Dean Holden has experienced the ups and downs of football, but they paled into insignificance after personal tragedy. The defender speaks to Andy Mitten.
Harsh realities for footballer Dean Holden
"I'm sorry," says Dean Holden, a 33-year-old professional footballer from Salford, Greater Manchester. "I can see this is upsetting."
Holden played for Deans Sports as a boy, following Ryan Wilson, later Giggs. The pair are club patrons who present trophies to the players at the end of the season and still live locally, family men respected in the Worsley community. They were both childhood Manchester United fans, but while Giggs has played a record 900 games for one of the biggest clubs in the world and always had the luxury of living at home, Holden's path has been closer to the reality of being a professional footballer.
He played for United as a child alongside Wes Brown before his career took him away from home. He still hits the road every morning for a 90-minute drive to work.
He has a lot to occupy his mind.
It is May 2012 and the Rochdale manager John Coleman calls Holden into his small office. The team have been relegated from the third tier of English football and the players know departures are imminent.
"Having a relegation on your CV doesn't look good. You feel like you've failed and it was the first time it happened to me," Holden says.
He says he did not take it personally when Coleman tells him that, while he is his type of person, he is not his type of player. He will not be offered a new contract.
Rochdale were convenient, close to home, but Holden had not enjoyed himself there.
"We were fighting a relegation battle; the dressing room was divided, there was animosity," he says. "My face didn't fit because the manager who took me there had been sacked six months earlier. I was there when he took the call from the chairman firing him. He was cheery when he answered, there were tears in his eyes when the call ended. I've seen many managers sacked. It's never good, but football is all about results."
Holden was the wily pro who knew about football's highs and lows. He had overcome serious injuries, including two broken legs, but he was still making over £1,000 (Dh5,920) a week, plus around £300 for a win bonus, to play football.
"I worked out that I'd lost four years of my career through injury," he says in a Manchester accent unchanged by a football career which started at Bolton Wanderers under Sam Allardyce, then took in Valur (Iceland), Oldham Athletic, Peterborough United, Falkirk, Shrewsbury Town, Rotherham United and Chesterfield.
"I felt fortunate to make a wage from football and I still do," he says. "I love being paid to play because I love football."
He said a few of the players who had been told Rochdale would not be keeping them feigned injury to avoid the final match, away at Orient. Holden made the trip.
"I wanted to play because it might have been my final game as a pro. I can't feign anything. In my mind, there's always a camera on my shoulder recording and analysing my every move, judging me."
Holden was a fan who went to home and away matches before he made it as a player, travelling around England, watching Manchester United with mates. He wore his United shirt in training at Bolton as an apprentice until he was advised not to, given the enmity many Bolton fans feel towards their red Mancunian neighbours.
Being released from Rochdale is a low, after Holden had tasted his only success of his career a year earlier, in May 2011, when Chesterfield were promoted to League 1 with Holden a crowd favourite.
"I'd never experienced anything like it," he says. "Fans had admired my attitude at previous clubs, but I was actually a favourite at Chesterfield. They sang 'Deano! Deano! Deano!' It was a buzz. I'd drive 90 minutes over the hills from Manchester each morning in a carpool with three other players, loving every minute of it."
Playing in a winning Chesterfield team helped. More than 10,000 people came to see the promotion game, including Holden's family, who had supported him throughout his career. "My dad and brother watched me everywhere," he says. "It took them seven hours to get to Kilmarnock in Scotland once. They arrived at half time because of heavy traffic … I went off injured at half time and needed treatment. They were still waiting for me an hour after the game. They watched me finishing mid-table with teams year after year, get called up for Northern Ireland once through my grandparents, watched me get injured."
The family were entitled to enjoy the good time when it came.
"I saw something in my dad's eyes that day at Chesterfield that I've never seen before," he says with a smile. "He was so, so proud, so happy. I got the trophy with him in the dressing room and we had a photo: me, my dad and my brother. He gave it to my mum for Christmas and she started crying. It's on the wall at their home now."
Success was redemption of sorts.
"People didn't mean to offend me, but they would say, 'He used to play for Bolton' to give me a bit of [credibility]," Holden says. "That killed me: 'He used to …'."
He concedes he has never been in demand. "Defenders who give it their all are not like goalscorers," he says. When Rochdale went down, Holden was without a club or an agent to help him find one.
It was time to get away from football, on a two-week family holiday. The break to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands with his wife, Danielle, 33, a radio and former children's TV presenter, and children Joey, 5, Ellis, 3, and Cici Milly, 17 months, was well earned.
"Cici wasn't herself, she had a cold, nothing unusual," Holden says. "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," Holden says. "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," Holden says. "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 apologises, sorry to cause any upset.
"It's six months now," he says. "I talk about it every day with friends and family. I talk to Cici every day, it helps me. It's devastating, surreal. It sometimes seems like it hasn't happened to me. I'm going through a grieving process and I don't know who I am. I'm going through emotions I didn't know existed. I've changed as a person.
"Counselling is helping my wife.
"Me? I've been twice. Counselling usually has an end result but there can't be one. Cici's not coming back, is she?"
The minutes, hours, days and months after the death were a daze.
"She'd been gone 20 minutes and I was ringing an insurance company talking about death certificates," he says. "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," Holden says. "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 Cici had been in that clinic."
The anxiety was crushing.
"I thought we were going to lose another child," he says. "Thankfully, he got better."
Holden felt he needed a routine to carry on. "I needed to do something to stop me going crazy. 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," Holden says. "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's a conversation killer," he says. Smith called him a few days later. He said: "I've just got a little worry." Holden thought it would be his age or his injury record.
"I'm worried that what you've been through might affect your mind," Smith said.
"I respected his honesty," Holden says. "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."
The move has been a success, even if Walsall's form has faltered. The fans have taken to him and sing, 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."
"They're warm-hearted people, the Walsall fans," he says, and smiles. "But I'm not a nutter!"
Old friends in football got in touch after Cici died. Chesterfield invited the family to a game, their fans raised money for a school and their chairman doubled what they raised. They want to build a sensory room for kids who are unwell.
Holden wants to stay in football, to be a manager. He's unquestionably got the right attitude, the drive and determination to succeed. He's done his Uefa B licence and he's doing his A after this season.
He never did take anything for granted. He never will.