AFTER spending so long dreaming about his return from injury, there will be no-one in the Wanderers dressing room happier to get back to the bread and butter of Championship football tomorrow than Stuart Holden.
Tuesday night’s cameo in the dramatic FA Cup win at Sunderland was the first step towards reclaiming a promising career that many feared had been lost to the treatment room.
And while Selhurst Park is a million miles away from the bright lights and glamour of the Premier League, where Holden honed his now talismanic reputation with the Whites, there will not be a prouder man on the park then the American if Dougie Freedman calls on his services once again.
The last time Holden spoke after a game had been at Villa Park in September 2011, when he had just provided an all-too-brief reminder of his talents in the Carling Cup before succumbing to another agonising spell in rehabilitation as a knock-on effect of a previous injury.
This time, there was a different tone in the player’s voice as he talked about his future on the field.
“The last time they were circumstances outside my control,” he told The Bolton News.
“This time, credit to Bolton’s medical staff and Elite PT in the States for preparing me and making sure this time I was 100 per cent ready.
“I have been brought along at a good pace and I feel right. I gave myself a pat on the back for all the work I have done to get to this point.
“But it doesn’t stop here and I will be back in the gym, and back out on the training pitch to build on that run out.
“I want to be out there every week and in the starting 11. It’s been a goal of mine and it’s been step by step.
“The manager has been fantastic with me by letting me jump in and out of training just to make sure I keep my strength up. Doing the little things I can do to keep the longevity of my knee and my career going.
“I don’t plan on playing for three or four years, I plan on playing until I am 36 or 37. It doesn’t stop here. Doing the little things right now and taking my time to make sure I don’t push myself too hard is going to be important for me now.”
It may be a few weeks until we see Holden starting games for Wanderers but his presence on the team-sheet has already created a buzz around the club that could be manna from heaven for Freedman and his staff.
As talk of promotion appeared to be sliding off the table, victory at Sunderland has unearthed some long-hidden optimism around the town.
There is now hope that the Whites can somehow salvage a wretched campaign. It proved a watershed moment for Holden too.
As someone whose first taste of English football was cut short on Wearside because of a cowardly street attack outside a bar in Newcastle that left him with a broken cheekbone, a return from injury in the North East has hopefully exorcised a few demons.
“It’s almost full circle in my life,” he said. “I have learned from injuries and this is where the first of my unlucky injuries happened with that street attack. I am hoping, in a weird and twisted way, it has brought me back here to end my injury nightmare.
“Hopefully, I can move forward and not worry about any of that. All I want to do is play football. I am not a gym rat. I can safely say I am sick of doing squats and lunges.”
Holden’s original injury – caused by an X-rated challenge by Manchester United defender Jonny Evans at Old Trafford – deprived him of a chance to play at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final against Stoke City.
Some trace Wanderers’ decline back to that moment too, but the ever-optimistic 27-year-old is not ready to give up on that dream just yet. A fourth round clash against Everton beckons at the Reebok, and Holden hopes it can go hand-in-hand with league resurrection.
“I haven’t played at Wembley yet,” he said. “I was watching that (Stoke game) on my couch with my eyes closed at the end.
We always seem to have done well in the cup in the last couple of years. I know the lads really want a good cup run. It’s our big chance to win a trophy and also an incentive to get into Europe.
“Everton at home is going to be a tough tie but a good tie. They are doing well now and will prove another test. But we also need to make a strong run in the next few months to give ourselves every chance of getting back into the Premier League.”