It’s 9pm on a Thursday night, five days after Stoke have tossed away a match-winning position at Brammall Lane. A goal-up heading into the last ten minutes, our slide to defeat was as greasy as the famous chip butty that the home support love to sing about. I’m interviewing Assistant Manager DEAN HOLDEN, someone who not too long after the final whistle in Sheffield was walking through what he describes as “a pretty lively” atmosphere on the walk to the railway station. Sat in his kitchen, wearing a smart Hugo Boss sweatshirt, Dean takes up the story….
SALFORD LAD’S CLUB: THE DEAN HOLDEN INTERVIEW
“I knew you’d bring that afternoon up, especially the station….. ha, ha.
Basically, I had to get home quite sharpish after the game and so walked out the ground in my full club tracksuit and coat to get the train. It was pretty hairy outside, and I was quite glad when I got to the station. But when I got there the platform was full of Stone Island. I didn’t think they’d be Stoke fans, as I didn’t know their journey would go through Manchester…...
Luckily, they were Stoke fans, and when I went to the till I bought the Stoke lads I was chatting to some beers. It was no big deal, and it wasn’t for show. I got chatting to them and I found out that one lad was in a band (The Underclass) and I now follow them on Instagram. One lad said that he was doing a sixty hour shift at Stoke hospital that following week, but was going Millwall at 6am on the Saturday……you know, that’s just amazing. I love that, because I am a fan myself. I’ve been where they’ve been - I’ve got up at five in the morning to follow my team up and down the country, and getting home at midnight after losing 4-0….”
When I quizzed Dean about not having seen too many defeats watching his beloved Manchester United, he answered…..
“Listen, I’ve been going a long time, and seen many a defeat. I remember going to Spurs on New Years Day and getting home at some silly hour after we’d lost 5-1. Believe me, I’ve been stood on platforms or sat on a bus facing a long journey home after plenty of defeats. I didn’t buy those beers for show, it’s basically a bloke getting a round in. It certainly was no PR stunt, I’m not bright enough for that, ha, ha!
People say “you’re a football coach mate, you shouldn’t do that.” No I’m not…..I’m Dean Holden: I’m a husband, I’m a dad, I’m a son…..and I’m a mad football fan, and I love being involved in the game, be that in the dug out or on the terraces. I’ve been in the game professionally for 25 years, and I’ll never tire of going mad when we score a late goal or nick an undeserved point….football is about emotion, and the build up to the game adds to that.”
Dean Holden is a born and (b)red Salfordian and has done his time following his club up and down the country. He gets what being a matchgoing fan is all about: the journey, the mates, the emotions……After an hour and half chatting to him, I can vouch that Dean Holden doesn’t do things for show. The words that were constantly used by dean were the likes of “honesty”, “values”, and “standards”. It’s something that was obviously ingrained into him at an early age.
Dean now lives in Worsley, just down the road from where he grew up, with his immediate family all within a few minutes of him, his wife Danielle and their children. It’s clear that the 2021 version of Dean Holden is a direct result of his upbringing and the love and devotion shown to him by his own mum and dad.
“Yeah, I was a very normal kid. Mum and dad grafted themselves daft - dad had four jobs. He was a steward at Old Trafford and would do a twelve hour shift then go to there to do a shift as a steward at United, and then after that he’d go and work at the MEN Arena and do a shift there. Mum was a child minder, so she could also stay at home with her kids and earn a few quid. It was incredible really, I had the most brilliant childhood…..”
One of four children, Holden has two sisters and a brother. Unfortunately, his mum passed away just over two years ago from cancer, but it’s clear from the words he says and the look on his face just what his parents mean to him, and he admits that they were a massive influence in how he himself and Danielle bring up their own children.
