How Holden fought back to resurrect broken dream

Five years after his eye socket was smashed in a street attack, the Bolton midfielder tells Ian Herbert of his tough journey to the top
Click to follow
The Independent Football

It wasn't just Stuart Holden's face that was smashed up on the night he was attacked so brutally in a Newcastle taxi rank that his eyeball socket was left fractured in four places. His hopes of a career in English football were left in a similar, desperate state.

Bolton Wanderers' American midfielder epitomises the air of bonhomie which pervades Owen Coyle's thriving side – fifth in the Premier League table and only three points behind Manchester City ahead of today's home game against Blackpool. He speaks of the culture of "fun" that Coyle has imbued the team with, and the daily tweets between the players, including Holden, certainly provide a sense of that. Kevin Davies' one about the joys of his heated steering wheel a few days ago was a cause of some hilarity. They want to get Lee Chung-yong involved next.

But Holden's journey to be here has certainly been the toughest of all. It is one that gave particular resonance to the Thanksgiving dinner he enjoyed with his mother Moira and brother Euan on Thursday evening and that started on that spring evening in 2005 when he was queuing for a cab on Newcastle's Newgate Street.

Until now, Holden has never talked at length about the attack, which occurred after a night out with Euan, who was over on a short break from the States. But his detailed account of how a gang of youths marched up and he, a young player on Sunderland's books at the time, was floored by "a blindside punch" is vivid enough to suggest that the episode is not quite behind him in the way that he says it is. "I couldn't tell you if it had anything to do with football rivalry," Holden says. "They were from Newcastle and we were from Sunderland, but I can't answer that one way or the other. I just know that there was CCTV on the rank but there was a fight down the street so the camera panned away and when it panned back, I was lying on the ground. They never caught them."

The physical effects were all too vividly conveyed by the Newcastle Evening Chronicle report of the day, in which an image of Holden's battered young face formed part of the hunt for the assailants, but the footballing consequences were far deeper reaching. The Northumbria Police investigation had not even been wound up before the episode had destroyed Holden's shot at a career with Sunderland. The punch had caused a blow-out fracture – "a one in a thousand" injury, Holden explains – which causes damage to the muscle in the eye and prevents the victim from looking up or down. He also suffered two months of double vision which frustrated his desperate attempts to prove his worth in Sunderland's reserves before his six-month trial contract was up.

"My contract there was option-based and I knew if I hadn't played any games and they go to the Premier League, I'd be out," he says. "But if I looked up in the air I'd see two balls. Sunderland wouldn't let me play until I could see properly so I would be tested every week at the eye clinic to see when my eyes would align back up. In the end they did." By which time, it was too late. Holden had been told by then manager Mick McCarthy that he wouldn't be keeping him and that he should go on trial at Craig Levein's Leicester City.

One of the most extraordinary outcomes of the attack is Holden's insistence that it caused him a period of reappraisal. "It made me evaluate how I go about things as a professional," he says. "I was still young, 18 or 19, and sometimes as a professional footballer you forget what you're here to do. I still enjoy a social night out, but not to the same extent now. I haven't put myself in those sorts of situations."

But no change of perspective could have prepared Holden for quite so many pot-holes on his ongoing road to success in England. The 25-year-old is no foreigner to these shores – he was born in Aberdeen and lived in the city until the age of 10, when his father secured an executive role at the Chevron oil company in Houston, Texas – and insists the worst of the excesses of Newcastle yob culture did not frighten him: "In no way or form did it scare me or deter me from wanting to come back." But in his first pre-season run-out for Leicester, Holden broke his leg against a non-league side, and was told he would not play for three months. He returned home to Texas to recover.

He signed for MLS side Houston Dynamo, where he played 103 games. Coyle spotted him on television playing against the LA Galaxy and offered him another shot at Britain at the turn of this year. It was on 3 March, seven days after he had made his debut as Coyle's first signing at the Reebok that, while representing the USA, his leg was broken in a tackle by the Netherlands' Nigel de Jong in a friendly match in Amsterdam.

