Against All Odds: Danielle Nicholls and Dean Holden

By Lolo Stubbs, Editor-in-chief

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When TV presenter Danielle Nicholls married her childhood sweetheart and professional footballer Dean Holden, their life was as near to a fairytale as it gets. After a perfect wedding, Danielle became pregnant on their honeymoon, welcoming a beautiful boy Joey, with their second baby boy, Ellis, arriving only 18 months later. Then the loved up couple completed their family with the arrival of their eagerly awaited princess, Cici, just a few years later.

Life was crazy and chaotic,  just like so many families with three children under five, but it was full to the brim with love. After taking a few years away from the spotlight to concentrate on being a mum, Danielle was ready to return to our screens. Following a successful meeting with a TV Producer, everything was lined up for her comeback. Danielle couldn’t wait to reignite her career, and she was all set for the next stage following a family holiday to Lanzarote. That excitement was soon to become a distant memory though, as no-one could have imagined that what should have been a fun filled family holiday, would have turned into every parent’s worst nightmare. Only 24 hours after leaving Manchester Airport, the loving couple tragically lost their beloved baby girl Cici, who was only 18 months old, to Meningococcal Septicemia – a bacterial infection which causes blood poisoning, leading to sepsis.

Danielle Nicholls, Dean Holden and their family

Danielle Nicholls, Dean Holden and four of their children © BROOD Magazine

Danielle and Dean bravely opened up about how they managed to keep going through the unimaginable heartbreak; the emotional scars they were left with; how they stayed together despite the statistics being stacked against them; how they welcomed another two wonderful children, Mitzy and Chase, into their family, and how against all odds they continued to build an incredible life for themselves and their children – continually honouring the memory of their beautiful baby girl, Cici, along the way.

You’ll find it hard to find a more inspirational couple. Their outlook on life and how they strive to achieve their goals for themselves and their children would motivate anyone.

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Danielle Nicholls, Dean Holden and four of their children © BROOD Magazine

You both had successful careers when you first started a family, how did that look and how did you manage that?   

Dean – “Because of our careers things have always been a bit chaotic, and we’ve always had to commute lots. When we got married I was playing for Peterborough, so I was commuting there half the week from our home in Manchester, and Danielle was travelling throughout the week to London, Birmingham etc.”

Danielle – “I was progressing in my career at the time. I had moved away from Children’s TV and I was doing bits on This Morning and Tricia, and I was also presenting Night Fever on Channel 5. I was still working when I was heavily pregnant with our first child Joey. Then New Years Eve – the tree was still up – and I was ready to pop, Dean comes home from training at Peterborough and says we’re moving to Scotland!”

Dean – “Yes, she was 8 months pregnant, it was the night before a match, and my manager knocked on the door and said, the Scottish Premier League are coming for you, you’re free to talk to them.”

Danielle – “I’ve never been as angry in my life! [she laughs] You know what it’s like with your first baby you plan everything to a tee, then the next thing you know I was packing up the whole house with my sister and brother in law, and we were on our way to Scotland!”

Dean – “Then 18 months after Joey was born we had Ellis, and it wasn’t long after he was born that we moved back to Manchester.”

Danielle – “Yes, and I loved my boys, but I remember thinking I’m way too girly to have boys, I need a girl! [she laughs] So a couple of years later, we tried again, and we were so lucky to get our little princess, Cici. I said, ‘we’ve two boys and a girl. We’re done now!’ We were happy with that. Then when the boys were starting school and Cici was nearly 18 months old, I decided that I was ready to go back to work. Dean was playing for Shrewsbury, we had Media City on our doorstep and we were back in Manchester with our family. So it just felt like the right time.

So I had a meeting with a producer at the BBC, and we were in talks for me to do some work on BBC Bitesize, to get me back into things again. Which was great, but I said well I’m going on holiday next week and he said, ‘You go on your holidays, and I’ll see you when you get back.’ Of course that didn’t happen because Cici died on that holiday.”

I can’t even begin to imagine how devastating the loss of Cici was and how traumatic that was for you all as a family. 

