DOUGIE Freedman praised Stuart Holden's spirit after watching him take a significant step towards a first-team return last night.

The USA midfielder came through 65 minutes for the development squad in a 3-0 victory over Oldham Athletic in the Manchester Senior Cup on his return from a knee injury.

It was his first public appearance for the club since facing Aston Villa in the League Cup just over 14 months ago.

And Freedman – who had previously organised a behind-closed-doors friendly against Wigan to give Holden some game time - was delighted to see him make further progress.

“It was great to see him out there,” he said. “To get 65 minutes, we are very pleased, and a very good 65 minutes at that. I thought he was very influential in the game as well.

“Having been out for so long but to be involved in most of the match is very encouraging and also very pleasing for Stuart.”

Freedman said there would be no rush for Holden to return to first-team duty but that his physical condition was such that he might not be far away.

“We have got to remember that because he's been out for so long, we have to put Stuart first and foremost,” he said. “He has got to be given time and he has been given that. And he has to be given a pat on the back as well.

“All round it was a very pleasing night. We have put him into some very tough training sessions. We put him under a lot of pressure and stress.

“There are different ways of treating people. We have put him in losing teams to see how he reacts; we've put him in overload teams and young teams to see how he reacts.

“But he has come through that because that's the type of guy he is. We are training Stuart with every possible way and he is coming through the tests with flying colours.”

Freedman also praised the club's medical staff for their role in Holden's recovery.

“They have been fantastic in working with him,” he said. “I have only been here a few months and I can see they are a very good medical staff.

“To bring Stuart back from such a long lay-off and to keep him at a good fitness level before he hits the grass is very crucial. He has not far to go.”

There was an added bonus at Leyland last night as youngster Josh Vela also completed his return from a four-month lay-off.

The Salford teenager's only outing for the Whites this season had been back in September when he twisted his knee in the defeat at Crawley Town in the League Cup.

But Dougie Freedman hinted that both he and Holden could play a part in the FA Cup third-round replay against Sunderland in six days’ time.

Mark Davies and David Wheater are also on the comeback trail, although they played no part in last night's game.

Wanderers' win came courtesy of goals from Jack Sampson, Chris Lester and Tom Eaves.

Wanderers are also due to announce the £300,000 capture of Barnsley striker Craig Davies today.

The 26-year-old has already scored 11 goals for the struggling Tykes and will become Freedman's first permanent signing since taking charge.

Wales international Davies was at Euxton yesterday to meet his new team-mates for the first time and was waiting for paperwork to clear with the Football League before his signing was made public by the club.

His is the first of a handful of new names expected in the January window, with a centre-half believed to be next on Freedman's wish list.

West Brom defender Craig Dawson is still on the wanted list but the mounting injury situation at the Hawthorns is currently making that deal difficult to complete.

Southampton's Danny Butterfield, who was linked with the club at the weekend, is not believed to be on the shortlist.