Bolton manager Dougie Freedman has paid warm tribute to Stuart Holden ahead of the USA midfielder's possible first-team return from severe knee problems.
Holden suffered cruciate ligament damage and required 26 stitches in a gash from a tackle that saw Manchester United defender Jonny Evans sent off in March 2011. An attempted comeback last season lasted one match, Bolton's 2-0 League Cup victory over Aston Villa in September, as cartilage trouble provided a further setback.
But Holden came through a reserve outing unscathed against Oldham last week and has travelled with the Wanderers' squad for Tuesday night's FA Cup third-round replay at Sunderland. "First of all I think we've got to look at Stuart because the guy's been out for such a long time," said Freedman.
"It's credit to him and the mental strength he's shown. He's a fantastic man to have around the place, he's been fantastic in training and he's got one more hurdle to go - that's to get into the team and stay in the team.
"That's going to be very, very soon. He's getting his opportunity because he deserves it."
Remarkably, Wanderers were seventh in the Barclays Premier League and on their way to an FA Cup semi-final at the time of Holden's initial injury. He was unable to play a single minute of league football as Owen Coyle's squad battled in vain against relegation last term.
An indifferent start to the current campaign cost Coyle his job and Holden returns to a team labouring in the bottom half of the npower Championship. Freedman believes the 27-year-old can be a key influence in reversing this slide, both on and off the pitch, and spoke kindly of his work with fellow knee injury victim Josh Vela.
The 19-year-old academy product suffered ligament damage during August's Capital One Cup loss to Crawley but is also ready to return at the Stadium of Light, having featured as an unused substitute for Saturday's 1-1 draw with Millwall.
"It's a credit the way Stuart handles himself around the place with a lot of the young players," Freedman added. "Josh Vela's been out injured and Stuart's pretty much taken him under his wing and helped him through the injury, which says a lot about the man. He's not only worried about himself.
"It'll be a great moment for him and his family and it will be a great moment for the Bolton fans to see Stuart Holden again because he's such an infectious guy that you want him involved."