“You can’t have a childhood like mine and not be influenced by it”, he notes, Like I said before, they worked tirelessly and did everything for us kids, and that’s how I want myself to be as a dad. My dad is my hero - he took me all over the place, he’s my biggest fan, he’s always there for me…..and it wasn’t easy for us bas a family, we had to fight for everything we had, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Holden Snr still goes to all home and away games to support his son and is often accompanied by Danielle and the family, plus Dean’s brother Matt. Dean chips in “I love them being there. The only sickener was the pandemic stopping them seeing me as a manager when I was at Bristol City”. The Holden’s are obviously a tightly-knit, loving family that is bonded by where and how they were brought up, and from their shared experiences. Danielle grew up just three streets away from her husband-to-be, but they never met until they were 14 because as Dean says “we were never really allowed to leave the street, ha, ha. Funnily enough my brother is married to Danielle’s sister……”
Football-daft, Holden grew up watching his dad play at a good standard and started to play for local team Deans Sports, for whom Dean’s dad was their first ever captain, and for whom Ryan Giggs would later don the kit. The pair are now club patrons who present trophies to the players at the end of the season. It’s a time that Dean obviously adored, describing it as “an incredible childhood where I played football every hour with my mates until we were shouted in just after it got dark.”
It wasn’t long before the young Dean Holden was spotted playing for Deans Sports, Salford Boys and Greater Manchester, and ended up training with Manchester City and Crystal Palace - but his heart was red, and his dreams came true when he was spotted by the team he loves. His first two coaches at Manchester United’s The Cliff training ground were Brian Kidd and Nobby Stiles, and his eyes light up when he recalls training sessions on a Tuesday and the quality of players that he trained with. However, a massive club always has a massive amount of players on their books too, and so when Bolton Wanderers came knocking he was faced with an awkward decision: basically follow his heart or his head.
“I knew I’d have more chance of making it as a pro at Bolton, so I went there - we trained on an astroturf pitch right behind Burnden Park, and at 16 I was offered YTS terms when I left school…..”
It was the Summer of 1996….…The Summer of Gazza and the dentist’s chair, Southgate’s miss from the spot, and the start of the last ever season at Burnden Park before Bolton left for the new pastures of the Reebok Stadium. Then a 16 year old defender, Dean would eventually play over 450 games between 1998 and 2014 for Bolton Wanderers, Valur, Oldham Athletic, Peterborough United, Falkirk, Shrewsbury Town, Rotherham United, Chesterfield, Rochdale, and Walsall. You won’t be surprised to learn that many fans from those clubs describe him as a totally committed team player, one that always gave 100% and made the very best of the talent he’d been given. Indeed, it’s a remarkable amount of games when you consider that Holden missed over five years thanks to various injuries, including three broken legs.
“I broke the same leg twice”, our Assistant Manager states matter-of-factly, before adding, “I was having the craic with Nick Powell this week - he’s done his fibula which I reminded his is only the tiny bone, ha, ha. I remember when I broke my leg playing for Falkirk against Celtic; it was on Sunday afternoon game - I was out for 15 months with that. The lad got me just under the knee, it was a really poor two footed tackle, and after six months out it had to be rebroken and a pin put in it.
I’m surprised and proud that I still got to 35 as a player, as my whole career seems one hard luck story to be honest. I’m good at dealing with adversity, ha, ha!”
Looks like we have a modern-day Denis Smith on our hands here, and it’s no surprise that Holden as a coach focuses on the defensive side and shape of a team, whilst other coaches on the Stoke staff have a different remit. Anyway, more of that later……I asked Dean what memories he had of playing against Stoke. He didn’t disappoint with his answer…..
“I actually scored an own goal on my debut for Oldham against Stoke at Boundary Park. I scooped it in with my left foot. Great finish, ha, ha. But one game clearly sticks in my mind……I remember playing against Stoke for Oldham at the Britannia Stadium….
I remember Alan Smart was there at Stoke on loan. We had the Sheridan brothers playing for us and we had a really tough team, a dressing room full of blokes who could really look themselves and each other.”
It was needed that day. Dean continues…..
“I was just a young lad in on loan at Oldham. The tackles were flying about and it was a right tussle. I think there were a few red cards that day and it all kicked off in the tunnel at the end of the game. It was a proper scrap, one of the biggest I’ve seen, to be honest. Yeah, a proper scrap, not like the ones you see nowadays where someone goes in and they hope someone pulls them away. I think everyone was in that scrap that day!
