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Daily Mirror
Daily Mirror
Mike Walters

Charlton boss Dean Holden's advice to players after suffering all dads' worst nightmare

Dean Holden learned, through unimaginable and unbearable heartache, never to take anything for granted in football.

Last-minute setbacks, getting the sack or trying to upset his boyhood club Manchester United in the Carabao Cup quarter-finals on Tuesday night will never again make Charlton Athletic's new manager brood as much as every parent's worst nightmare.

If your team was knocked out of the FA Cup third round this weekend, read Holden's story and thank your lucky stars it was only a football match. Or if your team is falling short of expectations in the league, be grateful for what you've got – because the Addicks boss and his wife Danielle, a well-known TV presenter, had to sustain their careers through a fog of perpetual grief after the worst kind of loss.

Dean Holden, wife Danielle and their children (Manchester Evening News)

Back in May 2012, the couple's 17-month-old daughter Cici died from meningococcal septicemia – a rare bacterial infection which causes blood poisoning, leading to sepsis – hours after landing in Lanzarote on a family holiday. Now 43, Holden looks back and wonders how they managed to keep going despite the hole in his heart that can never be fully repaired.

“The honest truth is that we only managed to carry on because we had two other kids, Joey and Ellis, who were four and three at the time,” he said. “We had to keep going for them. I can't remember anything about the first few weeks after Cici died because you're just in some kind of trance.

“Family support was essential – my brother Matt is married to Danielle's sister Jodie, so we are very close – and we stumbled across some coping networks, including a group called Compassionate Friends, where we've become patrons recently. They are parents who have lost children like us, and in the beginning it was the only place where we felt normal.

“We were offered anti-depressants by our doctor, but we weren't prepared to go down that route and we threw ourselves into trying to overcome the grief in different ways – things like meditation and hypnotherapy. I still meditate twice a day, which can be classed as a bit weird in football but I don't care because it's really helped me.

Dean Holden (left) in his playing days at Oldham (Birmingham Post and Mail)

“Gordon Taylor got a bad press towards the end of his time as chief executive at the PFA, but he put me in touch with the best psychotherapist to help me understand the trauma. There's no doubt it's made me a better person, a better coach and manager.

“The players are probably bored of hearing me say it already, but I keep telling them: Don't worry about Manchester United - deal with today. Make the best of today. I spoke to them last week about my story because, since the pandemic, a lot of people have been struggling and I want them to know there is hope.

“When we lost Cici I was almost 33, I had just been released by Rochdale, I was never a great player, I didn't have an agent and the road could have petered out for me. I wrote to every club I could find on the map and Dean Smith took me into Walsall as a player-coach. I'll always be grateful to him. Steve Lomas was the only other one who replied – he offered to take me on trial at St Johnstone and stay at his house.

“I've acquired a sense of perspective where I can box things off – whether it's a defeat, losing my job or whatever - and focus on the next task very quickly. Once something's done, it's done. What's the solution? Hopefully people who read my story, and see that I'm doing a job I love and Danielle's doing what she loves, hopefully they can see two people making a real go of it after going through something so devastating.”

Former Aston Villa and Norwich boss Dean Smith (Joe Toth/REX/Shutterstock)

Are there still days when he bursts into tears, or the horror-movie awfulness of that terrible day in Lanzarote comes back to haunt him?

Holden, who was short-changed by Bristol City in his first job as a manager, is unashamedly candid about it. “I still talk to Cici all the time. She's still a part of my life and she always will be,” he said.

“We've been blessed to have two more children, Mitzi and Chase, in the intervening years, but it was a bit of a conversation killer when you meet people, they ask how many kids you've got and you tell them, 'We had five but we've got four.' At first I felt uncomfortable doing that, but if you don't mention Cici, it's like you are airbrushing her out of the picture.

“I used to film her on my mobile, and Danielle used to tell me to put my phone away, but when I went through it there were two-and-a-half hours of footage of Cici. Precious memories. The things that catch you out, and send you back to how you felt on the day, are things like a piece of music when you are on a long drive, which you do often as a football manager.

“And Christmas is always a difficult time for Danielle because Cici was born at home, on the sofa next to the Christmas tree. During the pandemic, when I was manager at Bristol City, she was home-schooling the kids and she struggled mentally with lockdown.

“On the back of that, she needed a new purpose instead of just being Dean's wife and the kids' mum. So she did a comedy course and now she's doing bits of stand-up and she's very funny. I would never have the balls to stand up in front of a crowd and try to make them laugh. That confidence has given her renewed belief and her TV career is taking off again.”

Holden directs operations on the touchline (Simon West/Action Plus/REX/Shutterstock)

Charlton's trip to Old Trafford will be an early opportunity for Holden's young team “to showcase ourselves as a club and show our best side.”

The latest crop of young prospects rolling off the Valley conveyor belt include Miles Leaburn, 19, son of former Addicks striker Carl Leaburn, and watch out for winger Jesurin Rak-Sakyi, on loan from Crystal Palace.

Holden said: “There will be almost 9,500 fans travelling up from south-east London, many of them taking a day or two off work to be there, so let's give them something to enjoy.

“My first day in this job was the morning after we beat Brighton on penalties and drew United in the quarter-finals, a pretty surreal start.

“There are not many clubs in the country with a record like Charlton Athletic for bringing youngsters through and, as next incumbent, it's important that I appreciate that side of our history. Let's go up to Old Trafford, show what we're about and take nothing for granted.”

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