FOR Wanderers fans the buzz from the opposite side of the Atlantic could hardly be more encouraging: Stu Holden is back, scoring goals and feeling that he can be better than ever.
Reebok regulars have been waiting anxiously for snippets of information on the midfielder’s progress since he jetted off for a busy summer of international football.
Considering his trials and tribulations with injury in the last two years, Holden’s return to the US fold might be considered success enough. But until he could gain those precious minutes of competitive game time there would always be lingering doubts in these parts as to whether he could really return to Wanderers as the player he once was.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s words of praise aside, it had been hard to gauge just how far the 27-year-old had come from his brief appearances in the last couple of months. It seems, however, that the turning point came last week when he emerged as a second-half substitute against Guatemala to help turn the game into a 6-0 rout and announce his return to a wider audience.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, bleary-eyed Whites fans may also have watched him come off the bench again to put in another impressive 45 minutes against Belize, topped off with his first international goal in four years.
Latching on to a far-post header to brush home his side’s fourth goal of the game from close range it was not a strike to match his glorious derby winner against Blackburn Rovers, for example, but was ample evidence that the spark is very much still there.
More so, Holden is now talking confidently about returning to Wanderers not only as the player once rated among the best midfielders in the whole Premier League but something even better.
With a nod to Dougie Freedman and his staff, the popular playmaker acknowledged that the time he has spent easing his way back into action has given him a new understanding of the game.
“It’s not a matter of me getting back to that point. I’ve got a whole new goal,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I want to be better than back. Even just tactically, there are things I’ve seen watching more soccer. In the last six months I’ve been learning more as a player under new coaches. I felt that the other night against Guatemala, coming on in the second half and having a better balance going forward and staying back. With all that combined, I’m really excited.”
Holden’s improvement is also just reward in Wanderers’ faith. The club’s decision to send the out-of-contract star out for three months of work well away from their gaze could have been a gamble, just as it was when he was shipped out for a month to Sheffield Wednesday in April. Yet the signs are that some time away was just what the doctor ordered.
With a bid for last season’s player of the year Jay Spearing now looking unlikely, the return of a fit and in-form Holden would be like manna from heaven for Freedman as he looks to build a team that can lead from the front this season.
Wanderers kick-off their campaign against Burnley just five days after the Gold Cup final – a target Holden very much has in mind.
For him to be clutching a winner’s medal and be ready to take the field at Turf Moor would be the perfect scenario for all involved.