If Sheffield United win automatic promotion this season, and by Nigel Adkins’ own admission it remains a mighty big ask, then John Brayford plans to commemorate the achievement in ink.
“If we go up and someone gets a good photograph of the celebrations then I’ll get a tattoo done. I’ll stick to my word on that. If Couttsy scores the winning goal then I might even get one done of him.”
Couttsy, otherwise known as Paul Coutts, is Brayford’s oldest and closest friend among Sheffield United’s squad. The two men, who worked together at Derby County before crossing paths again at Bramall Lane, have emerged as pivotal figures in the team which, following a difficult Autumn period, enters tomorrow’s game against Colchester knowing victory could see them move level on points with sixth-placed Peterborough. Coutts, rested at Wigan Athletic in midweek, is expected to be recalled for the visit to the Weston Homes Community Stadium.
“I’ve known him for a while because we worked together before,” Brayford, the United full-back, said. “We’ve done well together down the right hand side because we know each others’ games well, the type of runs we like to make and how the other likes to receive the ball.
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“My girlfriend is good friends with Couttsy’s girlfriend and we always like to go out for a meal together once a month. I’m friends with everybody, to be honest, but obviously I’m close to Paul because we were close mates at Derby. Joking aside, it helps because I know he’s got my back out there on the pitch and he knows that I’ve got his. If you can have that togetherness throughout a whole team then it’s always going to be beneficial. And I definitely think we have.”
Forged at County’s Moor Farm training complex, Brayford and Coutts have cemented their partnership on the green baize. The first team’s quarters of the Steelphalt Academy resemble a social club’s games room after undergoing a major refurbishment last season. Which, it seems, was a deliberate ploy. Previously boasting all the warmth and charm of a Cold War nuclear bunker, Brayford insisted the makeover, carried-out at the behest of Adkins’ predecessor Nigel Clough, has helped create the spirit which saw United claw themselves back from 3-0 down to draw at the DW Stadium three days ago.
“We’ve got darts, pool, snooker and the sport on television. I’m not going to call it a glorified pub because it’s not and that would be giving the wrong impression. When you go down the pub though, when it’s your local or something, then you do get that camaraderie and that is similar to the atmosphere here. The lads like hanging around after training and spending time with each other which, surely, can only be good?”
“Couttsy beat me at snooker the other day but I cleared the colours so I was happy with that,” Brayford added. To be fair, he gets a lot more practice than me. He brings his own cue now which is probably taking things a bit too seriously. We’ll have to start having a go at him about that. Actually, he’s pretty good. I like putting the safety on him and he likes attacking more.”
United head to Essex seventh in the table, three points behind Graham Westley’s side, having lost only two of their previous eight outings in all competitions. One of those defeats, last weekend’s FA Cup third round tie against Manchester United, saw Adkins’ players set a new benchmark for defensive excellence with a starting eleven containing over £200m worth of talent requiring an injury time penalty to progress. Unfortunately, despite the jubilation which inevitably followed, events at Wigan also highlighted United’s strategies still require some work.
“Getting that mindset right is perhaps the most important thing,” Brayford said.”When we went to Old Trafford recently, we knew we probably weren’t going to see much of the ball and so we focused on doing something else. We knew exactly what we were going to end up doing. You saw there, when they tried to attack us, it’s not easy to break down a team that’s well organised and willing to defend.”
Trailing second-placed Gillingham by 13 points, United know their margins for error between now and the end of the season are uncomfortably slim as they bid to avoid spending a sixth consecutive season in the third tier.
“I came here for a challenge in the first place,” Brayford said. “We’ve got to get out of this league and it’s only us who can do that. We’ll be trying, that goes without saying. We’ve been in this division for too long now. Far too long in fact. So, to get out, we’ve got to do something that’s not worked in the past. Whether it be scoring goals or keeping clean sheets, just go out there and do it. Do something that everybody knows we are perfectly capable of.
“If we all just focus on doing our individual jobs then we should be okay. There will be mistakes and, although we’d like to think we’ll win every game between now and the end, the chances are that’s not going to happen. But, what we can do, is try to make sure we get it right more often than not.”