Stuart Holden wants to be a leader for Bolton Wanderers when he returns from injury
THE name Vince Lombardi doesn’t hold quite the same cache on this side of the Atlantic as it does in the States, but it is likely anyone who has ever been party to a dressing room team-talk in any discipline has heard at least one thing the revered former Green Bay Packers coach has said.
One of sport’s greatest-ever orators, Lombardi’s quotes read like a manual for athletic motivation, and his soundbites are plastered on sporting club walls around every English-speaking country on the globe – Bolton Wanderers included.
One of his more famous utterances goes: “It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up,” and as I sit down with Stuart Holden to discuss yet another long-term injury, it is the phrase that keeps circling in my head.
We are closing in on three years since his cruel streak of bad luck began, with that challenge by Manchester United defender Jonny Evans at Old Trafford just a fortnight before the FA Cup semi-final against Stoke City.
Though details of just how serious the injury was were scant at the time, we have since learned it was a potential career-ender – “a one in a million,” according to the specialist who attempted to piece together a shattered knee joint.
But Holden came back, playing a memorable, but solitary, game against Aston Villa in the League Cup, only to receive another huge setback as pins inserted into the original injury had caused cartilage damage which required micro-fracture surgery and meant another long lay-off.
Again, the American refused to stay down.
Several months later and with the club now relegated to the Championship he was back out there for a handful of games and a short spell on loan at Sheffield Wednesday at the start of 2013 and ready for a busy summer playing for his country at the Gold Cup.
Then, perversely in the final game of the competition, Holden broke down again, tearing the cruciate ligament of his other knee.
Even his most ardent supporters feared the worst.
And yet five months later, here we are again.
Chirpy as the first day he set foot in the Reebok, Holden has his eyes on another comeback and maybe even a World Cup for good measure.
I mention to him that I’m sick of doing these comeback interviews – and thankfully he takes the playful jibe in the spirit it was intended. He must be sick of reading them.
Holden is back in the camp, positivity oozing from every pore. But he and I both know that there is only so long that bonhomie is going to last – he has to get it right this time.
“I’m never going back,” he says, switching to deadly serious mode. “Hey, I understand the doubters completely. When you look at it from the outside it’s perfectly normal to be sceptical but I believe in myself, and not only that I know I will get back to where I want to be.
“It’s nice when I get messages from people who do believe and want to see me succeed because they will be the ones who are standing by my side when I do get back out on the pitch and show people what I can do again.
“I know that my playing time hasn’t been what I or anyone else wanted but I fully believe I have prepared myself this time.
“My attitude is that I am going to be back out on that field and no longer be that cheerleader off the field – I want to be a leader on it for Bolton Wanderers.”
Holden has worked with renowned knee specialist Holly Silvers in Los Angeles to get him back to this stage but with an improved medical team now in place at Wanderers. He is happy to stay put for the final stages of his rehab.
“It’s important with any long-standing injury to get away for a bit, and I’ve had a few so I know what I’m talking about,” he said with a self-deprecating note.
“I want to be here. Sometimes when you do your work away from the club, no matter how much my personal trainer kept in touch, you never fully gauge where someone is at until they get their hands on me.
“Everyone has made the decision that it would be best for me now that I’m stepping up for some grass work and cardiovascular work that it’s best to be at the club.
“Sparky (Mark Davies) went through it, all the running sessions, and I know they won’t be fun but I am looking forward to putting in the miles to play at the level required.”
Holden’s contract expires at the Reebok this summer, which also brings with it a World Cup finals in Brazil – two deadlines that heap massive pressure on both the club and the midfielder to get the timing of his return to action absolutely right.
But proving he has a future at Bolton also goes hand-in-hand with proving to Jurgen Klinsmann that his improving performances in the summer were no flash in the pan.
Earning a place in the US squad is a goal for Holden but not necessarily the be all and end all. If the last three years have taught him anything, it is probably that he should enjoy the here and now rather than looking too far ahead.
“The World Cup is obviously something I want to be a part of again, it was one of the greatest experiences of my career playing in South Africa in 2010,” he said. “I’d love to be a part of that team but to do that I have to be playing every week here.
“I’m here with Bolton and if I can get back playing week-in, week-out I think I could make a good run at being in that team.
“In the back of my mind of course I have thought ‘if you don’t get to Brazil it’s not the end of the world’ – it doesn’t mean it’s any less of a goal.
“At the end of the day, this is more important. Playing for my club, that I’m with all year round, is more important.
“I’m only 28 – I can still make the next one – so first and foremost my focus is on finishing what I have started. I don’t want to mess anything up.
“If that means not coming back a few weeks or months early, then okay, but I firmly believe I can do both.”
However attainable you believe Holden’s aims to be, it is hard not to be impressed with his resolve – which handily links in with another gem from Lombardi.
“Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit.”
I’d guess in Holden’s case, the reverse is also true.