CAST requested an interview with Dean Holden. Heather McKinlay went to meet him at the training ground.
Arriving early on a bright morning at Sparrows Lane, I knew time would be limited ahead of the final day of training before the squad set off for Exeter. As Dean Holden had recently given a number of interviews to journalists, we agreed to keep this one focussed on Charlton. “I’d much rather speak to supporters than the press,” opens Holden. He goes on unprompted to refer to the Addicks’ Charter which he saw when first researching the club before his appointment. “That’s no more than you should expect as a fan but I know it hasn’t been the case here.”
Holden’s name was not that familiar to Addicks when he took the job. Despite over 400 playing appearances across ten clubs, he rarely found himself in opposition on the pitch against us. He lasted just 48 minutes for Bolton in the FA Cup quarter final in 2000 before he saw red – “Robinson was my nemesis that game.” Bolton nevertheless went on to win but Holden missed playing in the semi-final at Wembley due to a serious leg break which would stall his early career.
I ask what he knew of Charlton before he took over in the hotseat. He recalls two trips to The Valley as a player, but not fondly. One was as a sub and on another occasion he was left out of the Rochdale team: “I remember being told I was not involved before the game. I spent my time in one of the boxes, just watching.” But he did frequent The Valley as a visiting supporter. “I’ve been here as an away fan with Man U…pubs around the ground, away fans always travel really well in big numbers. My understanding as a young kid, as a fan, was that Charlton was a big club, a well-supported club.”
Holden differs from many in professional men’s football in being a lifelong fan of the beautiful game. “The history of Manchester United - the Munich air disaster and everything – was drilled into me as a kid. I was never going to not be a Manchester United fan growing up in Salford.”
His main connection with Charlton before his recent arrival is through playing colleagues. “There’s a young lad, he calls me mentor when he phones me up – Liam Kinsella [Mark Kinsella’s son]. Knew him at Walsall when I was player coach – he was a young lad coming up through the system.” Claus Jensen is a good friend of Holden’s from his days at Bolton, similarly Mark Fish and he was in the England Youth squad alongside Luke Young. He can reel off the names of many other Charlton regulars from the Premier League era – Rufus, Jonatan Johansson, Steve Brown, “that big Swedish fella” – Martin Pringle I prompt. “And I remember watching the play-off game with my dad – the four all. Just as a fan – whatever game was on TV, I used to watch them all. I remember watching it sat in the bedroom with my dad and my brother, two single beds next to each other and the little TV in the corner. My wife had just started working for ITV. [Holden is married to TV presenter Danielle Nicholls.] I spoke to her then the game was on after. It’s weird what you remember.” Latching on to one of our traditions, he is quick to tell me: “I spoke to Micky Gray about the missed penalty. I saw him at a do recently.”
It's good to hear that Holden’s image of Charlton stems from that successful time. He’s candid that there is a lot he doesn’t know. “I’ve not got a great understanding of the history to be fair. As soon as there was a chance of me coming down I tried to find out as much as I could. I’ve been to the museum and had a pint with the fans once or twice. I’ve never tried to pretend I was a big Charlton fan or anything like that. You need to embed yourself and get to know the club. I didn’t know a great detail about the history. I went with my dad and brother to the museum.” He is very willing to listen and has sought advice about the club from Keith Peacock, Alan Curbishley and Scott Minto. “I speak to Scott quite a bit, spoke to him before taking the job.” Curbs and Browny are due to visit Sparrows Lane in the next week or so. Holden is clearly very open to soaking up information and welcoming visitors to the training ground. He remembers Solskjaer, when he took the Manchester United job, not wanting to be called boss. “The people before him had been a bit put off and threatened by the history or something. For me it’s the polar opposite – I want to get as much information as possible about the club and feed that through to the players. Take them to the museum. Help them understand it’s more than pulling on the shirt. I never really got that as a player. Then you have a purpose and know what you’re playing for. When there’s a purpose and an understanding there’s more of a chance of doing something special.” I’m sure when Curbishley spends more time with Holden he will share his anecdote of showing the club’s Back to The Valley video to all and sundry when recruiting players.
Holden has already ordered a black and white photograph of our FA Cup winning celebrations - Don Welsh on his team-mates shoulders - for his office at Sparrows Lane. It struck me as I was shown round later that most of the walls in the new buildings are blank but Holden has plans: “We’re going to put a few more pictures up around the canteen – where’s the history of the club? The players should be aware.” I get the impression that he doesn’t feel that we present ourselves in the best light externally at the moment and he wants to help change this: “I couldn’t even find the training ground online when I was looking and this is a pretty decent facility. It’s why I’m as open as I can be in interviews – you can’t put everything out online of course and I try not to trip myself up and say something I shouldn’t say – but people should have an understanding of what’s going on – I try and speak in normal language.”
