THE smile has returned to David Wheater’s face and that can only mean good news for Bolton Wanderers.

Happier times have been few and far between at the Reebok of late, the league table no laughing matter at all.

But if Dougie Freedman is to succeed in raising the mood around the club then it is a safe bet his returning centre-half will have something to do with it.

Wheater admits he found himself in a dark place earlier this season, when a growth on his knee – a side-effect from an earlier cruciate ligament tear – severely hampered his form.

He tried to battle on but when the problem started to affect his movement and ability to train, he was forced to take an extended break.

He went under the surgeon’s knife in January and while his first game in four months did not go according to plan on Tuesday night, his performance indicated better things on the horizon.

“On a personal level it’s great to be back,” he told The Bolton News. “It doesn't feel like pressure to me, I’m just glad to be fit.

“I’d tried to soldier on with the knee earlier this season but it just kept swelling up. The surgeon took a lump out of it and now it’s like brand new – he also said it was the biggest one he’d ever removed, so I felt a bit better after that!

“I knew there was something wrong. I couldn't turn or leap and you could probably see that in the first game of the season. I was like a carthorse.

“I didn't want to say anything because I was playing. I didn't want to be out of the team again.

“But in the end the manager knew something was up and we agreed to get it sorted.”

Wheater’s return to the team nearly got off to a catastrophic start when he went flying into a challenge with Burnley’s Danny Ings – who had tormented him on the opening day of the season at Turf Moor.

“I thought 'oh no not again,” the defender said tongue-in-cheek.

“I thought it might have been a red. I slipped and didn't mean to dive in like that. But I am happy I got him though after what he did to me on the first day of the season.

“I told him I didn't mean it at the end but it was nice to get in there. But I admit I was a bit scared when the referee pulled me over."

Having Wheater and American midfielder Stu Holden back in the camp should have a positive effect on a dressing room that looks short of confidence and down on its luck at present.

“Everyone needs to stick together at the moment,” the centre-half said. “I think Lukas Jutkiewicz will get us some goals so we just need to defend a bit better than we are too.

“It might be different for some players but I am always happy. I try to put a smile on people's faces. Others just need to have confidence in their own ability and be happy.

“I know the lads are all happy for me to be back playing. Stu will come back fitter as well. We miss Stu because he is a brilliant player. We need big characters like us two.”

Wheater – who celebrates his 27th birthday today - has also timed his comeback for an important game in the family calendar.

“My granddad's family on my mum's side are all from Bermondsey/Elephant and Castle,” he said. “My uncle's got this big Victorian house round there and they support Millwall, so they’ll be at the game.”

Wanderers have experienced few comforts at The Den, even in victory the last few years.

Despite beating the Lions in the FA Cup a couple of years ago their last visit ended with an ugly 2-1 defeat that marked the end of Owen Coyle’s tenure.

Wheater laughed off the hostility he is expecting tomorrow and hopes he can get his own back on the Londoners.

“We’ve had some interesting days down there and I didn't play in the last one because of my knee – but I remember Ryo Miyaichi getting hit in the head with a bottle.

“I’ve never really understood that. I don’t get how they manage to hit people with coins from that far either. They should be Olympians!

“I think it is brilliant going there getting abuse. Some players might be different and take it to heart. But if you get abuse you should just take it. Go and score a goal or something, give them some abuse back that way.”