It’s a rare thing in football that a player who only appeared 30 times for a club becomes an unquestioned legend. But then again, Stuart Holden is rare and special altogether. He was a footballer and man who played, lives and breathes by the ‘never say die’ mantra. A player who, for a fleeting moment, was one of the best central-midfielders in the whole Premier League. A player who near single-handedly elevated Bolton Wanderers back to their previous lofty heights and one whose loss was they never truly recovered from.
Stuart Holden officially retired from football earlier this year, on 3 February, posting an emotional and heartfelt letter on ussoccer.com (http://www.ussoccer.com/stories/2016/02/03/19/42/160203-mnt-stuart-holden-announces-retirement-as-player-from-game-of-soccer), which detailed how becoming a father for the first time helped him realise the time was right to call it a day and let his body rest from football’s harsh reality. He reminisced on his many career highs and thanked all those who offered a helping hand and support without question during all the lows.
What was not present at all in his farewell letter was even a hint of sadness or regret. He retired from the game as he played it: smiling. The story of Stu Holden, the blond haired American born in Aberdeen, who became a legend in Bolton, is a very sad one. It’s the story of a player whose wonderful ability was constantly cut down by injuries. It’s the story of a player who had the quality to go on and achieve even more incredible things than he did. It’s a bit of a Greek tragedy. But it’s also a galvanising tale that should inspire people in every walk of life, not just those who work and watch our great game. It should inspire people to never give up; to keep on going on.
The uninitiated may think Holden’s injuries end at the time Jonny Evans implanted the entirety of his studs into his knee, breaking his leg in the process. But, in fact, Holden was somewhat cursed with injuries throughout his entire career. Not just the niggly kind that are constantly derailing the careers of Jack Wilshere and Daniel Sturridge; no, these injuries were all a result of the most appalling of luck imaginable.
When Holden first moved to the UK to play for Sunderland in 2005 he was attacked while standing outside a bar in Newcastle, due to who he played for. Suffering a fractured eye socket, he was unable to train for two months and when he finally returned he suffered an ankle injury that ruled him out for the season.
He was released without playing a game for the Black Cats. He then returned back to his native Texas and signed with for Houston Dynamo, which is where his career took off. He played an integral part in winning two MLS Cups for the southerner, which also saw him earn a regular spot in the national team and another chance to play in England.
It was actually, for once, a stroke of marvellous luck that Holden ended up in the right side of Lancashire. He was initially on trial at Burnley after Owen Coyle had happened to see him play a game for the Dynamo on TV, was impressed at what he saw and invited him over to the Clarets. Not long after Coyle left Burnley to pick up the reigns at Bolton he brought Holden across with him, which was the best permanent signing he ever made at the Reebok.
Holden was the sole bright spark on his debut in a 4-0 thrashing from Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup, and he was also the star in his first Premier League outing, a 1-0 victory against Wolves. Then, as would become a trend, his season was cut short.
While on duty for the United States against the Netherlands, notorious hard man Nigel de Jong broke his leg with a horrid, late challenge. With his season over, it was then a race to regain fitness for the 2010 World Cup. He managed it – just – and came off the bench in the opening game against England. All Bolton fans, and the many who had been won over by his ability in England, were delighted to see Holden return, even against the Three Lions.
He came back to the Reebok for the start of the new season fit and raring to go, and from 14 August to the day of his injury, 19 March, he proved to everyone just how brilliant he was. Hard working yet dynamic, industrious yet inventive, dogged yet stylish, a player equally capable with the rough and tumble of defending and the delicate intricacies of attack.
On a brisk December day he scored my favourite goal of all time. Picture the scene: it’s the day after your birthday and you’re watching your beloved side face off against a close, fierce rival. Your team inexplicably goes down to ten men in what is a dubious call from the referee, but instead of dealing the killer blow it actually galvanises the whole side.
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Read | In praise of Sam Allardyce’s reign at Bolton Wanderers
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You go 1-0 up. Through the unlikeliest of sources at that, a clumsy defensive midfielder who can hardly pass let alone score. You’re leading, the game is coming to a close, and the players are defending like Vikings in a shield wall – impenetrable and aggressive.
