As Sheffield United prepare to renew their rivalry with Leeds on Friday – live on Sky Sports – midfielder Paul Coutts talks finding form, the Chris Wilder effect and why there are no limits for his team-mates this season.
Paul Coutts remembers how he took the news. Sheffield United had not long been booed off – a season-ending lap of dishonour – after limping to mid-table in League One and here he was on the transfer list, in the company of nearly-men and never-would-be-men who epitomised the stagnancy that had set in before Chris Wilder came to the rescue.
“I did feel like my time here was up,” the Scot tells Sky Sports. “The manager was upfront, totally honest – he wanted to go in a different direction – but he said he’d never shut the door on me. It was up to me to prove my worth and change his attitude. It could have demotivated me but it geed me up. You think, ‘Right, if you want to still be here, get your act together.'”
Leeds vs Sheff Utd
October 27, 2017, 7:00pm
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Coutts had thought his Blades career was over and yet what happened in the months that followed was remarkable. He got and took his chance after the side’s woeful start, forged with John Fleck a midfield partnership his manager would declare the best in the league, collected a winner’s medal as his team-mates swaggered to the title with 100 points and duly won a new deal.
The 29-year-old was tipped to step up in a division that would likely afford him more time and space but how he and his colleagues have so far. The Blades are just two points off the Championship summit as they prepare for Friday’s latest test and Coutts – a man who personifies the club’s transformation inside 18 months – has been key.
No player in the Championship has had more touches on the ball so far this season. Nobody from the league’s current top six has made more passes – or more accurate ones. His glorious goal against Reading last time out was one to savour but so have been his overall stats. Coutts never gives the ball away, goes the song at Bramall Lane these days, and the numbers aren’t far off.
The man who started in non-league in Scotland and still hopes for a first senior call – “It would be great but I’m just focused on the job here” – had not long recovered from a serious knee injury when he arrived from Derby in 2015, a player struggling for form, fitness and purpose, too often toiling out wide. Now, dictating from deep in the central areas of an attacking 3-5-2 set-up, he agrees he is playing some of the best football of his career.
“We’re all playing well – we all know our jobs – but for me the difference is the role I now have in the team: to get the ball from the back and get us playing,” he says.
“We have so many attacking options – Fleck, (Mark) Duffy, young Brooksy (David Brooks) – and the wing-backs bomb on too. I provide the balance, set them on their way.”
Paul Coutts’ influence – 2017/18 Total Sheff Utd rank Championship rank Passes 819 1 2 Passes ending in final third 275 2 5 Passing accuracy 86.8% 1 16 Touches 1030 1 1
Fleck might make his job easy – “I give him the ball and watch him go!” – but the man Coutts really credits is Wilder. There were dark days under predecessor Nigel Adkins – methods that jarred, players who felt they had not been given a fair crack – until boyhood Blade Wilder galvanised, organised and gave a famous old club its soul back.
“The manager has played a huge role in bringing everyone together and getting the fans back on board,” Coutts says. “The year under Nigel Adkins was tough. There was so much discontent everywhere it was hard to go and perform on a Saturday.
“Chris Wilder has changed the whole outlook. The place is buzzing. It’s simple. Every day we come into training and work really hard – we put it all in because he demands that.”
Wilder’s stock has long been on the rise in football circles for transformative work that can be traced right back to his days at Alfreton but successive promotions – and the striking start his newcomers have made in the Championship – is bringing ever more mainstream acclaim. Coutts believes the 50-year-old, whose straight-talking style belies a sharp tactical mind, can reach the highest level but is desperate for that to be with United.
“I’d like to think he can manage at the very top – but with this club,” Coutts says. “He can’t really be getting overlooked too much longer for some of the big jobs going. But we, as players, want him to get there with this club and hopefully he can stay for the duration.”
Paul Coutts scored a stunning goal against Reading during last weekend's 2-1 win at Bramall Lane
Victory over Jaap Stam’s play-off finalists last weekend prompted Wilder to admit for the first time that he and his players are hungry for more than just consolidation this term. Coutts knows a gruelling season still stretches ahead but reveals his team-mates, having surprised themselves as well as opponents, will dare to dream.
“I think a lot of teams thought we’d be physical, a hustle-bustle side because we’d just been promoted,” he says. “We do work hard, we do have an aggressive side to our game but we play good football in the right areas, trying to win games.
“From the outset, we didn’t set any targets – but we didn’t set any limits either. It was a feeling-out process for the first couple of games but I think we’ve realised we’re quite a good side.
“There’s been loads of examples (of teams winning back-to-back promotions) – Norwich, Southampton… we’ll just keep trying to win games and see where it takes us.”
For now, that’s Elland Road, where United have not ventured for seven years, but where victory would take them top of the division for the first time since 2005. Fourth versus third, two Yorkshire rivals trading hard times for hope of the heights again. Wilder has predicted spice and talked up training-ground intensity. Coutts, as he does with the ball at his feet, exudes a calm confidence.
“It’ll be tough – we’ll have to be at our best against Leeds but we go into every game with belief and confidence. The manager wants us to go for it. That’s what we’ve done so far this season. We’ll going with the same attitude – on the front foot and out to get three points.”
Watch Leeds v Sheffield United live on Sky Sports Football on Friday from 7pm.