Danielle – “It sounds silly, but I’ve always been quite a spiritual person and I used to get my palm read and they would always say I had a split lifeline. And remember one lady saying, ‘You’re going to really change; you’re going to be one person and then you’re going to be another person.’ And it always puzzled me, but now I know exactly what she means. Because, I don’t think either of us will ever be the same as we were before Cici died. We actually talk about the ‘old Danielle and Dean’, as if they’re different people. Don’t we? [Turns to Dean] Because of what they went through…”

Dean – “…Yeah, we feel sorry for them.”

Danielle – “When I look back, you know, we had our two beautiful boys, our little princess – we didn’t have loads of money, because I had been a stay at home mum for a while – but we didn’t need the flash car and all the trimmings, all we needed was what we had right there.”

Dean – “I think one of the weirdest things was that although I’d just been released by Rochdale, it was the happiest we’d ever been.

And when we go on holiday, it’s chaotic. It always was chaos, every time! The taxi would turn up and we’d be racing round the house, and we would always get to the airport late!”

Danielle – “We’re never organised! We’re always last minute.”

Dean – “Yeah, but that was the strange thing, we were early that time. We were sitting having a brew in the living room, waiting for the taxi. Everything was really calm.”

Danielle – “He kept saying it’s all too smooth this.”

Dean – “And obviously, by the next morning in Lanzarote, Cici passed away. Now when anything is calm and organised with us, it makes me panicky and I start to worry, it’s like a trigger.”

Danielle – “Yes, we obviously both had PTSD after what happened. You know. The trauma of the speed of it. The upset. Being in a foreign country, it was just, I can’t put it into words. She just had a cold, or so we thought, you know. I can still remember her playing in the soft play area in Terminal 1. Everyone was laughing and smiling, looking at her, because she was running up and down carrying one of the soft play blocks over her head.

They’ve moved it now, but for the longest time could never ever go over that side of the airport, because that was the day before she died. You just can’t get your head around that.

I would rather live in the a scene of a horror movie everyday of my life, being chased by someone with a chainsaw or a machete, than to ever have to live that day ever again! It felt like we were in a horror movie.

I remember following the ambulance in a taxi – they wouldn’t let us in the ambulance, because they were trying to save her life. We just knew it was bad, didn’t we? [Turns to Dean] I think we left our body, when you’re that frightened you do just leave your body, because I can remember everything so vividly, yet it doesn’t feel like it was me.”

Dean – “I think for a long time after we just survived. Obviously you have to look after yourself to some extent because of our kids. And then the realisation hit us, that we didn’t want the kids to grow up with parents who are always sad. You know, we didn’t want them to think, they were ok until Cici died, but then they became alcoholics or they split up, etc, because the stats are against you and if you look at the internet in terms of that – it’s a bit of a scary place. So, we went the other way  and we made a decision to make a go of our lives.

For a long time we couldn’t have spoken about it like this, but the physiological work we’ve done is the reason we can. We’ve done all sorts of things to get here – for example, I’m a big fan of Wim Hof. To learn about your brain and how it deals with trauma is really helpful and now we are in a position where hopefully people can look at us 12 years on, and it gives people hope. Yes, we’ve got a tragic story, but we are still together. Although we have had our issues and it has been difficult at times, but we’re still here – together. We’re doing well in our careers, our kids are happy and healthy, so hopefully it provides some inspiration for others that may have experienced losing a child too, or another trauma.”

Danielle –  “Yes, that’s definitely what we hope we can do, because there is no point saying it doesn’t affect you. I feel like I was a ghost for ten years of my life, and just to be able to talk about the day was a huge step for me. I couldn’t ever talk about it, it would make me feel ill for a week afterwards.I had to have hypnotherapy and that doesn’t fix it, it just means you don’t emotionally go back there every time.” 

The pain you were suffering at that time must have been excruciating, did having the boys to look after help you to keep going?

