It's no surprise that Stuart Holden is a major fan favorite for Bolton Wanderers. The central midfielder's infectious personality is matched by his sheer ability and class on the field. Yet, Stu Holden's Bolton Wanderers career, from rise to fall, is eerily parallel to that of the club. "Fall" is admittedly a bit harsh to describe Stu's "decline" as he has not yet had much of a chance to rise from the ashes of his two-year-long injury absence.
In August 2012, I wrote a piece titled "Stuart Holden: The (Indirect) Cause And Solution To Bolton Wanderers' Problems" in which I chronicled Bolton's successful and awful spells and how they lined up with Holden's two major injury absences. When all was said and done, it became clear that many of Wanderers' issues came from the manager's inability to cope without Holden's presence.
In the two periods of extended absence that Stu faced while Bolton Wanderers were in the Premier League (March - June 2010 and March 2011 - August 2012), there exists a mostly direct correlation with the Trotters' fortunes. When Holden was not playing for Bolton, the team, for the most part, did not play well. Stagnant performances led to poor results which, in turn, led to awful league positions and ultimately, relegation for Bolton Wanderers.
There are a number of reasons for this but perhaps none more important than the fact that the Trotters, then managed by Owen Coyle, completely failed at compensating for Stu's absence. Holden was arguably Bolton's best player when in form and when he played, odds were that he was in form. Owen Coyle tried filling the gap with Nigel Reo-Coker, Darren Pratley, and when push finally came to shove, Fabrice Muamba. Yet, none of them could
Stu has seen relatively sparing minutes in his bid to return to full fitness. As his progress continues to ramp up with increasing minutes for club and country, Bolton Wanderers fans will be anxious to see if their Trotters as a whole will once again mirror Stu's rise to greatness. There is however, another question that should be asked. Were Holden's injury issues more than simple bad luck and how much did Owen Coyle's managerial tenure contribute to it?
Thus far this summer, current Bolton manager, Dougie Freedman, has been overhauling various aspects of the club. We have already seen major changes in the scouting department, the way transfers are handled, and now, in the medical staff. Bolton made waves a month ago when reports emerged that Dr. Jonathan Tobin, one of the men that was instrumental in saving Fabrice Muamba's life, was being let go. Just a few weeks ago, Bolton Wanderers added Head of Sport Development Mark Leathers to the mix alongside new fitness coach, Danny Birdsall in a bid to improve the medical department.
It was some injury news before the season even started that made it increasingly clear why the overhaul had to happen. Tom Eaves, the young striker who was handed his debut at the end of last season, aggravating a pre-existing toe injury that the medical staff failed to catch before letting players leave for the summer. Upon his return home, scans discovered a fracture in Eaves' foot that will keep him out for much of the pre-season. If it was a one-off thing, it could perhaps be overlooked. That's the thing though, it wasn't just once.
Last season, many had tipped Joe Riley to really break into the first team at Bolton. He spent much of the first half of the season with the U21s, breaking into the starting lineup against Crawley Town in the Capital One Cup and against Sunderland in the FA Cup. He was forced off early in the Sunderland match with a foot injury and it was that match in January that would, more or less, end Riley's season. For the rest of the year, the young right back would struggle with the foot injury, later diagnosed as a small fracture that initial tests missed.
Following his broken leg at the feet of Nigel de Jong, Holden rehabilitated (for the most part) with Bolton's medical staff. The second time around, the Jonny Evans injury, Stu elected to be treated stateside by James Hashimoto, a physical therapist with a long history of success for the United States Men's National Team. Holden worked with Hash for about a year before returning to Bolton to finish off his therapy, get reserve games, make substitute appearances, start for Sheffield Wednesday, and play competitively for the USMNT.
For those that don't remember, Holden made his first return attempt for Bolton Wanderers in September, 2011 against Aston Villa in the Carling Cup. That day, Stu went the full 90 minutes as the Trotters won away at Villa Park. Holden complained about his knee after the match and doctors found additional damage in a routine follow-up procedure completed shortly after.
In the case of Matt Mills, the defenders injury simply was not getting better and it was Freedman's staff that changed the recovery regiment. Dougie Freedman discussed it in an interview back in March:
"What we feel with Matt is that he needs to change his whole attitude to training.
"He's doing things he's never done before, in the gym and in his pattern movements.
"At the moment he's feeling a little bit stiff and not moving as well as he could be.
"But he is still training away, and looking good in fact, and he's played in the reserves. So he's just waiting for his chance now.
"When he was injured he wasn't responding to some of the normal guys' training. A hamstring that should have taken three to six weeks to heal was taking eight to 10 weeks for him. And we couldn't quite work that out.
"We figured out that his movement patterns were not quite what they should be. He needed to have quicker feet, and so on, so he has been away to work on that.
"He has found a bit of muscular soreness because of that, which has kept him out, but in the last few weeks he's trained well and he's raring to go. He's just waiting for an opportunity."
There is another quote from Sam Ricketts regarding Owen Coyle's time at Bolton Wanderers that we often allude to:
"There's different types of training, physically we train hard at times for fitness, but also tactically, and you can see we're much more aware now as a side.
"The way we defend, the way we attack, we have game plans for each individual game. That's what the manager brought into the club."
It always makes us wonder about just what was going on before.
In Stu Holden, Bolton Wanderers fans had to look below the surface to see the team's problems. The club was ultimately far too reliant on one player and just about completely failed to cope in his absence. On top of that, injury issues persisted. A number of these injury issues extended into the tenure of Dougie Freedman, including the Riley and Eaves injuries. However, the arguable common denominator was the medical staff, which is now in the midst of a complete overhaul.