Manchester United are welcome League Cup opponents for Bristol City's Dean Holden
The assistant head coach of the Championship side is excited by prospect of taking on the team he supports as he reflects on his career in playing and coach and some tough and emotional times for his family
When Bristol City were paired with holders Manchester United in Wednesday's League Cup quarter-final tie, assistant head coach Dean Holden went to manager Lee Johnson.
“Can I have the night off and go in the away end?” he asked, half joking.
Holden, 38, a journeyman professional footballer before turning coach is a long-time United fan from Salford.
“I’ve had a season ticket for most of my life and my seat is now in the Stretford End, but getting to games isn’t always easy since I’ve been involved in football almost every Saturday since I’ve been nine,” he states in the marked Salford accent which Bristol City’s players chide him for.
“I started going to Old Trafford with my dad,” he explains. “We’d take a bus and then walk to Old Trafford. I never wanted to lose that connection and I’ve managed to get to games on Sundays, but I loved calling dad when we drew United.
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"He watches my teams everywhere, he was so happy. We’ve beaten three Premier League teams to reach this stage and when I did the media after matches I was always asked who we wanted in the next round. I’d always say United.”
Holden’s family will travel south to England’s ninth-biggest city to see the game. Football has been good to Holden, supplying him with 22 years of near continuous full-time employment.
When he is out of work, as he was after being dismissed as Oldham Athletic manager in March 2015, wife Danielle, a former kids’ television presenter, has little sympathy. “Go and offer to work for a club for free then,” she says.
It was not long before he was receiving offers.
For now, work is going well. Bristol City, who Holden joined in 2016, are at their highest level for 40 years, with home crowds averaging over 20,000 and the team in great form, too.
They are third in England’s second-tier Championship, having only lost three of their 22 league games so far under manager Lee Johnson, 36.
They play in an Ashton Gate stadium which has been redeveloped on three sides to make it fit for Premier League football.
On Wednesday night, that stadium will see its first sell out 27,000 crowd when United visit.
Not bad for a club which was predicted for relegation by at least one leading British football publication in the summer.
“We worked very hard at being organised without the ball the pre-season,” is Holden's explanation for the current form.
“We press and win the ball back in the opponents’ half. Every player knows their job and there’s lots of energy in team. "We get on the front foot at teams, we’re aggressive. We’ve got a real good spirit too – and we’re young.
"The gaffer is only 36, I’m 38 and the other coach Jamie McAllister, who also played here, 39. We’re learning so much from the gaffer.”
Even so, Holden concedes even he is surprised by just how well the side is doing.
“OK, maybe we didn’t expect to be as high as we are,” he said. “It’s a very tough division of 24 teams and it’s absolutely relentless with two games every week, but the manager does a great job of putting the last game to bed quickly.
"We learn, we move on. We’ve not lost two on the spin and there’s a buzz around the city. That’s wonderful.”
There was no buzz earlier in 2017 when City lost 11 games in 12, dropping from fifth in the league to 20th. Fans turned against the management team.
“I went from the eighth best manager in the world under 40,” Johnson recalls, “to the worst in Bristol’s City’s history in a few months."
“There was a lot of pressure last season,” Holden recalls of that time. “Credit to the board for sticking with us. We did get hammered 5-0 at Preston, but every other game was close. We just couldn't get a result.
"Everyone thought after Preston that we would be sacked, but the manager took decision to use players who’d have a go. He went with the players who cared, the ones he trusted. It was small margins and our luck started to turn. We finished the season in promotion form.”
The turnaround in the mood has been drastic.
“There are other reasons to look forward here," Holden says. “We have a new training facility on the way, we want to continue promoting our own players.”
It is already happening. Bristolians Bobby Reid and Joe Bryan have been among the the side’s best players this season, fellow youth graduate Lloyd Kelly an England under 20 regular.
“Reid had been a midfielder,” explains Holden. “Then the Gaffer moved him up front for this season. It worked. He’s not the biggest, but he’s a great finisher, lively and full of energy.
"The gaffer was a player here too, while his dad was a manager. There’s a big affinity.”
Not that it seemed it when the fans had turned after the bad run.
United are next for them, the fourth Premier League team in this run.
“We beat Watford away which we deserved,” says Holden. “Then we beat Stoke at home and Palace at home. We deserved to win them all and as United fan it was good to talk to one of my heroes Mark Hughes.
"At first, I just wanted to ask him about Man United. It was the same with Steve Bruce at Villa or Jaap Stam at Reading. Or even doing my Uefa pro licence with Brian McClair. The first thing you want to do is get phone out and have a picture, but you can’t and but you have to be professional.
"As I will be if after we’ve played United. The players have been winding me up asking if I’ll be running to celebrate with the away bench if United score, but there can only be one team for me on the night.”
The spirit is great at Bristol City, though Holden wasn’t present at the Christmas party last week for players and staff.
“It would have been my daughter’s seventh birthday,” he explains. “I wanted to be with family and the club are very good at things like that.”
On December 12, Holden tweeted a picture holding his daughter stating: “Happy 7th birthday Cici Milly. We miss you every day.”
The Holden family took a holiday to the Canary Islands in 2012. Dean had just been released as a player from Rochdale, with the manager telling him that while he was his type of person, he was not his type of player.
He knew how it was in football after an injury hit career at Bolton Wanderers, Valur (Iceland), Oldham Athletic, Peterborough United, Falkirk, Shrewsbury Town, Rotherham United and Chesterfield.