Danielle – “Yes. If we didn’t have the boys, we wouldn’t be here now. After Cici died, just a few days after, we sat on the edge of a cliff, and we just looked at each other. We both knew what we were thinking, without saying a word to each other. If it wasn’t for knowing that our boys were back at the villa, [both Danielle and Dean become emotional]  I swear that neither of us would be here today. The pain was physical. It’s unimaginable. Unbearable.”

Dean, do you remember that first football match after Cici died?

Dean – “I didn’t have a club at the time, I was 33 years old, I didn’t have an agent and so I spent my summer ringing round clubs. Dean Smith at Walsall was my saviour. He was like our angel, because most managers would have said, you’re 33, you’ve had loads of injuries etc, and Dean said, ‘I’m really worried about your family situation’ – it was only a few weeks after Cici had died – and he said he couldn’t make a decision on it straight away. So I started doing meditation twice a day, going to see a psychologist, etc and he gave me an opportunity as a player/coach and I wouldn’t be in the game without him. And from then on I was just programmed to make him proud. And pre-season is ridiculously hard, any footballer will tell you that, so I had to focus. We hadn’t made anywhere near enough money for me to retire, it’s not like people may think. We had no savings, we lived day to day, so I had no choice, and I wasn’t prepared to lose my career, or my marriage, or for our family to suffer anymore, on top of losing my daughter. There was just something inside me, and I had to keep thinking this isn’t going to break us.

That’s obviously how I got into coaching, and now I’m a manager. I have always loved football, for as long as I can remember. Every memory as a kid involves football and I never thought I would love anything as much as I love playing football, but the manager eclipses that, I absolutely love it. When your team wins a match it’s a great feeling. I also think when you go into management and you’ve had experiences personally that you would never ever choose in a million years, it helps you to empathise in a way that the coaching courses can’t teach you.”

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Danielle, at what point did you know that you needed to start working on your career again and how important do you think it has been for you?

Danielle – “It was covid. Dean had got a great manager’s job at Bristol, and I’m not going to lie I was a bit jealous, because he was off living the dream and because of covid there were a lot of restrictions and so most of the time I was at home with the children. And I had started doing online gaming, as a way of switching off, but also as a way of spending time and having fun with my teenage boys. Then my brother said we should start streaming and suppose that gave me a little taster, although it wasn’t what I wanted to do and then when the lockdowns hit I genuinely had a bit of a midlife crisis. I had gotten to the point where I didn’t know who I was anymore. It sounds so cliche, but I was suddenly like ‘I’m Dean’s wife, I’m the kids’ mum, but who am i?’ and I can remember my mum saying it when I was younger, but it’s so true. It turns out I was also going through perimenopause and it really is a difficult period in a woman’s life. On top of that I lost access to the support groups that had kept me going and I couldn’t go to the gym, or see friends and my mental health really started to suffer. And I got to the stage where I looked at Dean and my kids – and I’ve only ever loved my kids – but I just felt like I wanted to walk away from it all. Thankfully, because I had done so much work over the years, I found myself observing myself and thinking – what is going on here? I love being a mum, I love being a wife. I love my husband, I love my kids, what is wrong with me? But then it was almost like a phoenix from the flames moment, because sometimes when everything falls to shit, you should grab that moment, because that is your moment to reinvent yourself and that’s what I did! So I sorted out my hormones. I realised I had lost myself and I needed to do something about it.”

Dean – “Danielle getting her career back saved our marriage.”

What challenges did you face, in terms of getting back into the world of TV?

Danielle – “I met with an agent and she said ‘You’re on the wrong side of 40 love, you’ve got no chance, you won’t work in TV again!’

And I asked her how old she was. She said 52, and I said to her so the last 10 years have been non existent to you? And she replied by saying, ‘yes well I’ve never stopped working though, you can’t do what you’ve done and then just come back!’ Like it was a luxury, or choice! And I said, ‘I don’t expect to just waltz back in. And I also intended to come back to this years ago!’ But, with TV presenting you’ve got to give a part of you and I couldn’t sit there, putting a front on, knowing that inside I was still a big mess. So, I had to take that time to figure stuff out. Dean was my hero, [Danielle holds back the tears] because he never stopped working, he never took that time to heal – he didn’t get the chance because he had to support us and those kids, and I don’t know how he did it.”

