Alex Baptiste paid tribute to the bravery shown by team-mate Liam Edwards as he won a 23-month fight to save his Bolton Wanderers career.
Edwards featured as a late substitute in the 3-0 win at Rochdale in what was his first appearance for the Whites since January 2020, before the first lockdown.
The centre-back fractured his kneecap in a training ground accident and has since had a series of operations and minor injuries which have prevented him from playing.
Baptiste, who celebrated the 600th appearance of his career at the Crown Oil Arena, said the team celebrated Edwards’ return in the dressing room after the final whistle.
“We applauded him after the game,” he said. “No matter how bad you are feeling, he hasn’t played for nearly two years.
“He is in here every single day working his nuts off, had setbacks, gets back out there on the grass, then has another setback.
“He looks great in training and everyone is so pleased for him.
“I have been through it, although not to the same extent, and when you are injured you don’t feel a part of the squad. It is so hard.
“To be out for two years, and for what happened last year, it is great to see him compete for a place.”
Edwards was one of the Junior Whites who stepped up from development squad level to represent Wanderers at the start of the 2019/20 season during the darkest financial times.
Tuesday night was only his eighth senior appearance for Bolton but Baptiste saluted his courage for getting back into the first team picture after such a serious injury.
“We haven’t done well recently and felt bad about it but that lad really has been through the mill,” he said.
“I’d imagine there were moments where he had a breakdown and thought maybe his body just couldn’t handle it – but it is great character and mental strength to get back and play again.
“The next step for him is to get games, push in training, push in reserve games, then push for the first team because he is definitely capable.”
Ian Evatt was also full of praise for Edwards as he stepped off the bench to feature in the Papa John’s Trophy.
Wanderers had been without a win in their previous five league games but broke the cycle with a convincing performance to register their first victory at Spotland since 1985.
“I said to the players in there that we have suffered in October – but he has suffered for 23 months,” he said. “No matter how sorry for ourselves that we are feeling, imagine what he has had to do to get back out on the football pitch again. Full credit to him because his attitude has been first class.”
Evatt wants to give Edwards space to complete his comeback with games in the Central League before discussing any possibility of a first team push, or even a loan elsewhere.
“He is just delighted to be on a football pitch again and we’re not going to set any expectation for him,” he said.
“We are going to take it one step at a time because when you have been out for that length of time it is hard to make any plans.
“At the moment he is in one piece, which is important, and his work and mentality over 23 months has deserved that.
“We should give him due credit for that.”