Holden is as unwilling to unleash vitriol on De Jong as he is on the anonymous individuals who smashed his face up, even though the Dutchman now has a bad reputation after his tackle on Hatem Ben Arfa last month. "It was just a reckless tackle," Holden says. "I was coming across the pitch and touched it and he went to tackle me. I just remember going down in agony. I knew I had done something. I don't know much about what De Jong is like to play against – I hardly saw him! He's a hard tackler, an enforcer, and there's no other way about it. If I look back, I'd say that for every bad thing that's happened or knock I've taken, I've come back stronger. I always try and focus on the future."

Somehow Holden has managed to do that – he was back for the USA's World Cup campaign this summer and has been an ever-present for Bolton this season. He notched his first goal for them at Wolverhampton two weeks ago and Coyle says there are more in him.

The setback that has been much harder to put in the past was the death of his father, Brian, from pancreatic cancer at the age of 56, nearly two years ago. The two were close and it was with an eye on the career his father had carved out as human resources director at the Chevron oil and gas corporation that Holden Jnr undertook a business management degree at Clemson University in South Carolina, where his performances for the college soccer team were made known to Sunderland.

Holden Snr bore his illness for six years, longer than many had expected, and the taped-up, yellow bracelet bearing the words "Live Strong" which his son wears on his wrist today, and every day, is the one he wore from the day he was first diagnosed. "Live strong became our family motto," Holden explains. "My mum gave it to me when he passed away and I've worn it every day since. I tape it up when I play. I'm always wrestling and if people mess with it, I'm worried it's going to snap."

But Holden has made good on his promise to keep looking to the future. His long hours at the hospital where his father was nursed introduced him to many children under going chemotherapy and the Holden's Heroes charity he has established to help them has raised $10,000 (£6,400) and has twice made him the US Soccer Federation's humanitarian of the year. "It's not just a one way battle with chemo, but the whole lifestyle, maintaining a positive attitude, which I saw with my dad first hand, gets you a long way," Holden says.

After all the setbacks, there's something remarkably fitting about where his football journey has deposited him. His father was born five miles from the Reebok, in the village of Hindley, and the midfielder's paternal grandparents still live there. "The family has gone full circle in one sense," Holden says. "It couldn't have worked out any better."

It could, if Coyle's side can maintain the progress they have shown. The partnership between the Scottish manager and midfielder has not been without its impediments. Coyle was at Burnley when he asked Holden to fly to England to train with his squad, but on the first scheduled day of work last December the snow was so bad the midfielder could hardly get out of his hotel. The next day Coyle announced that he was leaving for Bolton. It is a measure of his appreciation for Holden that he remembered him after the move across Lancashire.

"He is first and foremost a players' manager," Holden says. "He keeps the mood light. Training is fun but you get a lot of work out of it and on a match day he is all business. He gives you belief that when you step on the pitch you are the best player you can be, that you can express yourself.

"That's given me a world of confidence this year because every time I go on the field I feel I can play at this level and perform. People are taking notice of us but it would mean nothing if we pick up 10 points until the end of the season and end up in a relegation battle. The main thing is confidence." After the trials of the past five years, it will take more than a punch to dent his own.

My Other Life

"I've always been known as a pretty good poker player. It started in high school. There's a few of us who play at Bolton, though I don't think they'd thank me if I told you who. I played a video game when I was growing up, called 'Counter-strike', and though I've put it behind me now it sometimes comes out. It pits a team of counter-terrorists against terrorists and you win by completing a mission or eliminating the opposition. We played a lot of 'Fifa '10' when we, the US team, were cooped up at the World Cup base in Pretoria. I've played a lot of basketball too. I was point guard on the varsity team at school. We're an all-round sporty family. My 22-year-old brother Euan is on trial at Leeds United."