Dean – “I was going to an event, near the shard in London, and Danielle came with me and she bumped into an old colleague from CITV, who was now working at Talk TV as a producer and he asked her if she wanted to come on the show the next day as a guest. And we were actually due to go on holiday the next day, but the opportunity was just what she needed so I went on holiday with kids on my own.”

Danielle – “People are reluctant to take a chance on you when you’ve not done anything for a while, but you can’t do anything until someone gives you a chance and Chuck, was my angel.”

Dean – “And now she’s got her own Saturday night show!” 

You both have an amazing drive to keep going towards your goals and dreams despite the challenges you may face? How do you maintain that level of motivation?

Dean – “The thing is nothing is handed to you on a plate. We grew up in Swinton in Manchester and we worked hard to get to somewhere in our careers and we want to instil that message into our kids. But you do get knocks, setbacks  along the way, like when I was playing for Bolton, Everton put a bid in for me, but on that same day I broke my leg. I lost a 1cm and a half off my leg bone. I was 19 and was never the same player again. I’ve broken my leg three times – and never had a free kick for any of them by the way [he laughs] and so I lost about 5 or 6 years of my career in the end. But, I made the most of my career, I played till I was 35, despite it not being the career I dreamt I would have had in football. The key to all of it, which I truly believe in my heart is when we found true gratitude and that takes a long time, but when you can wake up in the morning and go to sleep every night and just be grateful to the universe for what you’ve got, it’s a magical thing because it takes away all the feeling sorry for yourself. Cici was a blessing and for a long time I would have done anything to erase my memories because it was just so painful, I would have lost all the love and everything just to lose the pain, but now I can look at it differently.”

Danielle – “It’s so hard to wake up with a positive attitude when you’ve spent 10 years waking up to remember that your child has died. Every Chrsitmas, every birthday, someone is missing, and you learn to live with the sadness and the pain, but it never goes away. You never wake up being ok with the fact she’s gone, but wake up knowing it’s ok to carry on, that’s what you learn.”

Dean – “I got sacked three days ago, and that’s hard to deal with, but no pain will ever compare to what we’ve been through, so It’s just wasted oxygen feeling angry about stuff. Obviously when it happened, the first night I was upset and angry, and we talked it through. But,then I was like, right, how can I move forward, who can I surround myself with to get back in the business. I know that phone will ring and i’ll be back in the game.”

Danielle – “I think people need to talk more about what they’re going through. We’ve got our trauma yes, but I think most people are walking around harbouring some kind of trauma and we need to feel able to be more open about it. That’s why I love doing Talk TV, because they allow the discussions and the debates. People don’t need the portrayal of this perfect picture anymore. They need realness. People need to be able to talk about how hard it is trying to balance their careers alongside bringing up the kids, and to balance living with trauma and going through the knocks of life on top of that, and I feel lucky to be in the position that I can vocalise that.” 

Both of your careers have meant that you have had to split your time between London and Manchester recently. With all 4 children in school in Manchester how have you managed to juggle it all?

“It’s absolutely chaotic at times. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t completely shattered sometimes. But, it’s been a juggle. I’ve been so exhausted, but so content, so it’s completely worth it. Thankfully we’ve got good family and friends, who we know we can count on for support. Luckily we’re at a nice stage where the oldest is able to look after our youngest – only for short periods of time but he’s perfectly capable. The older ones are so good with the younger ones. And when the kids have to pitch in I say to them, we’re a family, we’re a team, we work together and if we all help each other we’ll all benefit in the long run. We are both doing what we love doing and that’s so important.”

UPDATE MAY 2024:

Since this interview Dean was appointed as assistant manager for Saudi Pro League club Al-Ettifaq, alongside the teams Manager Steven Gerrard. Danielle shared a little insight as to how chaotic it’s been for the family since, in BROOD Edition 3’s BROOD Moments.

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