With the Championship activating full throttle, an unforgiving schedule poses endless challenges from logistics to fatigue and fitness. For Bristol City, Saturday’s match at home to Swansea represents the third of seven games across a gruelling 20-day period but in Clevedon Marine Lake, a tidal pool filled with seawater overlooking the Bristol Channel, head coach Dean Holden has found a serene spot to switch off and meditate.
“I’ve been going since I got the job,” he says. “I can’t ever have my phone away from me now, especially during the transfer window, because you never know what’s coming. It’s a great view, it’s freezing cold and it allows me to get 20 minutes away from the world. Just a pair of kecks – a pair of shorts – and in I go.”
Holden has immersed himself in the role at Bristol City with a similar gusto since succeeding Lee Johnson, whom he assisted for four years, in August. Holden’s first foray into coaching came at the end of his playing career under Dean Smith at Walsall and numerous roles at Oldham, including a spell as manager, followed before he took caretaker charge at Bristol City last season following Johnson’s departure. Those experiences shaped his journey but he recognises the opportunity to guide the club into the Premier League is a different, and exciting, proposition.
“There are a lot of things getting the club ready for promotion, but we have to get it right on the pitch. Putting money in as Steve [Lansdown, the owner] has done is incredible – the legacy he is going to leave behind is incredible: the new training ground, the academy, Bristol Sport with Bristol Bears; everything is just: ‘Wow’ – but we’ve got to make sure we’re good enough out there,” he says, glancing towards the grass. “I’m hoping when we move into the new facility in the spring, we’re in a really good place towards the end of the season. It’s all right getting the opportunity … I’ve got to make sure I take this.”
Holden acknowledges he was not the name on many supporters’ lips when the vacancy arose but four wins from his first six league matches have soothed any dissenting voices. “I was aware there was a clamour for a bigger name, maybe a more successful [manager], rather than somebody who was already in the building. But I never really got caught up in the noise. I had it a lot through my playing career; I was never the marquee star signing, so I’m comfortable with that. They [fans] care enough to voice whatever they want to voice about the football club because it’s a massive part of their life.”
The 41-year-old counts Smith and Sam Allardyce, his manager at Bolton, as mentors and is constantly trying to evolve, aided by his assistants Paul Simpson and Keith Downing, formerly in charge of England’s Under-20s and Under-19s respectively. Three years ago Holden visited Jorge Sampaoli at Sevilla and, more recently, enjoyed picking the brains of Eddie Jones and Paul Nicholls at a workshop Q&A at the horse racing trainer’s yard in Ditcheat.
“I watched the Bobby Robson [More Than a Manager] documentary and right at the end I remember his son saying he didn’t really know what the likes of the ‘old Ronaldo’ were like because they didn’t have much of a family life. So I wanted to ask: ‘Can you be as good as you possibly can in your job and still have a really happy home life, be a good husband and father to your kids?’ They both said: ‘No, you have to pick one or the other.’ After Eddie came up to me and said: ‘Actually, yes, you can but you have to make sure you get the balance right.’ I went to see Paul a couple of weeks ago, separately, and we had a really good chat about that. I didn’t know at the time he had three divorces, so that was a ridiculous question. I should have prepared better.”
He is a self-deprecating character but one of his most endearing traits is his candid nature. “I just think be open, be honest, be straight – there’s no point bullshitting people, because there’s enough of that,” he says, and there was no beating about the bush on Tuesday, when his team slipped to a first league defeat against Middlesbrough which leaves them second in the table, two points above Swansea. Last month, on a rare Saturday off, Holden went to The Three Lions, a pub around the corner from Ashton Gate, to meet fans – and have his first taste of a West Country staple: Thatcher’s Gold cider.
“Sean, who runs the boozer, put a little flag up of me when I was getting a bit of stick so I thought I would go and say thanks for that, basically. It was an off-the-cuff thing because me, my old man and my brother wanted to go for a pint and we were not playing until the Sunday. I like getting to know people and enjoying what I do. I don’t want it [management] to be a big ordeal and at the end of it, whenever it finishes, years down the line – hopefully, it will be an Alex Ferguson or [Arsène] Wenger period in football – at whatever club, I want to look back and think I’ve really enjoyed that and made the most of it.”