Being released from relegated Rochdale was a low, but a year earlier 10,000 Chesterfield fans were singing ‘Deano! Deano!’ to him after promotion.
It was time to get away from football on a two-week family holiday with the three children Joey, 5, Ellis, 3, and Cici Milly, who was 17 months old.
“Cici wasn’t herself, she had a cold, nothing unusual,” Holden said. “We put her to bed and hoped that she’d be better in the morning.
"My wife woke with Cici in the morning and she wasn’t well, but again, we didn’t think it was anything abnormal. Then my wife called me because Cici’s breathing was shallow and her lips were blue.
"We called a taxi to get her to a local medical centre, where we joined a queue. A doctor had a precautionary look at her, shone a light into her eyes and everything became urgent.”
Cici had contracted meningococcal sepsis – a rare bacterial blood infection.
“Nurses rushed in,” said Holden. “The doctors were asking me questions. They couldn’t get a drip into her. They shouted at me, asking how long she’d been ill. One of the nurses was upset. They took her to the main hospital in an ambulance.”
The worried parents followed in a taxi.
“We saw the ambulance had stopped with another ambulance by a petrol station. They were back to back, with the doors open. We got the taxi driver to reverse up the dual carriageway and go back. There was a policeman there. He wouldn’t let me see her. I tried to get forward but he rugby tackled me.”
The infection had spread rapidly through Cici’s blood, moving to her brain and causing her organs to shut down.
“Cici died on the way to hospital,” says Holden. “You see it in the movies when they call someone into a room to deliver bad news.
"That happened to us. My mind went; I lost the plot. I thought they were going to put me in a straitjacket.”
Holden was in shock.
“She’d been gone 20 minutes and I was ringing an insurance company talking about death certificates,” he said. “I returned to the room and Danielle was cuddling her.
"She looked like she was asleep. It was crazy. I don’t think you can ever get over something like that. I had to call our families with the news. I felt guilty telling them.”
There was more concern the following day.
“Ellis was poorly,” says Holden. “We took him straight to hospital, passing the clinic where we’d taken Cici. It was four in the morning and Ellis looked across and said: ‘I just saw Cici. She gave me a hug and then flew away.’ He didn’t know that was where Cici had been in that clinic.”
Holden needed to pick up the pieces, to earn a living to support his family.
“I needed to do something to stop me going crazy,” he said. “I was worried about not bringing any money in. I had a family to support. I thought we’d have to sell our house.
"I started to cold call managers from the Championship down. Some picked up the phone, most didn’t. I didn’t want to leave a message because I knew they wouldn’t ring back.”
When they did pick up the phone, Holden had perfected his pitch. “Hello, it’s Dean Holden. I’ve played 400 games. I’m experienced. I’ve got a great attitude. I want to play for you.”
Dean Smith at Walsall answered.
“I asked him to meet over a cuppa,” says Holden. “He was on holiday and said he’d get back to me. He didn’t, so I called again. He told me to come and see him at 9am a few days later. I got there at 8.”
“So,” said Smith after half an hour of testing Holden’s personality, “Wife? kids?”
Holden told him everything. “It was a conversation killer,” he says. Smith called him a few days later:
“I’ve just got a little worry,” said Smith. Holden thought it would be his age, his injury record.
“I’m worried that what you’ve been through might affect your mind,” said Smith.
“I respected his honesty,” recalls Holden. “Most managers wouldn’t sign you. They’d give you an excuse. I was allowed to give my side of the story and he signed me. I’ll always be thankful to him for that.”
Smith gave him a chance as a player at Walsall, then a coach. Walsall fans took to him and sang, to the tune of Cornershop’s ‘Brimful of Asha’ “He’s big and he’s Holden and he's number five. Everybody needs a nutter in the middle, everybody needs a nutter”.
Holden moved to Oldham Athletic next because it was closer to home and his still reeling family. Lee Johnson was in charge and when he left Holden became caretaker manager and kept a divided, cash-strapped, club Oldham up.
The couple had another child, Mitzy, now four.
“We have learned to live with what happened,” explains Holden. “We’re proactive, we get counselling, we go to groups, we have meditation. It works for us and we’re doing well.
"The statistics are scary in terms in of marriage breakdowns after a couple have lost a child, but I’m proud of how we have done. We have to be grateful to what we have, even though it was dreadful what we have been through.”
There can still be tough times.
“Little things catch you unawares,” he explains. “A song on the radio, a song I’d sing to the kids when Cici was alive. You see things on TV, too.
"I couldn’t stop crying after the Manchester Arena terrorist attack because I feared what families were going through. I was scared for them. Kids are innocent.
“Your life changes massively. Me and my wife will go to our grave feeling guilty because our daughter died and you have to manage that guilt, but we could ruin our lives thinking about it. Or that the government introduced inoculation after Cici had died. She wouldn’t have died of it now. It was always in the drawer and ready, just never rolled out.”
Life goes on.
“Little things can still annoy you like when my boiler broke down at my Bristol flat last week, but it’s not that serious is it?
"Our kids still talk about Cici all the time. We have a DVD with three hours of filming from when she was alive, including her birth. Mitzy wants to watch her all the time and she calls her ‘my sister’.
“What has happened has made me a better coach. I find that I can connect with people better and I realise that all footballers have things going on off the pitch.
"They have problems at home, poorly kids. They’re human beings and need to be treated as such. You can still be firm and hard with players, they just need to see it’s for the best for them.”
The Holden family have been through the toughest of times; on Wednesday they can enjoy the visit of Manchester United.
Updated: December 19, 2017 02:21 PM