Anyway, I found out afterwards that Alan Smart had arranged to go to Oldham on loan the day after the game - so he was playing against the team he was going on loan to and battling against us, quite literally……no one else knew about it apart from him and our manager. Smarty actually managed to get himself into a scrap with the Sheridans at Stoke - which is never a wise thing to do…..Then, two days later, Smarty walks into our dressing room at Oldham to plenty of raised eyebrows, ha, ha….”
At 27, Dean Holden started on his coaching voyage that now sees him at The bet365 Stadium. He started by taking the UEFA B qualification as he “simply loved the game and wanted to stay in it” after he finished his playing career. A smile then breaks onto our Assistant Manager’s face as he admits that “and then, I must have had some sort of meltdown or midlife crisis, as I did a referees course. I couldn’t even tell you why. I was reffing under 18 ladies games in Salford on a Sunday morning and to be fair, I got to a decent level. But I then did my UEFA A badge which really turned my head and I started to take it really seriously…….”
Not one to preach, but one to think about the next step of a player’s career, Holden often talks to his players about life after football, and the benefits of getting into coaching at an early stage if possible. Indeed, communication with players is an integral part of what he sees as his job, and one that he both enjoys and gets immense satisfaction from. He passed his UEFA Pro License five years ago and saw a huge difference in what that it entailed. Stating that it was “more about leadership, management and communication than coaching”, it’s something that has obviously had a bearing on how, when, and why he talks to his players.
“The UEFA Pro badge re-affirmed to me that if you stand up in front of a changing room you have to be able to communicate with them and gain their respect. That’s why I always look to get connections with players - their upbringing, their history, their career, who they support…..even watching bloody Love Island if that’s what it takes - a big part of my job is to communicate well with them, listen to them, and I think showing your own vulnerable side is good, too. They’ve all got their issues and it’s good to share yours and allow them to let off some steam…..”
The irony of talking about connections isn’t lost on us as both, what with our wi-fi signals are cutting out at regular intervals. We finally find rooms in our respective houses where we can actually see and talk to each other for more than a few minutes, and we settle down to chew the fat a bit more……me with a large glass of red and Dean with a brew in a mug – ever the professional, and it didn’t go unnoticed by him, either!
We then get on to his time in coaching and management. He started out by returning to former club Oldham Athletic as their first team coach just before Christmas in 2014 and stayed on to become the Caretaker Manager, before Darren Kelly was appointed into the Boundary Park hotseat. Two years later, Holden went back to another former club, Walsall, as their first team coach before heading south west to team up with Lee Johnson as Assistant Manager at Bristol City almost a year later. When Johnson was sacked in July of last year, the club turned to Holden. I asked him if it’s hard to be a number two, seeing the Manager sacked, and then stepping into his shoes.
“That’s football I suppose. If you lose your job someone else will take it, we all know that. Everyone has their own ideas on the game, so when you’re in a job as an Assistant Manager or Coach, your role is to support the manager - but I think it’s important you should have your own views, opinions and thoughts on the game.
You can give your views and opinions, but at end of the day they are the ones that lose their job, so you support them. That doesn’t mean you’re a ‘yes’ man. Michael O’Neill is great like that - he asks for opinions and wants you to offer them, but he is his own man. The great thing with Michael is that he has no ego.
I got on really well with Lee, and he did a fantastic job at Bristol, but I think he knew that the axe was about to fall. In fact, the day before he got sacked, Lee asked me what I’d do if we lost to Cardiff, he was sacked and I was appointed as Caretaker Manager! Lee knows I’m honest, and say what I see, so I said to him - I’d ditch the 4-4-2 we played and go to 3 at the back, but he knew that anyway as I always offered my opinion. See, that’s what I mean…..you should have your own philosophy and opinions, be true to yourself, but always back the manager’s thoughts and plans. You can offer your own, but at the end of the day, he’s in charge….
And listen, like everyone, I have to work, too. I have a family to support - I need to work, plus I wanted to do the Manager job. You are bound by your professionalism, that’s so important to me, but you have to be honest to yourself and everyone else, too. I needed the job and I wanted the job, and Lee wished me well…..”
