YOU will be hard pressed to find Ian Gray without a big smile on his face these days.
The 29-year-old goalkeeper has more reason than most to be a happy man - despite missing two thirds of last season and the play-off glory which followed.
That's because there have been many times over the past nine months when Gray thought he would never play football again.
When he trotted off the field in the closing moments of the FA Cup-tie against Accrington Stanley on November 9 last year, no-one worried too much about it.
Gray himself, in fact, didn't believe the injury was too serious, which is why he played on for a significant spell before Phil Senior was called into the fray for the first-round tie which was eventually lost to a stoppage-time goal by Andy Gouck.
But he had suffered two broken fingers and a bad dislocation in his left hand - horrific for a keeper - and for much of his time on the sidelines the omens weren't good.
"When I went to the specialist and he said things looked pretty bad, I really did doubt if I would ever come back to play again," said Gray, who was Peter Jackson's first signing just over a year ago.
"There were some very dark days when it looked like it was all over for me and, in football terms, it was the worst six months of my life.
"I'd been injured before, obviously, but not for so long and not with such a serious problem.
"It was horrible. Just the uncertainty of it all.
"But there was nothing I could do other than take it on the chin, be as patient as possible and just hope for the best."
Gray - who was once a £200,000 signing for opening-day opponents Stockport County - was especially frustrated because he could do nothing to speed up his recovery.
"The surgeon at Cheadle Hospital did his bit and then I just had to wait for it to settle down on its own," said Gray, who lives near Manchester with his wife and young family.
"I had stitches in wounds on both sides of my hand and two pins inserted to hold everything in place.
"As an injury, it couldn't really get much worse for a keeper.
"If you had told me that at the time the injury occured I wouldn't have believed you.
"There was no way when I came off that field at Accrington that I would have thought I was going to be out for the whole season and, possibly, out for good.
"It really has been a long old haul, but these things happen and you have to try and make the best of it."
Gray was unable to do any handling work last season while his colleagues battled towards promotion with Senior and then Charlton loan man Paul Rachubka between the sticks.
Having played the first 22 League and Cup matches as the first choice, he was forced to sit out 32 more matches, including the play-off games against Lincoln and Mansfield in which Town secured their place in the new Coca-Cola League I.
Gray reflects he would have loved to have played behind a team which lost only four times from Christmas onwards, so the chance to resurrect his career at the McAlpine is now all the more sweet.
"It is only in the last couple of months, really, that I began to get more positive about making a comeback," he explained.
"It is only over that spell that you could see a real improvement week by week, and it felt good.
"Before that, I'd been looking at maybe Christmas as a comeback date, if one was going to be possible at all, and I would have been happy with that.
"But when we were away on holiday I said to the wife that I was beginning to feel I would have a chance of being back and ready for pre-season and things kept improving from there.
"By the end of June, I was in a position to come back a few days earlier than everyone else, put myself to the test in a few sessions with Lee Martin, our physio and goalkeeping coach, and let the gaffer know that I was going to be okay.
"I honestly didn't think it would be fair to come back on the same day as everyone else and for the manager to then find out I wasn't going to be fit.
"Fortunately, there were no problems at all and I was able to join in with everyone else from Day One, which was fantastic."
The man who began his career at Oldham - before significant spells at Rochdale and Rotherham - is philosophical about missing the play-off final at the Millennium Stadium and just looking forward to the new campaign.
"If I had got injured just a few weeks before the play-offs and missed the big event in Cardiff because of that, I would have been suicidal," he reflected.
"The fact I'd been out for six months, though, meant I'd had time to adjust my thinking and I was actually able to enjoy the whole thing.
"Even though I wasn't involved, it was a fantastic day in Cardiff and it's still one of the highlights of my career, just being at the stadium and experiencing it all."
Gray will go into the new season with the full backing of manager Peter Jackson, who has not asked Rachubka to return on loan, and with some objectives clear in his mind.
"From a personal point of view, I don't want to get injured again and I just want to play a lot more games than last season," he said.
"I just want to do well for the team and the club and I want us to win promotion again. Looking at the squad, I don't see any reason why we can't.
"It has helped me a lot that the manager has shown such a lot of faith in me.
"It would have been easy for him to write me off at the end of last season and bring in someone else, but he has given me the time to get better and let me come back to fight for my place.
"I can't speak highly enough of the gaffer for that and it's typical of the spirit there is in the club.
"I have never known anything like it in my career and I'm sure it will stay the same through another good season."