BUT for a late tackle on a fateful night 18 months ago, Paul Coutts would now be anticipating stepping into the Premier League.
The 30-year-old Scot was absolutely central to Sheffield United, enjoying cult status amongst Blades fans and widely admired from farther afield until Marvin Sordell’s leg-breaking late tackle began a process which eventually led to Coutts’ release earlier this month.
Oliver Norwood arrived on loan from Brighton last summer to fill the vacuum, a move that was made permanent with a bargain £2million transfer fee in January. Although Coutts returned to first team action in October at Blackburn, such was the dominance Norwood had established alongside John Fleck in the middle of the park, Coutts was for the most part an onlooker.
He managed 14 appearances, starting only once at Nottingham Forest before being substituted and competing only one match, which unfortunately for him was the 1-0 FA Cup third round defeat to Barnet which left manager Chris Wilder in a rage.
Now Coutts must resurrect his interrupted career somewhere else. His home city of Aberdeen and the Scottish Premier League have been touted. The player himself hinted at a preference for a Championship club. But wherever he goes, Blades fans, teammates and management are united in wishing him well.
It also serves as a salutary lesson. The general perception is that footballers have an easy life. In comparison to most of those who watch them every week they do and the financial reward can be eye-watering. Even at a lower level it is more considerable than many would imagine.
For example last season the average first team wage at the Lane where the budget was tight, is reported to have been £6,000-a-week or £312,000-a-year. At Sheffield Wednesday (£15,000/£780,000) and top-paying Aston Villa (£26,000/£1.35million). Chesterfield, in a season when they were relegated to the National League, are reported to have paid salaries amounting to £61,000, two-and-a-half times that of someone earning the national average.
The flip side, however, is that it could all be over in a split second. A career-defining incident on the pitch or a training ground injury. Locally, former Blade Dane Whitehouse and the late Derek Dooley, whilst playing for Wednesday, are testament to that. Even worse for former Blades chairman Dooley, he of course came from an era when players didn’t earn fat salaries. Other victims include Aston Villa’s Lucas Nilis, Manchester City’s Alfe Inge Haaland following an infamous tackle by Roy Keane in a Manchester derby, and West Ham’s Dean Ashton. He had an ankle shattered in an England training ground collision with Sean Wright-Phillips 24 hours before his expected international debut.
Coutts, signed by sacked Blades boss Nigel Clough who had managed him at Derby, harbours no hard feelings about the Burton Albion striker Sordell’s ill-judged lunge at the Pirelli Stadium on fateful night in November 2017. Even though he never received an apology.
A match United won 3-1 against Clough’s side to go top of the Championship table for the second time within three weeks having just won promotion after six years in League One. The seriousness of what had just happened, however, left a cloud hanging over Coutts’ teammates. “The players are a little flat,” said boss Wilder at the time. “We should be jumping through hoops tonight but we're not. Our thoughts are with Paul.”
Coutts started that match king of all he surveyed, having long since established himself as one of the first names on the team sheet. Absolutely pivotal in United’s march to the League One title a year earlier after having won over Wilder who initially put him on the transfer list after taking over in 2016.
His influence in central midfield transferred seamlessly to the Championship. The scale of what he brought to the table was immense and it was no coincidence that his absence for the remainder of that season coincided with an immediate and dramatic decline in results over the winter months.
United had to wait until Boxing Day before their next league win by which time they had slipped to sixth in the table. At the end of January they were eighth, having added just one more victory. The Blades staged a recovery to finish six points shy of the play-offs, the damage, however, had been done.
Coutts is no stranger to injury but has always remained positive, something which has stood him in good stead to beat the odds. Before joining United he was out for 11 months at Derby after dislocating a kneecap.
“Being where I am in my career, it’s learning to accept that they’re part of the game. No-one likes getting injured but it happens. You can get down and mope about it, or go for it head on,” he said.
The game of hard knocks, but of a very different kind, also visited at Preston North End where Coutts was club captain. He learned he was no longer required via a text message from then Deepdale manager Graham Westley.
Another aspect of being a pro footballer which fans overlook is the domestic upheaval involved. Coutts and his partner Vicki now parents to two young twins, and have lived in 10 different houses during the course of his career which began at Highland League Cove Rangers, just promoted to the Scottish league, after he was told by Aberdeen as a youth that he was to small to make it into professional football.
“When you get into a new area you obviously don’t know where you want to live,” said six-foot Coutts. “You just take something that’s on the market. We’re just moving into a nicer area. By the time we get settled into our next house I’ll probably be on my way again.”
Prophetic words. Wilder and Coutts reached a conclusion that the player’s best interests lay away from Bramall Lane after a meeting shortly after the season’s finale and the extended promotion celebrations subsided.
Wilder described that discussion as hugely difficult, knowing what Coutts had delivered on the pitch and having won a brave battle to put himself back in contention. "Sitting down with Paul was the hardest thing I have done in my career,” said the manager. “It is really unfortunate, his story. But he is on board. He understands.”
"We are giving him the opportunity to find a new club. He is desperate to play. He wants to play 30 or 40 times a season and, unfortunately, we just cannot guarantee him that."
Coutts said: “I had a discussion with the manager and he asked what I wanted to do. On the back of being injured and play a bit-part role, even though it was a fantastic season, I needed to go and play. We agreed that it’d be best if I found somewhere else. There was a contract there for me but I needed to play.
“I had sort of made up my mind through the season. Playing the role of a back-up or playing when other people were struggling is hard. It’s not for me and I’m not at my happiest away from football.
“I’m leaving on a high, on the back of two promotions in three years and it’s been a fantastic journey. I couldn’t be leaving in a better situation and I’m delighted with how things went for me.”
FOOTNOTE: Marvin Sordell, who attempted suicide in 2013 and now a champion of promoting men’s health issues, is also at a career crossroads following injury.
A regular for Burton until suffering a problem with a knee in November, he was loaned to Northampton in January for the remainder of the season. With a year remaining on his contract at the Pirelli Stadium and asked about his future there, the 28-year-old said: “I have no idea. Football always tends to hit me by surprise so I don't like to plan too far ahead.”