His desire for openness and honesty extends to the rapport with fans. He hints at having lots of ideas to get supporters more involved. “When I was manager at Bristol City, it was right at the heart of Covid. I had all these plans but it was impossible to do anything – we might as well have been on an island, it was just the team, the staff, no supporters at the games. You’d go and play for the shirt but there was just no connection.” Holden outlines three objectives: putting a successful team on the pitch, bringing the youngsters through and for supporters: “to be really proud of being a Charlton fan because they can see what’s going on at the club. I’ve talked before about players running through brick walls for the shirt. That’s the culture we’re trying to create here. You want the fans to have a calmness - I’m talking about the work that’s going on in the football department. I want them to feel calm knowing that ‘it’s alright, he’s got it, he knows what he’s doing, there’s a plan.’ Not as in me but us. Nothing will be left unturned, no chances taken. As long as I’m here it will be honest, the fans will be able to relate to it.” He acknowledges the fans’ desire for similar clarity off the pitch: “Yeah we have to address the issues with the ownership obviously – there’s a lot of anger and I understand all that.”
Holden has really taken to Charlton. “It’s raw, there’s something about south-east London I can relate to, like Salford, working class, proper, real, genuine, honest – everywhere I go people will be brutally honest with me and that’s brilliant.” He sees this area and Salford as being emblematic of the present state of the country. He appreciates substance over style: “This is a proper football club, the stadium, the training ground. It’s not like the new, loads of money thrown at it, brand new, soulless stadium – it’s proper. I can’t come up with a better word than that.”
We come back to the relationship with supporters which Holden passionately believes is a key focus for him and the squad: “Even if we don’t win every week - like last week against Bolton – you can never question the players work-rate because that’s the absolute basic that you will get from any team under my stewardship so to speak. And obviously we want the quality and the exciting young players, doing all those things, great football. But at the heart of it – I sit there as a fan in the stand and there’s nothing makes my blood boil more in football than seeing someone kind of going through the motions. How would you feel [as a fan] if you were to go and put a strip on tomorrow - it's not about the supporter’s talent – but you’d literally not stop, you just wouldn’t. It’s why players need to understand the history. It’s the absolute minimum. They have to understand what this club is in the community.”
The day before my visit, Dean Holden and Tracey Leaburn had taken part in the Meal Squeal challenge to raise funds for the club’s prostate cancer screening initiative. Eating delicacies such as pig’s anus and drinking blended meal worms was not for the squeamish – Holden admitted to being physically sick at the time and as I write this the club will no doubt be busy editing the photographs and the footage to avoid the most graphic of scenes. But it was a great bonding session in front of the whole squad for an important cause. “The campaign we did yesterday – it was a bit of fun but it really is in tune with the supporters in that sense. We’re changing lives – genuinely. The football in the last couple of years maybe hasn’t been much to be celebrated but there’s a lot to like about the club, doing a lot of good things for the people of the area.”
I raise the concern that everything, including Holden’s contract, is presently very short-term. How does he see things working out? “My ideal would be to continue the progression we’ve seen up till now and to stay longer term – I’ve literally fell for the place. I’ve barely been back home since I came down - something special has grabbed me. I was a bit apprehensive to be honest. It’s an area of the country I didn’t know at all, I didn’t know anyone. Andy Scott and Jim Rodwell [who arrived at the same time] – I didn’t really know them guys, not on a personal level. It’s a new chapter in life so let’s throw myself into it. I might have come down here and absolutely hated it. But there’s something about the place that’s really grabbed me.” Of course he hopes to have his contract extended but is far from making a big deal of it: “It’s not something I’m thinking about really. If I was sat here now with a 10 year contract or one that finished at four o’clock today it wouldn’t change how I’d go about my business.”
Holden recognises why fans are rather fearful about the short-termism: “That’s why we’ve offered new contracts to players and turned down bids for the young players. I’m heavily involved in all of that but it’s not just my decision. Jurgen Klopp doesn’t decide on his own who leaves and comes in at Liverpool – if a bid comes in it’s the club, it’s the same at every club. In terms of changing this place round if you come back in a few months’ time you’ll see a completely different set up. In terms of taking care of the short term – that’s getting away from the danger zone, get to a respectable position to have a push if we can and we’re still thinking about that. Then we’ll be thinking about pre-season and summer recruitment. In the next week or two thoughts will move to that. Obviously we came in 10 days before the window opened so were behind in that. The recruitment team were preparing but preparing for a different manager’s team.” As time was getting short, we did not discuss the detail of the transfer window comings and goings - Holden had already spoken about that in the club’s press conference the previous day.
He returns to the theme of getting everyone focused on the same ambition and direction. “We’ve had a little bit of buy-in from the fans in the past few weeks in the way the boys have produced on the pitch and the way we’ve been trying to bring [the fans] closer to the team. There has been a divide but if you can bring it all together it’s a pretty powerful thing.” Holden isn’t the person who will provide supporters with the answers to what is happening regarding the club ownership but he does not ignore it: “I know from the Glazer situation when I was younger – antipathy to the ownership, I can relate to it. I’m not going to say win three games on the spin and it’s all fine – there are miles bigger issues than that. It’s what I’m studying and looking into. I don’t know it all yet – far from it – I’ve only been here five weeks. But I’m pretty far on into understanding what this club is and what it needs to be. That’s why I like to speak to supporters – they are pretty honest and raw.”
During the course of our discussion, I’ve asked Holden to give me three words to describe Charlton. One of his first thoughts was hungry but he settles for “proper, special and potential”.
When talking about his own contract situation, Holden used what he described as “bit of an old cliché”. He asks us to “judge me on the way out rather than on the way in.” He means it beyond himself personally but “what we have created”. It strikes me that it’s also an appropriate cliché for Addicks to apply to owners of our club – past, present and future.
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