Sheffield United: Broken leg, broken dreams... Paul Coutts' shattered leg the lowest point of Blades' 2017/18 season
'˜He's one of our own' is the chant aimed at Chris Wilder by Sheffield United fans every matchday... and also the title of Star sportswriter Danny Hall's new book, chronicling Wilder's first two years in charge of his boyhood club at Bramall Lane.
On the face of it, it may seem a short period of time to fuel a book. But Wilder’s story, how he took over his club when they were in the doldrums and led them out of the footballing wilderness, is one of dedication, hard work and making United united again.
With a bit of football and a few beers thrown in for good measure.
Published by Vertical Editions, it’s officially released on September 8 but is being exclusively serialised in The Star, today and in next Monday’s Green ‘Un Rebooted.
The first extract concerns November 2017’s trip to Burton Albion, when United went to the top of the table but suffered a shattering loss...
United, in good spirits and even better form, had adjusted to life in the Championship better than most observers had expected and knew victory over Burton Albion on November 17 would send them top of the league.
“We’d talked about it at the start of the season, but no-one really wanted to listen,” said attacker David Brooks. “It wasn’t so much the league position that made us believe we could push for promotion, but more the way we were playing.
“Like when we played Wednesday, and Wolves… we were playing some really good stuff and were generally the better team against most sides. It wasn’t a case of us scrounging wins. We played attractive football and that’s what made us think we might have a chance.”
United did beat Burton, and did climb to the summit of the division, but the mood afterwards was sombre rather than celebratory; the result of a devastating injury to their midfield talisman, Paul Coutts. United led 2-1 at the Pirelli and looked comfortable when Coutts ventured forward and attempted a volley on goal after the ball was cleared.
Coutts got to it moments before Burton’s Marvin Sordell and his effort was blocked, but a photograph of the incident told the sorry story; Coutts, eyes on the ball and technique solid, Sordell lazily hanging a leg with eyes closed, turning away. Then, the contact; Sordell’s boot on Coutts’ shin, bending at an unnatural angle.
At full speed it seemed innocent enough but the reaction of those around Coutts suggested it was serious; Billy Sharp, the United skipper, and a couple of Burton defenders called immediately for medical assistance and the Scot received gas and air on the pitch before leaving it on a stretcher. Leon Clarke’s header 12 minutes from time was cheered in a rather subdued fashion and as Blades fans filed out of the away end of the stadium, their side top of the Championship, the almost eerie silence in the Friday night air spoke volumes of their despair.
“We’d gone top of the league but that was almost not in anyone’s minds in the ground,” Wilder remembers. “It was all about Paul which, I guess in some ways, shows what this club is all about and how tight the group is.”
Incredibly, the man perhaps most upbeat than anyone else that night was Coutts himself, in the treatment room deep in the bowels of the Pirelli Stadium. By then, his initial fears had been confirmed, via a picture of the incident of social media that he ordered a member of United’s medical team to show him, and a broken tibia meant his season was over.
“Couttsy is such a lynchpin of our team,” defender Richard Stearman said. “I don’t know what he was doing that far forward in the first place, but we’d have gladly sacrificed three points that night to make sure he was fit for the season. It was a real blow for us, and who knows what we could have done with him available for the full season? It felt like a defeat for us, certainly, even though the game was pretty comfortable in terms of the scoreline.
"We knew soon enough that it was season over for Couttsy and at the time he was one of our best performers, so it was devastating for us all. We didn’t know where it’d go from there but we tried to continue without him, and hopefully he can come back with a new leg and pick up where he left off.
“Losing him just meant others had to step up, though. John Fleck had a great season and it pushed him to the fore a little bit. He’s another of our players who hadn’t played at this level before, but like a few others he’s proved he is more than capable.
"He was one of the shining lights of our season. He went under the radar a little bit for many teams or fans of other sides in this division who won’t have known much about him. But they will now.”
Whilst understandably downbeat, Wilder was keen to ensure that Coutts’ injury would not define United’s season and going top of the Championship table offered at least a crumb of comfort.