It would take something considerable to stop Ricardo Santos in his tracks – but the big man admits he was floored in pre-season by a mixture of illness and injury.
Laid low by Covid and hobbling with a mysterious pain in his foot, the centre-back was ruled out for a fortnight in pre-season, leaving him unable to start the League One campaign last weekend.
Sitting on the bench was a body blow for Santos, who played every minute of last season’s promotion campaign and swept the board in the club’s awards.
But after making his grand return with a clean sheet against Championship Barnsley in midweek Santos is now itching to stay in contention for this weekend’s trip to AFC Wimbledon, and a game he believes suits his strengths.
“It has been horrible, being out,” he told The Bolton News. “The Blackburn game, the first one with fans back, I missed it because I was at home with Covid.
“It was the wrong time for me to get it, I’d have much rather have got it earlier in pre-season.
“The illness wasn’t that bad. Some days I got headaches and temperatures. But at the same time I had a little foot injury from the Preston game – it was a weird one, the day after the game I couldn’t walk.
“That was for about 10 days, so once I had the Covid as well I knew I had to work hard to catch up.
“I still feel like I still need to catch up even though we won the game against Barnsley and I played well enough, I feel like I can give more. Now I will be working hard in training to get my chance again.”
Beating Barnsley, particularly in an adrenaline-filled penalty shootout, provided the squad with a perfect boost as they prepare to hit the road for successive away games.
And if Santos lost a bit of his own mojo watching George Johnston take his place alongside Alex Baptiste last Saturday, Tuesday’s performance was the perfect tonic.
“I thought we played well,” Santos said. “They are a Championship side but we have shown we are a squad who can hurt teams. We went out there to win.
“It’s good for my confidence. I was trying to ease my way in.
“The first half was a bit hectic, so I had to get my second wind. Once I got myself into the game I felt comfortable and enjoyed it.”
Wanderers’ squad depth has enabled Ian Evatt to traverse a tricky summer of Covid absences without drawing too much attention. Now, with virtually a full list of players to pick from, he can afford to rotate, depending on the type of opponent.
Santos – a guaranteed starter last season – recognises a different mood within the squad which he feels can spur them on to compete at the top end of the table.
“We haven’t come into this league to finish mid-table, we have come here to get promoted again,” he said. “With the squad we have I think we have got a good chance.
“I have got to be on my toes, 100 per cent. I have got people like George (Johnston) creeping up behind me.
“He’s a great talent and then you have Baps (Alex Baptiste)’s experience and Will (Aimson), who we haven’t seen that much of, but he’s good.
“Every game, every training session you have to give everything.”
With Baptiste rested against Barnsley it appears to be a straight fight between Santos and Johnston to start at Plough Lane.
Having played alongside the former Liverpool and Feyenoord defender for the first time in midweek, Santos is impressed with his rival.
“He is quiet a quiet guy around the changing room but on a gameday he is always talking,” he said. “For his size and build you think you can rough him up but he’s aggressive and good on the ball. I like playing with him.
“We have got lots of options. The gaffer just has to pick the best team he thinks can beat the opponents at the weekend.
“Everyone will be sticking together. Even when I was sat on the bench on Saturday it was a case of rallying people.”
Santos expects a physical workout at Wimbledon, who will be playing in front of a maximum capacity crowd for the first time on Saturday at their new stadium.
“I think they will be a different challenge to MK, more direct,” the defender said. “Our defence and midfield with MJ in there can deal with that.
“It’s a game where I think we will have more possession and we’ll be going down there to dominate and win the game.”
Santos notes that the challenge at Wimbledon may be similar to many faced last season in League Two, where focus and bravery at set pieces were just as important as the more technical side of the game.
“Last season we had a lot of those little 1-0 wins where we were defending long balls all the time – and we’re capable of doing it,” he said. “On the regains we can pick teams off, so we’ll be going out there to win.”