill through, and it was quite a heavy bill — and this was before the stupid bills recently. Even though he was now earning a good salary that just threw him completely because he came from a really tough upbringing.

“Now that sounds ridiculous to someone who might have lost a child but that’s his life, that’s his norm. He opened up to me. I said, ‘Right, fine, we’ll fix it.’ The club fixed it, he trained the next day, played and I should say he scored a hat-trick, but he didn’t.”

Holden’s empathy emanates from the trauma. “After Cici died, we joined a group called The Compassionate Friends [a charity for bereaved parents]. We’ve met parents from the Hillsborough Disaster, and some from the Manchester Arena bombing. When you see [the footage of] parents stood outside the arena waiting for their kids to come out, it was heart-breaking.

“Only the work I’ve done since our daughter died enables me to do this. I meditate twice a day, I do yoga, I do the Wim Hof cold water immersion. That enables me to stay calm and safe. Some of the stuff I do is classed as weird. Football’s opening its eyes a bit but it is still really institutionalised.

“I went to see Stuart Lancaster, the rugby guy [former England head coach], at Leinster just before Covid and they had a meditation class from 8am to 8.30am, and I thought, ‘You’d not see that in football.’ We brought yoga in here, we do deep breathing — all the stuff that’s scientifically proven but has got a bit of a stigma to it. I’ve got my incense sticks over there and my Ganesh Buddha. I don’t care if people think I’m weird.”

It calms him. “People think you don’t care as much because you’re not this raving lunatic who’s really depressed when you lose. Me moping around here on a Monday morning after we got beat will not help the players.”

Holden points to an envelope on his desk. “There’s a list in there. We asked the players what could be improved around here. They write down suggestions, no name. It’s free information for me. Sometimes it’s ‘Showers freezing after training’ [or] the kit; some said they’d rather know the team on a Friday because sometimes I pick the team on a Saturday.

“I want people to bring in ideas and challenge me. I want to empower players. When I was out of work, Steve Cooper at Nottingham Forest was great to me and I saw how he empowers his staff. Thomas Frank [the Brentford manager] has been brilliant to me. I just like the way he operates around the training ground, the way he is with the players, empowering them.”

Holden encourages conversation about events outside football. “We spoke today about the conviction yesterday of the fella [Thomas Cashman] in Liverpool [for killing Olivia Pratt-Korbel]. We talk about all sorts of situations. We had the Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation in last Thursday. It was round the corner from here where Stephen Lawrence was murdered [in 1993].”

Charlton need Holden’s calming influence. “We were in trouble when I came in,” he says. The club are losing £6 million to £8 million a year and the owner, Thomas Sandgaard, wants out. “There’s talk of a new consortium coming in to help the finance with Thomas,” Holden says. “There is a lot of uncertainty.”

Peter Storrie, the former West Ham United and Portsmouth chief executive, has been appointed to a similar position by Sandgaard to act as a consultant. The previous owner, Roland Duch√Ętelet, still owns The Valley and Sparrows Lane. It’s complicated.

Despite the problems upstairs, there’s so much hope out on the grass. Miles Leaburn, son of the club legends Carl and Tracey, is another graduate of Steve Avory’s consistently productive academy and scoring freely, with five in his last four games. “And he’s not just a goalscorer,” Holden says of Miles, “He’s a target man who can hold it, he’s rapid, he can run in behind. He’s got a bit of steel, he’ll take a hit from a centre back but he will give it back as well. And he’s only 19.”

Leaburn was one of five home-grown players starting against Shrewsbury: Ashley Maynard-Brewer, Terell Thomas, Albie Morgan and Tyreece Campbell, 19 like Leaburn, were the others. Two teenagers, Zach Mitchell and Aaron Henry, came on while Daniel Kanu, another academy product, remained on the bench. Sean Clare, who came off injured, left the academy at 15 so doesn’t count as an academy graduate. “The conveyor belt at this club is like no other,” Holden says. He still expects to bring in some older heads in the summer. “We have to get out of this division [they are 12th in League One] as soon as we can, hopefully next season. Then go again.”

Training on Tuesday morning reflected the confidence in the squad, and with plenty of focus on wing play in Holden’s 4-3-3, Jesurun Rak-Sakyi, the 20-year-old on loan from Crystal Palace, showed why he is highly regarded with a stream of accurate crosses from the left. Staff talked of Rak-Sakyi’s first-rate attitude as well as talent.

Holden, 43, loves helping these prospects flourish. He’s driven by his own experiences growing up. “My parents taught me a work ethic, no excuses, be good to people. My dad never took a day off in his life.” He always found time to support Holden, take him to training at Manchester United, where he has a season-ticket. Not all parents are as supportive. “There was one boy who played poorly in an under-16 game at a previous club I was at and his dad just drove off, left him.”

Holden didn’t make it at United but found a pathway at Bolton Wanderers. He enjoyed a good career but knows how hard it is. “I broke my leg three times and didn’t get a free kick for any of them,” Holden recalls. “After the first break, I was never able to get to the level I wanted. One leg was 1.5cm shorter after the operation. My right leg is bent like a banana.

“But to play to 35 is quite an achievement, even though [it was] not at the level I wanted. I always felt I let my mum and dad down. Because of everything they did for me as a kid.”

It is another reason why Holden has such empathy for his Charlton players. He knows the risks and strains and that is why he urges them to seize every moment.


1 comment:

  1. I'm genuinely saddened by Dean Holden's personal tragedy.
    But I'm afraid his warm and hippy attitude didn't do much for the performance at Bristol .................