x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Stuart Holden is taking his chance

Signed on a free transfer, the United States midfielder is spearheading Bolton's rise up the table.

Stuart Holden, right, celebrates after scoring Bolton’s winner against Blackburn on Sunday.
Stuart Holden, right, celebrates after scoring Bolton’s winner against Blackburn on Sunday.

The volley was precise, dipping to ground level, inches inside the near post, and perfectly timed, less than a minute after the equaliser.

As Stuart Holden's late goal defeated Blackburn on Sunday, it did not escape attention that the midfielder could have joined Rovers.

More than that, however, Holden is a microcosm of the changing balance of power in Lancashire.

Courted by local rivals Burnley as well as Blackburn, he ended up at Bolton Wanderers after Owen Coyle, who had wanted to take him to Turf Moor when he was the Burnley manager, moved to the Reebok Stadium himself in January.

In different circumstances, Coyle might have stayed at Burnley, signed Holden for the club and the Clarets stayed in the top flight. However, Burnley's loss is their Lancashire rivals' gain.

Bolton now find themselves sixth in the Premier League and Holden is the one-man symbol of their transformation from resolutely pragmatic to rather pretty on the eye.

It was not unknown for Gary Megson, their former manager, to field three defensive midfielders alongside one another.

Coyle prefers an attack-minded presence in the centre of the pitch. Holden has been that man, changing the entire emphasis of the team from back to front.

A genuinely creative player who, as he showed when advancing beyond the strikers to meet Kevin Davies's knockdown for Sunday's winner, is willing to break forward.

And Holden has acknowledged the significance of finding the right manager.

"[Coyle] suited my style of play," he said in September.

"Sometimes you can get into teams that bypass the midfield or play a different style where maybe I wouldn't have fitted in well or made the same impact."

His impact was initially limited. Coyle rescued Bolton when relegation beckoned but Holden, who only made three appearances, was a marginal presence. The major reason was a broken leg, sustained in March when he was tackled by Nigel de Jong. But for that, his manager believes, he would have attracted attention sooner.

"Holden came into the club, had a leg break in an international game in Holland for the United States prior to the World Cup and missed two months of the season," Coyle said.

"I managed to play him in the last game of the season against Birmingham and I believe had he played those two months of the season he missed, he would have started in the World Cup for America and probably be further on."

It was an injury that may have hurt Bob Bradley more than Coyle: with the US manager searched unsuccessfully for a partner for his dynamic son Michael in the centre of midfield in the World Cup, a semi-fit Holden was limited to a four-minute cameo.

The man who made a brief appearance against England was actually qualified to represent Scotland. The 25-year-old was born in Aberdeen but, after his family relocated to Texas, brought up in the US.

However, his international allegiance was not an issue. He represented the United States at Under 20 and Under 23 level, playing in the 2008 Olympics, before graduating to the senior side.

He played his club football for Houston Dynamo before leaving at the end of the 2009 Major League Soccer season and is, as Coyle likes pointing out, "a player I got for nothing".

Moving to England was a gamble that brought a reward; a short-term contract was swiftly replaced by an extended deal that ties him down until 2013.

Until a thigh injury forced him to miss the recent matches against Blackpool and Manchester City, Holden was an ever-present in the Premier League this season, dovetailing with the more powerful Fabrice Muamba, the former Arsenal player, at the heart of the Bolton midfield.

The American is more of a technical talent, the Englishman a physical force, but both are required to be energetic.

With both wingers urged to attack, Bolton's 4-4-2 formation places an onus on the two men in the middle to cover as much ground as possible.

The team, too, is going places.

"I don't think we're surprised by how well we've done, but other people may be," Holden said.

"We've always had that belief. I see it every day in training and now we're translating it into games.

"It's a great feeling and a great place to be at the moment. Confidence is high."

It is being reflected in performances, Holden's included. As Coyle said: "He gets better."