THERE was a familiar face at the heart of the Wigan Athletic defence at Birmingham on Tuesday night.
Gary Caldwell was making his first start of the campaign, in the penultimate league game, after an injury nightmare stretching back into last season.
While the match fitness was understandably not there, the trademark composure, organisation and leadership qualities were as Latics picked up the three points – and the clean sheet – that secured their play-off spot with a match to spare.
Having been forced to sit on the outside looking in for so long, Caldwell could not have timed his return to the fold any better after a nightmare 12 months.
“It’s been a long, frustrating time but it’s great to be back,” he told the Evening Post.
“I’ve been fit for a while now but with the boys doing so well I’ve struggled to get into the team.
“Thankfully I got the opportunity on Tuesday and it was great to help the lads get a clean sheet and book our place in the play-offs.
“I’ve always said that whatever the manager needs from me, I’ll be available for him.
“It was obviously difficult for him to decide when to throw me in – he’s never seen me play and unsure about my fitness.
“To come in at Birmingham and show I’m available and able to do a job was pleasing, and I think everyone has to have that attitude between now and the end of the season.”
Caldwell has not been the only Latics players to have been affected by injury this year, with Shaun Maloney having only just returned from a six-month lay-off and both Ben Watson and Chris McCann out with long-term injuries.
“I don’t think a lot of people see footballers outside the game and realise what they go through,” Caldwell reflected.
“There are times when you’re injured and you’re spending most of your time in the gym, and the only people you see are the physios and the fitness coach who get you through.
“There are difficult times, but when you get nights like Tuesday it makes it all worthwhile.”
Caldwell returned as part of a three-man backline alongside Emmerson Boyce and Rob Kiernan as boss Uwe Rosler tried to shore up a defence that had shipped two goals in each of the last two games against Burnley and Blackpool
It wasn’t a walk in the park at St Andrew’s, especially after the second-half introduction of 6’7 striker Nikola Zigic.
But the men in black held firm to ensure Callum McManaman’s third-minute goal was the matchwinner.
“I thought we had total control in the first half without really threatening to score more than the one goal,” Caldwell said.
“In the second half they had to throw men forward given the position they’re in, and they brought Nikola Zigic on, but we defended them okay on the whole.
“Overall it was a professional performance. We went there to win, we had a job to do and we did it.
“We just need to work on keeping the ball better as a team and trying to kill off the game with possession a bit more.
“We’re in the play-off now, and it just kills all the nerves and the pressure, and gives the manager the opportunity to choose what he does at Blackburn on Saturday.”
The win at Birmingham means Latics can finish no lower than sixth in the table, and will clinch fifth if they equal Reading’s result against already-promoted Burnley.
There is a slight chance Blackburn could sneak the final play-off berth, but they have to hope Reading don’t beat the Clarets and then make up a seven-goal deficit on the Royals.
Latics, though, are safely out of reach, and will face QPR if they remain fifth and Derby if they drop to sixth.
“Obviously we’ll be at home first regardless of what position we finish and who the opposition is,” added Caldwell, who says Wigan’s recent cup pedigree will stand them in good stead.
“Whoever we have to play in the semis will be difficult, but in a cup competition you take what you’re given.
“Whether it’s QPR or Derby, as we’ve proved over the last couple of years, we can be a very difficult team to beat in a knockout tie.
“After a 46-game campaign it’s down to three cup-ties that will define the season, and we’re confident we’ll be ready.”