REWIND 12 months at Wanderers and Matt Mills was just about as far from being a first team regular as it was possible to be.
Coming off the back of a summer in which he was consistently linked with a move away from the club, he only found a place on the bench five games into the season.
An appearance at Tranmere Rovers in the Captial One Cup did not look like a defining moment at the time, nor did it earn him a starting place in the team thrashed at Blackburn Rovers a few days later.
Little did Mills know, however, it did prove a big step in the right direction.
In one of the more remarkable career turnarounds at Bolton in recent memory, the big centre-half stood on the touchline at Prenton Park on Friday night buoyed by the news he had just been appointed vice captain for the new season ahead.
Anyone doubting how seriously modern footballers take such a role need only have listened to the quiver of pride in the 28-year-old’s voice as he summed up his topsy-turvy year.
“It’s strange really,” he told The Bolton News. “My first game last season was in the Carling Cup at Tranmere, it didn’t look good at all, now I’m standing here with that news, it’s incredible.
“Obviously I need to thank my wife and my family for keeping me really strong.
“The fitness coaches, the gaffer, Curtis Fleming and Lennie Lawrence have worked me really hard at times and I think I’ve reaped the rewards.
“Defensively I think I’m a lot better player and I hope I can repay their faith with performances this season.”
If Wanderers’ show of faith had come as a surprise to Mills, it might not have done to the fans who watched him grow steadily into the role of first-choice centre half through much of a stormy season.
Results never came close to matching expectations last term but the club also stayed loyal to their manager and his staff despite clear displeasure in some sections of the support.
Mills is now confident that the decision to stick with Freedman in the tough times will prove correct in the long run.
“I think the club have gone about things in the right way and have kept the manager in charge,” he said.
“The most important thing at a club is stability. It gives the manager a chance to work and gets his ideas across to a squad, make the changes he needs to make, and get the time to do all that.
“It’s a pleasure to come into work at the moment. It’s one of the best working environments I’ve ever been in during my career and I think it’s extremely important. It can take you a long way, especially with the quality of players we’ve got.”
Mills was signed by Owen Coyle two summers ago but had lost his place in the team by the time Freedman arrived 20 months ago.
Fitness problems, and in particular a troublesome hamstring, looked to have sabotaged Mills’ chances of earning a regular spot but the decision to send him on a back-to-basics individualised training programme eventually changed his fortunes completely.
“The manager came in and I played the first six games but then I did my hamstring and it wasn’t ideal – that’s the time you want to be getting in his face and showing him what you can do,” he said.
“Sometimes in football you’ve got to be a bit patient, mentally strong, and more importantly, stay positive.
“I worked hard to get back, some long hours, and these are the rewards right now – being part of this football club is a pleasure.”
Mills says his own appointment will not change the way he goes about his business.
While his soft South Coast drawl betrays slightly his rock-solid persona on the field, there is no question that he aims to help club skipper Jay Spearing make Wanderers a more organised unit than they appeared in spells last season.
“Jay’s his own person and his own captain,” he said. “I had the role at Reading and Leicester but the most important thing from my point of view is that the manager has put faith in me.
“It’s irrelevant whether I’m wearing the armband or not, we’ve got leaders on the pitch and I want to be one of them; Jay certainly is.
“We have got an environment at this club where we can get on at each other in the right way, and that makes it a lot easier when we’ve got people willing to really work hard for the cause.
“If we want to be successful over the course of a long, hard Championship season it needs everyone to be a leader of some sort or another. “