RICARDO Santos will lead Wanderers out at Wembley on Sunday – less than three years after considering quitting full-time football for good.

Bolton’s captain was struggling to pay the bills as a non-league player at Barnet, whose finances had been hit hard in the middle of the pandemic.

And with full-time employment not possible at the time, the defender started to hunt for driving jobs to make extra pay.

Santos was on the verge of applying to Amazon to deliver packages during lockdown when a call from new Bolton Wanderers boss Ian Evatt changed his life completely.

“It is mad when you think about it now,” he told The Bolton News. “But things just happened so quickly.

“I was playing at Barnet and we’d made the play-offs but when Covid happened everything was up in the air around football. I was unsure what was happening, money wise, whether I’d be moving to another club, when we were playing.

“My last pay there was something like £390. I was living with my missus in London, we had a little one, even my car was more expensive than that.

“I wasn’t sure what I was going to be doing. There were a couple of other offers in football but there wasn’t anything good so I started looking for part-time jobs.

“Amazon was the easy one for me. I didn’t want to do anything too hard, so driving and delivering seemed okay to me.

“Before I had decided on something I got a call from the gaffer and he said: ‘Do you want to come to Bolton, so that was it.’ “It all happened so fast. I was literally sat there wondering what I was going to do with my career, whether I could afford to be a part-time footballer, and then I was at Bolton Wanderers and the next thing I knew I was playing every game.”

Santos had already sampled league football with Peterborough United but, by his own admission, failed to maximise his potential at London Road.

Posh had paid £8,000 to sign him from Isthmian League Thurrock and for two of his four seasons with the club he was regarded as a first team regular. But comments made after his departure created conflict and Santos admits it took a move away from the capital for him to get his responsibilities in the right order.

“People have written me off but I get all that because when I was at Peterborough I was young, and even at Barnet too, I think my mind was on two things – I loved football but it was also about going out with friends, partying, staying out late. I was between the two things,” he said.

“I grew up. I came away from all that rubbish and I am fully focussed now on my family and football, which I think has helped me. Moving away from London and being up here has helped me so much.

“Everything happened fast and I look back and know I made some bad choices when I was a youngster. But I don’t regret anything because it has led me here and made me the person I am today.”

Santos was one of Evatt’s first signings at Wanderers and, along with Gethin Jones, the only player still with the club who played in his first official game in charge.

He finished the season as Bolton’s player of the year and was voted in the League Two team of the year – but his initial settling in period was not without its problems.

“In the early days it was tough,” Santos said. “With that, you just don’t realise that Bolton is such a big club, and everything just hits you so fast.

“When I started playing, you’d walk into the stadium and think ‘wow’ because I’d just never played anywhere like this.

“When you are not doing well, and we weren’t doing well, you expect the fans to ask ‘what’s going on?’ “I learned a lot in that first couple of months and found my feet quickly enough. I got myself running.”

It will be back down to London on Sunday for Santos, who was born in Portugal but grew up in Stratford on the east side of the city. And appropriately, he will be looking to deliver for Wanderers.

“Perfect scenario is 1-1 and then I pop up to score a winner,” he said. “I’ll be dreaming about that now. I hope it comes true.

“When you are growing up and playing football all you talk about is playing at Wembley someday. For my friends to come and watch me leading Bolton Wanderers out on to the pitch, I’ll be so proud of that.

“I had to get about 30 tickets, I’ve got loads of family going.

“It will be a big day. I can’t wait for it.”