Bristol City duly lost to Cardiff City and Johnson was immediately sacked, but not before telling Holden that if offered the job he should take it with both hands. It was a situation that would once again occur for Dean back in February when he was sacked by the same club. He had already told his right-hand men - Paul Simpson and Keith Downing – that “if I get potted for some reason, then I’d not expect you two to resign. They’ve got to give the job to someone, and I’d be happy if it was one of you two, so go for it.”
Both Downing and Simpson stayed and are still at Ashton Gate.
So, did Dean enjoy his time as The Robins’ gaffer?
“Yeah, I really enjoyed my time there and loved being the Manager. It didn’t end how I wanted it to end, and yes I was gutted, but I think being a Manager made me a better Assistant Manager now. The hardest thing about getting sacked was that I had to tell my dad, and my wife and kids. They are my biggest fans and are always there for me. I felt I had let them down. Of course, it wasn’t a great time, but there are far worse things in life, so you have to get your backside off the deck and go again…..”
‘Far worse things in life’ is a massive understatement, because the highly likeable, down-to-earth, straight-talking Holden has tragically experienced exactly that with his family. Something that in his own words “is something that me and the family will always experience, every single day”. You can tell just from his social media, never mind talking to him, just how proud Dean Holden is of his family. They’re everything to him. An immensely proud and dedicated father, in 2012, Dean and his family suffered something that no one should ever suffer…..
The family were on holiday in Lanzarote, when their 17 month old daughter, Cici Milly, suddenly became ill. Despite being rushed to hospital, Cici Milly passed away from meningococcal sepsis, a rare blood infection. Even as I type this now, my body goes all cold. I simply can’t comprehend just what the Holden family must have gone through and will always go through, and as a father myself, I couldn’t think of anything that would shatter my world more. Dean is happy to talk about this, indeed, the love he has for Cici Milly radiates straight through the computer screen as he talks about her.
“Obviously, it was a completely horrifying situation. It’s something that you can never imagine happening, nor would you ever want it to happen to anyone else. Up until Cici Milly died, we had taken tons of videos as a family, and it’s amazing to see the fun we all had in her short time with us. After it happened, me and Danielle sat down and talked about the future. We decided that we didn’t want our other kids to grow up and say “well, we had lots of fun until Cici Milly died and then it all stopped”. We’d seen other couples split up, or their health take a downwards spiral after losing a kid, and we were determined that this would not to happen with us.
Dean and Danielle sought external support and help, and still attend monthly sessions where they meet up with other parents who have gone through the same, heartbreaking situation - plus the pair have regularly turned to more spiritual avenues, such as meditation.
“We threw ourselves into it”, Dean states, then adds, “We got into a lot of spiritual stuff, plus there’s the group work we do. It’s a massive help and allows us to keep calm when all the s*** is flying about. We try to make the best of what we’ve got……...it’s not easy, and it can get on top of you sometimes, but I think it’s made us a stronger family. I don’t think we can ever go through anything as tough as that again, and I wouldn’t want anyone else to…..but in a way that gives you some sort of clarity and focus as a family. We all have each other’s back, here…….”
I ask Dean about the monthly meetings with other parents – does this still happen?
“Yeah, we still go to the monthly group sessions when we can. It means that we can talk to someone who has gone through exactly what we have. Our family and friends have been amazing, but we felt that it was beneficial to talk to people who have also lost their children, just so we can relate to and learn from what they’ve been through. We’ve made some great friends through it……a couple from Warrington have been doing this for 38 years and set the group up, bless ‘em. It’s good for us to go and have a cup of tea and have a chat with others……..”
Football and life have thrown quite a lot at Dean Holden. But he always comes fighting back. Every single time. As he says himself, “after losing a child, what else could be worse that we have to face?”
Talking to him, you can tell that Dean has an inner strength of character that means that every time he gets knocked down, he’ll get straight back up and go again. He openly admits that he detests losing, indeed, but it’s telling that he notes that “the losses make the wins even better, and make me love the game even more”. It’s obvious though, that despite his outward toughness, Dean must have an amazing support network behind him?
