The fateful night in Burton everything changed for Sheffield United and Paul Coutts, four years on
It is exactly four years to the day since Marvin Sordell of Burton Albion lazily hung his leg in the Pirelli Stadium air, making shattering contact with the leg of Paul Coutts and changing the course of Sheffield United’s season – and arguably of Coutts’ career.
It was November 17, 2017 and the Blades were flying, attacking the Championship in their first season back after promotion from League One and going top of the table with a 3-1 win in Staffordshire.
But as Blades fans filtered out of the away end, an uneasy quiet filled the air. The result had been celebrated, to a point, but it was overshadowed by something far bigger. Pictures of the impact from Sordell’s boot onto Coutts’ leg had long been circling around supporters and deep in the bowels of the stadium, inside a medical room, Coutts himself demanded to see it. His, and the fans’ worst fears were soon confirmed. He had broken his leg.
He was arguably the one player United could least afford to lose; the talisman who made them tick in midfield, a remarkable turnaround for both player and team. United, just over a year earlier, were bottom of League One and Coutts was on the transfer list. Now, with Coutts in fine form, they were dreaming of a Premier League return.
Finishing 10th that season was a sign of much progress after six seasons in League One, but it wasn’t enough for boss Chris Wilder. He duly led his boyhood club into the Premier League a season later, but one man who didn’t go with them was Coutts. With Ollie Norwood in the building, he made just one league start in the promotion season and left the Blades after promotion, going on to play for Fleetwood, Salford City and now Bristol Rovers.
How different could both clubs’ destiny have been, but for that fateful night at the Pirelli? Coutts was playing surely the best football in his career and United were flying, too. A prime, fully-fit Coutts in the promotion squad would have been a joy to watch. As it is, he looks unlikely to ever grace the Premier League.
The man himself, though, knows things could have been worse. In the book ‘He’s one of our own’, charting those first two seasons of Wilder’s reign, he revealed how United’s club doctor, Subhashis Basu, had been in London watching tennis when he saw the news of Coutts’ injury and got off the train at Derby before taking a taxi to the hospital.
“The doctors there wanted to put me in a cast below my knee only, and Dr Baz, as we know him, fell out with them until they agreed to put me in a full leg cast,” Coutts said.
“When I got to Sheffield to see the specialist, he said: ‘Thank God it was a full leg cast or it would have moved further.’ It would have been much worse if Dr Baz hadn't got off that train.
“I was on morphine for the pain and remember feeling buzzing that we'd gone top of the league. It was only when I spoke to people the next day that I realised how down people were about it. I was thinking: ‘We're top of the league... what are you on about?'”