Being thrown in against one of the best wingers in the Championship meant that Lewis Buxton faced a big test on his long-awaited comeback.
But the right back combated the pace and trickery of James McClean so well that the Wigan star was taken off in the 72nd minute.
It earned satisfaction for Buxton and praise from Stuart Gray who now knows that, fitness permitting, he can count on last season’s Player of the Year to bolster the back four in the remaining 13 games of the season.
Buxton played only his 11th match of the campaign, at the DW Stadium, and admits that he has had a “nightmare” because of injuries.
He missed a chunk of pre-season then the start of the Chamnpionship, because of shin splints and a mysterious virus.
His first game was the season’s fourth, the 1-1 draw at Leeds, but the comeback was all too brief before he tore a groin muscle and bowed out again, in Dave Jones’ final game in charge, at Blackpool on November 30.
But his hard work with the physios plus his natural fitness have again allowed him to perform to a high standard despite a long lay-off.
He says his fitness is “all right” and adds: “I was blowing a bit by the end; The more games I play, the fitter and better I’ll get.
“It was just good to be back. I knew it was going to be difficult against some good players; Wigan have got McClean, people like McManaman on the bench, people who are among the top players in our league. You’ve seen Wigan do well against Manchester City, so you know they’ve got a lot of quality. I thought we were unlucky not to get a draw.
“It was a tough ask to come back and play against McClean, but I just enjoy playing so I’m not bothered.
“I almost got back a month ago then I set myself back again. It’s has been frustrating. I just want to play. I don’t enjoy going in early and seeing the two ugly physios every day! It’s great to be back and playing.
“It’s been stop-start, a bit of a nightmare, because I’ve not played the games I wanted to play.
“But I’m back now and hopefully I’ll continue to play and try and stay in the team until the end of the season.
Gray is pleased to have had Buxton available for the first time in his reign: “I thought Lewis was excellent against a difficult opponent, McClean, who’s lively on the wing.
“Lewis showed his experience and knowledge and probably came out on top of the boy in the end - I think he did because Uwe’s ended up taking McClean off.”
Buxton’s return has fitted in neatly with midfield requirements: it allowed Liam Palmer to be switched to the middle, in his preferred positon, as Sam Hutchinson was suspended and Gary Gardner left out as one of the three changes that followed the letdown of the Yeovil defeat.
Palmer, too, performed well, and David Prutton, a playing sub at Wigan, has made his own comeback to strengthen this area. Kieran Lee has an outside chance of being fit for tomorrow, and his return, whenever it happens, will be a huge boost.
Gray thought that the central midfield three of Giles Coke, Adedeji Oshilaja and Palmer supplied the energy that was missing at Yeovil.
He said: “We know Palmer can do a job in there. He’s got legs - can get about the pitch; he can close people down, and he can get away from people.
“I was pleased with all the players. I feel better in my belly than I did than I did last Sat night.
“I just wanted a bit of energy in midfield. Wigan were on a high after winning at Manchester City. Uwe‘s agot a big, qualily squad; he can make changes and freshen it up. But you need energy in midfield and we had that as well.”
Buxton too has praised Palmer, for his previous form as the deputy right back: “He’s been brilliant. I thought I might struggle to get in the team, might not get in the team as quickly as I have done.
“Liam has done great; he’s been one of our most consistent players, and he did well in midfield against Wigan.”
Buxton also feels that the team, though they lost, set the bar for the remainder of the season in terms of the overall tone of the display against one of the division’s best teams, one fancied by Gray to go up via the play-offs.
Says the defender: “Wigan have arguably the second best group of players in the league, behind QPR; we did a great job. We just let ourselves down a bit in the last five mionutes. A draw would have been a good night’s work. Overall, the performance against a top Championship team was much better than the one at Yeovil.
“It sets the standards we have to keep to, to the end of the season.”