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Interviews

History Boys: Dean Holdsworth

An instrumental part of Phil Holder’s side, Dean Holdsworth scored 38 goals during the 1991/92 season. From his potent partnership with Gary Blissett to an unforgettable afternoon in Peterborough, Dean sat down with Dan Long to reflect on a memorable chapter in his life and career

3 June 2022

“Tough times never last, but tough people do.”

It may be one of the overused quotes, plastered over the various motivational pages on Instagram, but it's also one that sums up Dean Holdsworth’s career, which included title glory with Brentford and, later, several successful years in the Premier League with Wimbledon.

It all began at Watford, for whom he signed professionally in 1986 after progressing through the youth ranks at Vicarage Road. As is usually standard practice for young players, he was sent out on loans to Carlisle, Port Vale and then Swansea, where he began to make a name for himself, despite playing just five or so games with each.

It had already been quite a process to that point – and it left him wanting more.

“I trained so hard I had my knee restructured when I was 17. I was out for a year,” he explains, speaking a few days after returning from a work trip to Dubai.

“Having been out for so long, I wanted to establish that my knee was going to be good enough to carry on playing and going on loan under managers like Terry Yorath, John Rudge and Clive Middlemass, I found those guys really great to work with.

“My frustration was that I wasn’t getting the opportunity when I went back to Watford after being on loan; I was doing really well in training but was never given an opportunity.”

He had a point to prove and Brentford provided him with the platform to do so. Following an initial loan during the 1988/89 season, he signed for a fee of £125,000 in September 1989.

“Brentford had seen enough of me that they felt they wanted to invest, which was great, and I realised that, if someone wanted to pay something for me, I must have been half-decent - but could I reward them for their investment?

“I wasn’t getting anything back from the manager at the time at Watford and I wanted to go and forge a career for myself. It was a shame, but it worked out! It was a gamble, but I had to really dig deep, trust in my own ability and my own confidence.

“I think the fact Steve Perryman and Phil Holder both saw me as their first-choice striker was a big draw for me. It was that responsibility of scoring the goals to get the Club up the division that was really important for everybody. It was the best thing that could have happened to me.”

Dean could barely have settled any better in TW8. Though Brentford finished 13th in the Third Division, he scored 28 goals in all competitions, which was the highest tally since Steve Phillips’ 36 in 1977/78.

The 1990/91 campaign did not go to plan for Club or player, unfortunately. The Bees lost out to Tranmere in the Play-Off Semi-Final, while injury severely restricted Dean’s return in front of goal.

“I spent the whole of that season with a torn thigh,” he reveals. “We weren’t flush with great medical facilities and those were the days of the physio telling you to go for a walk around the pitch and then putting the heat lamp on you.

“With Steve and Phil’s help, I went to Tottenham for treatment. We worked out exactly what it was, but I was literally playing in pain every game. It affected my speed, my ability and my confidence, but the fans didn’t know. I was wearing Vulkan shorts to make it better, but it was never going to work until it really healed.

“I didn’t have surgery, I let it repair naturally over time and then, once I was able to really perform to the max with it, I didn’t have a break throughout the next summer and spent the whole time rebuilding the quad and the muscle around the tear.

“I went into the season really fit, which was great. From a personal point of view, I knew that if I was fit, we would have a chance of promotion as, even when I wasn’t fit, we still got into the Play-Offs.”

He was not wrong. By Christmas 1991, he had scored 12 league goals – including an opening-day hattrick against Leyton Orient – and 12 more across the FA Cup, Rumbelows Cup and Autoglass Trophy.

Aside from a rehabilitated thigh, what made him so deadly in front of goal?

“I was always ambitious and I worked on everything. I wanted to be better at my weaknesses than I was at my strengths. My ambition was to get to the Premier League somehow and I knew that if I got to the Premier League I couldn't have too many weaknesses otherwise I’d only be there for one year.

“I worked on everything. I wanted to be better at my weaknesses than I was at my strengths”

“I worked on finishing every day. Certain players have certain trademarks - mine was always trying to dip inside and stick them all in the top-left, I practiced it every day. But naturally, you've got to still have an instinct. I wasn't blessed with blistering pace, so I always had to be quicker in the mind.”

And what about that famous partnership with Gary Blissett?

“We did everything in training together. We knew what made each other tick and we got on so well. It was a build-up from a partnership we had forged the year before, really.

