IT has taken a while but Matt Mills finally feels part of the gang at Wanderers.
One of this season’s surprise packages, the ex-Leicester City man has reinvented himself to conquer the fitness and form problems that blighted his first year at the Reebok.
Mills’ first full campaign at Bolton turned into a genuine nightmare – the centre-back failing to play a single game after December 8 when he damaged a hamstring playing against Huddersfield Town.
An uncertain summer saw him linked heavily with a move to Leeds United and by the time Wanderers kicked-off against Burnley last August, Mills was literally nowhere to be seen.
After Freedman’s side made a dreadful start, his arrival back in the team – ironically against Leeds United – came like a bolt from the blue.
But Mills has hardly looked back, first forging a strong partnership with Tim Ream at centre-half before going it alone when the American moved to the left.
No wonder, then, he is happy to speak candidly about just how far out of the reckoning he was when the season began.
“I’ve noticed at the home games that I’m not even in the squad list to be sponsored – so that probably tells you where I was at the start of the season,” he joked.
“It’s been tough mentally. There have been times I have had to try to stay strong, so massive thanks to my fiancée and my family because they’ve kept me going. That’s what makes me strive to put in performances.
“I just feel happier within myself and feel I’ve got a connection with the fans and the club. I like playing in a team and a squad I feel part of.”
Things are very different now for Mills. The campaign has not been without its difficult moments – his very public haranguing at former clubs Leicester and Reading in particular – but that has been compensated by the love now felt for him at the Reebok, where his no-nonsense style has been embraced.
“It’s been a really big season for me – not to be involved at the start and then to come back and be heavily involved,” he said.
“It’s probably been the best season of my career, personally. I love playing for this club.
“I feel very settled off the pitch, which helps, and I feel for the first time in quite a long time I’m ready to play my best football.”
Mills never recovered from his dip at Leicester, where he had been recruited in a big money move by Sven-Goran Eriksson in 2011.
He was frozen out by current Foxes boss Nigel Pearson and has, on occasion since leaving the King Power, voiced his displeasure at the treatment he received in the East Midlands, where he once wore the captain’s armband.
This time, however, Mills isn’t interested in stirring up old memories, and is simply looking to continue his current club’s excellent late-season form.
“They’ve got promotion now and fair play to them,” he said. “But for me it’s just a home game and the most important thing for us is to finish the season on a high for our home fans.
“The manager has made a point of saying that to us after the Charlton game, we really need to give the supporters something to look forward to.
“We need to play in a way that makes them feel positive heading into next season.
“Whether it’s top of the league or bottom of the league, whenever you go out there you want to win. I think you can see that kind of resolve in us now.
“I’ve got friends at Leicester – and you gather them from playing anywhere in football – but when you take to the pitch it’s certainly not friendship.”
One defeat in 13 games might have helped Wanderers establish a firm mid-table position but it is still well below the top-six place that was targeted before a ball had been kicked.
Mills had little input into the disastrous start to the campaign during his exile from the first team but is now looking to the future with optimism.
“I think you always look back at the end of every season and look back at the parts you could have done better,” he said.
“The most important thing for me is that people say we’re firing on all cylinders now.
“If we start thinking about our performances next season I think we’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
“The squad and the management has been together for a period of time now and that stability definitely helps.
“Now people will know what is required next season.”