“Definitely. I know I’ve said it before, but my family are amazing. Me and Danielle have gone through loads in our twenty-one year relationship. She’s amazing, and she really is my soul mate. She’s an incredible mother to our kids and I love her more than anything. Danielle tells it how it is. I like that and appreciate it. She’s so honest – and I never mind taking honest criticism from someone who really cares for me. She also has a really good bulls*** radar, has Danielle. She’s doing stand-up comedy at the minute after being on telly before, and she’s really good you know….most of her material is about me, ha, ha, ha.
My family is everything to me….….I always say that I have five children not four, as Cici Milly is such a huge part of our lives and always will be. I love watching my kids play football, take them dancing, or taking and picking them up from school every now and then when I get the odd day off. We are very chilled as parents and like to have fun with the kids, but they know the standards we expect of them, too. The other day I went to get some petrol and my lad opened the door for an elderly chap who was coming out. He wasn’t told to, but I like to think he’s seen us do the same thing and we always talk about having respect for others. They’re great kids, but I bet they’d say that I was an embarrassing dad, ha, ha.”
So, how did Dean end up at Stoke City?
“I spoke to Michael (O’Neill) about joining Stoke in the summer of 2020 up in the Lake District, but then Bristol City offered me the manager’s job. I immediately called Michael back..…he told me that I would be a fool not to take it. When I lost my job at Ashton Gate one of the first people to contact me was Michael. That’s a mark of the man, and he invited me once again to join the club.
I knew that Stoke would be a good fit for me. Yes, it’s a working class city that appreciates hard work and commitment, but that’s not to say the fans don’t want good football. It’s about getting a balance and winning matches. I think it’s a great club. I’m not just saying that, and I’d like to think that many of my own values are the values that the club and the supporters hold, too. I’m a simple, honest bloke that works hard and does his best…..”
We then talked about Dean’s role at the club it’s obvious that talking about being out on the training pitch and being with the players is what he loves about his job. It’s easy to get the impression that Dean Holden loves nothing more than the changing room chat and putting his boots on, but it’s also obvious that anyone who comes into contact with him knows where the line is drawn.
“Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. As long as people are honest with me, that’s all I ask for. Same with the players. I don’t like fakers. Imposters, I call them. I don’t mind those stepping out of line; but hold your hand up and admit it. I hate blame culture and stuff like that. It all comes from my upbringing. I’m no angel, I’ve stepped out of line quite a bit, but you have to be honest to yourself and others.
I’ll give you an example….. I once had had a fight with a captain of one of the teams I was playing for. It was pre-season, and he was cheating on the running, the shuttle runs. Wasn’t putting it in. I can’t have that, by doing that you’re cheating everyone, yourself, your team mates, the gaffer, the fans……so I called him out in front of the group and we ended up having a scrap, which is fine. I work hard and expect others to. That’s how I live my life. No short cuts.
Take Tyrese (Campbell). The lad had a dreadful injury, and people don’t see the commitment he has shown and what he’s done behind the scenes. He has worked unbelievably hard to get back to fitness, and I have absolutely massive respect for that. But not for fakers.”
Faker is something you can never level at Dean Holden; he’s someone who trained alone every single Christmas Day that the players weren’t in for training because he knew that he had to maximise his talent, and if he didn’t he was “cheating myself”. In his own words he was “an okay player” but put the extra shift in when everyone else was tucking into the turkey “because no one else would be doing what I was doing that day”. It’s this commitment to getting it right and being your best that probably meant that four days after conceding three goals in five minutes against Cardiff, The Potters kept a clean sheet at Blackpool and then at Luton. No stone left unturned. And being a defender himself, it’s no coincidence that a lot of his coaching is on that side of the game, and it fits in well with the rest of Michael O’Neill’s coaching staff. I asked Dean just what his role at Stoke entails…..
“My role is officially as Michael’s Assistant, so on a day-to-day basis we will sit together in the morning as a staff, brief about the training session, go through it, and stuff like that. We go into things in great detail. So, for example, we go down to Millwall tomorrow, so as a management team we will go through the next week or two together on the train or in the hotel. You have to be thorough and prepared, as the games come thick and fast and you have to factor so much in. Things change due to injuries and unavailability, plus Covid….so you have to be adaptable, but you have to be well planned at the same time.