“Bliss lived by the ground, but I lived two hours away in Woodford Green and went through the whole of London every day on the train.

“We always had a bit of banter about what he’d been doing in the morning while I was standing next to someone on the Central Line! Everything went where we thought it would go to and everything we did in training was geared towards Saturday. It all just clicked.”

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Deadly duo: Dean (left) and Gary Blissett

 

Once the goals started to flow throughout the second half of the season, the focus narrowed on one target in particular: Jack Holliday’s Club record of 39 goals scored in a single season, which was set in 1932/33.

In the end, Dean finished agonisingly close with 38. “It’s not to be sniffed at! Someone would have to do very well to break that.”

It goes without saying that the fact he and Blissett scored half of the team’s league goals that season was overwhelmingly instrumental in the eventual success, but he says the penultimate game of the season against Fulham topped it all.

“The pinnacle was the Fulham game where the teams around us and above us lost on the Saturday. I remember being at another game on the Saturday as we were playing on the Sunday. I think I was with Brian Statham and we were jumping up and down and realising the next day was massive for us – it was a cup final, as much as Peterborough was as well.

“The day was amazing and we were magnificent. From the moment we stepped on to the pitch and that whistle blew, we were magnificent. We blew them away. We knew what we had to do and it couldn't have gone any better for everybody.

“That day must stick in a lot of fans’ memories because there were almost 13,000 inside Griffin Park that day. What an occasion, which would lead to the best occasion of the season.

“Winning the title was just phenomenal. Sharing the celebrations with the fans and the players and families was something we couldn’t reflect on straight away. You've got to just enjoy the moment. But when you sit back and reflect a day or two later, you just have to say all the hard work, dedication, the performances and everything had been worth it. That's why we love the game so much. 

We had some good times, but I think the respect and the camaraderie between the players was so strong that we all looked at each other in a little bit of an Ocean's 11 moment, where they come out and they are at the Bellagio.

“We actually achieved what we wanted to achieve and you walk away and go, ‘Right, I'm ready for another one!’ That little gold medal makes a hell of an impact on your life.”

“The hard work, dedication and performances had been worth it. That little gold medal makes a hell of an impact on your life”

But soon, in what seemed like a flash, he was gone. The bright lights of the Premier League beckoned.

“Wimbledon Manager Joe Kinnear told me he had a season ticket at Brentford for when he could get there to watch me play because he wanted to make sure that I was the right player for the club, so I knew of their interest and I knew there two or three other clubs in the Premier League who also made an approach, who I did speak to.

“But it was a shame. I've always been honest about this: I wasn't actually offered a contract by Brentford to stay. It was a difficult one because I got on so well with fans, but they didn't really know that I hadn't even been offered a contract. 

“I didn’t want to have any conflict with anybody, so I listened to the offers and, obviously, the chance of joining a Premier League club like Wimbledon was amazing. Once I met [Wimbledon Chairman] Sam Hammam, I realised that he was the headline act of the Crazy Gang. He locked me in his house for talks and wouldn’t let me out! We had some fun and games from day one and I just got on so well with him. Joining Wimbledon became the right thing for me to do.”

That is not to say he jumped ship without thought or feeling.

“I loved being part of that Club and I still do. To not have an option – whether I would have taken it is a different thing – was a bit strange for me. I felt strange about it. But it didn't happen and no one came to me and said, ‘Do you want to stay?’

“The appeal of the Premier League was massive and Phil used to come along to some of the games when Brentford weren’t playing and we used to chat about how I had to step up another level in terms of power, fitness and quality.

“My time at Brentford absolutely set me up for that. I didn’t use it as a stepping stone, I’m proud of the fact we were champions and the fact that I scored the most goals in a season for the Club post-war. If someone had told me that was going to be the pathway, I would have questioned it. But it couldn’t have gone any better.

“I couldn't wish for a better feeling and probably a way out, if you like. The last chapter for me was so positive. When I went along and got put in the Hall of Fame, it was quite an emotional thing for me, if I’m being honest. Things like that, no one can take away from me and it makes football worthwhile.”

With 63 goals in 228 top flight games over the next decade, he became a hit on the big stage.

The career of a footballer is a short one, but after overcoming various early trials and tribulations, it appears Dean Holdsworth made the absolute best of his time in the spotlight.

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