But then there’s a crack in the defence; the opposition equalise and it’s 1-1 with minutes to go. Your former manager, who’s now the boss of the other side, is loving it and bouncing on the sideline with a wide grimace on his face. It’s surely over. Seconds, literally seconds, later the ball is played back to a defender from kick off, he hits a long, hopeful ball forward and the big striker flick it on for the onrushing American. It came from nowhere.
The scene still gives me goosebumps to this very day. Stuart Holden racing on to Kevin Davies’ flick on to sweep a last minute volley past the flailing Blackburn goalkeeper, mere moments after conceding. Big Sam Allardyce looked like a bulldog who had swallowed a particularly angsty wasp. It’s a goal I’ve re-watched on so many occasions that the commentary is engrained in my mind: “Holden … Holden! Oh Incredible! Bolton show guts and now maybe they’ve got some glory!”
That was Stu. He was the engine, spine, heart and soul of the team, and when he was cruelly taken away all of that was lost and never found again. It’s been over five years now and the Whites still haven’t been able to do so. Bolton slipped from seventh to 14th and were humiliated at Wembley that season. Wow they are rock bottom of the Championship, already relegated, guaranteed to be playing League One football next season. Quite the fall.
That faithful, history-changing day at Old Trafford wouldn’t be Holden’s last game as a footballer, but it was his last game as that footballer. He constantly fought through sweat and tears to return to the game he loves and did so on several occasions, but each time was met with another, more gut wrenching setback.
He returned from that initial injury six months later to an untold amount of joy and jubilation. His first game back was a League Cup tie against Aston Villa in which he played 90 minutes and inspired an abject Bolton side to a 2-0 victory. Afterwards a routine checkup was brought forward and it revealed that a pin had come loose in his left knee and caused cartilage damage. Surgery was required to fix it.
Sixteen months later he returned to the Reebok for the first time in years, coming on as a late substitute in an FA Cup tie against Everton. As he stood up on the sideline waiting to enter the fray again the happiness in the stadium was tangible. There was not one Bolton supporter who was not overjoyed to see him in White again. He entered to rapturous applause and electric chants of “STU-S-A, STU-S-A, STU-S-A”.
He went on to make a couple more appearances that season, including a brief loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday to regain sharpness. He came through the season in tact and went to rejoin the national side for their Gold Cup campaign. All signs pointed towards Holden making a full recovery and coming back to Bolton that summer ready and raring to take his rightful place in the middle of the park.
Then he tore his ACL in the final.
Despite another heartbreaking setback Holden remained positive and refused to give in. A further nine months of gruelling work later and he made yet another return, this time in a Bolton reserve match. Just 23 minutes in his ACL popped again and that was the last football game he ever played. I still remember the feeling of utter devastation when I read what had happened. How can one man be so damn unlucky?
Such a constant series of devastating setbacks would break a lesser man, but it all still failed to keep Holden down, and he maintained for months that he wasn’t done and was determined to return to the field once more. He finally did so in January this year when he joined up with a USMNT training camp and he had even made plans with Owen Coyle to rejoin his beloved Dynamo and partner up, once again, with the manager who saw his talent and gave him a second chance in England. But those aches and pains soon returned and when his first child was born, he hit send on his retirement letter. The fight was over.
It’s a crying shame, a wonderful career cut far too short. But, just like Holden, there is no reason to dwell on that. He achieved incredible things. He was a champion for one of his clubs and his country. He played in the Olympics, the World Cup and the Premier League. He made everlasting bonds at Bolton Wanderers and Houston Dynamo and will never be forgotten by either. It takes a special player, a special person, to achieve that, and Holden undoubtedly is.
I recall a post he made on his Facebook page a few years ago now. It was a picture of a message that the father of a young, aspiring footballer had sent to him. It detailed how this lad, not even a Bolton fan if I remember correctly, looked up to Holden as a hero and inspiration, as the way Holden dealt with all his many setbacks with unmoving positivity and gave him the drive to push on and recover from his own.
That was Stuart Holden – a hero, an inspiration and an undoubted legend.
By Dan Murphy. Follow @Murbroski