Me and Rory take training some days and Michael will dip in and out of the sessions. Rory is a top bloke, very humble and down-to-earth. On other days Michael will take it….we all have our own roles, but work well together. We all see the game differently. The gaffer was a wide player so sees it differently to me as a defender, whereas Rory can often focus on set pieces, while Mark Burton is very technical and one-on-one based.”
One thing that is apparent is Dean’s respect and admiration for Michael O’Neill as both a man and a football man. Loyalty and trust are key in the Salfordian’s world, and it’s something he sees plenty of in our Manager. We discuss how important it is to win matches, but also to have a longer-term plan, and it’s something that he thinks possibly gets overseen at times when it comes to the work that O’Neill has done in ST4.
“What I like about Michael is how he sticks to his plan,” Dean comments. “He doesn’t deviate when it gets a bit sticky. Yes, when we lose, it always looks bad, but Michael has a longer-term view, too. Of course, it’s about the next game, I’m not that daft…..it’s about the here and now when the players are in the building. But the manager needs a longer term vision and that what he has brought to Stoke - just look at how recruitment, the squad, the analysis and medical teams have changed since Michael came to Stoke…..”.
Working in The Potteries has massively cut down Dean’s travelling, too. The commute from Manchester to Bristol was a regular and time-consuming one, so I asked him if he sees the time he spends behind his wheel as a positive or a negative.
“You know, I love doing interviews like this, as you get asked some great questions, unlike what you often get from the media…….that’s a top question, that. Er, I’d say it’s both if I’m honest. Yeah, it can be both. The M6 in particular, can be bloody awful, we all know that, and the traffic around Bristol was often soul destroying. But it does give you time to think about things and let things calm down and sort themselves out, and when you get home you really appreciate what you’re going home to.
That’s why my family is so important to me. Yes, at times, you wish it was a thirty minute drive away, but it is what it is. I’ve never cut corners - getting home in the early hours is part of the job.”
Talking of time, the ninety minutes have flown, unlike many a Stoke game I’ve watched down the years. Dean Holden is great company because he doesn’t try to be anything other than Dean Holden. He doesn’t give you the answers you expect, not does he go for cheap platitudes, either. When quizzed about the Barnsley touchline squabble, he saw it as a non-story, simply getting the ball back so we could try to get a winner. No blame, no finger pointing, no attempt to call it something that it wasn’t.
He’s a normal bloke is Dean Holden, and I use the word ‘normal’ as a massive compliment. The type of bloke you’d be happy to have a pint with, and one you’d definitely want at your football club. The challenges he has faced on and off the pitch puts losing football matches firmly into perspective, but I get the feeling that they have made him love and appreciate his work in football even more. We spoke about the past and the present, so a good place to finish is the future. I ask Dean what his plans are, and the answer is unsurprisingly honest, straight, but also poignant…..
“I’m not going to lie, I want to work at the highest level, in whatever capacity that is. I’d be a liar if I said that I didn’t want to be a Manager again. I would, I loved every moment of it. That’s why I thought so highly of Michael bringing me to Stoke, as many would see another Manager joining as a number two as a big threat. Not Michael. There’s no rush for me to become whatever. I’m working with a Manager that I have total respect for, and I’m learning every day from him and the others. I love it here, and I said to myself after Bristol that if I was going into a role as an Assistant and not a Manager then it would have to be with someone I would learn from. That’s what I have done.
I don’t forward plan too much anyway. When you go on holiday and your daughter dies, then I can honestly say that I don’t believe in five-year plans or looking too far ahead of yourself, as you never know what’s coming around the corner - and that is the honest truth. It doesn’t mean to say I don’t think about the future, but what it means is that I try to appreciate the present even more, and for now I am very, very content.”
We finish by chatting about the football training that we’ve both just been to that night, and talking about kids’ football and Dean’s plans to go watch Paul Heaton in concert at the Victoria Hall the following week. I promise to text him over some places to get some food and drink in Hanley, and afterwards picture our Assistant Manager stood shoulder to shoulder at the ‘Viccy Hall’ with those who will have gone The Den to watch The Potters two days earlier.
Dean Holden might not be one of our own, but he’s one of us.