Paul Coutts first knew it was serious when the pictures began circulating on social media.
But staring at an image of his leg being bent grotesquely out of shape has not been the midfielder’s toughest test of character since suffering a season-ending injury at Burton Albion last month.
“Spending so much time in the treatment room with Ched (Evans) and Kieron (Freeman) hasn’t been easy,” he laughed. “You know what those two are like. Kieron, well, he’s just Kieron and Ched is hyper all the time.”
The fact Coutts can now joke about his predicament proves, despite the physical ramifications of Marvin Sordell’s challenge, psychologically he is in a very good place. The 29-year-old, whose absence has coincided with Sheffield United’s slide from first to sixth in the table, cut a remarkably upbeat figure when he briefed the media on his progress earlier this week. Indeed, after recollecting the moment the extent of the damage became apparent, Coutts went on to insist that fracturing a tibia is “really no big deal.”
“I heard a crack and thought ‘I might have broken something there,’ but then the adrenalin kicked in,” he said. “At one point, I reckoned I’d be okay but then, when I was in the physio’s room, the images what had happened starting going around and one of the guys in there saw it on his phone. I asked him to show me and then I knew it was bad. I didn’t want too much making of it because injuries are part and parcel of the game. And, to be honest, I was still buzzing after the match because we’d won and gone top of the league.”
Coutts’ comments strike at the heart of what makes Chris Wilder’s squad such a formidable proposition, despite lacking the spending power of the Championship’s other leading teams. However, as they have subsequently been reminded, character and calibre are required to maintain a promotion push. The loss of Coutts, compounded by John Fleck’s suspension, has undoubtedly contributed to their recent downturn in results. Indeed, Wilder’s side enter today’s game against Aston Villa without a win since that 3-1 triumph at the Pirelli Stadium.
“I’m back at the training ground and, to be fair, I don’t think we’ve got what we’ve deserved in the last few games,” Coutts insisted. “I don’t actually think, despite what anyone else might say, that’s there’s a great deal wrong. I think we’ve warranted more points but, sometimes, you just get runs like this. We’re still punching above our weight but, yes, it is frustrating when you can’t do anything about it on the pitch.”
Coutts has been contributing off it after returning to United’s training complex; apparently at the behest of his partner Vicki.
“I’m here and trying to keep the lads upbeat through this little run,” he continued. “To be fair, they’re still really upbeat so I just help where I can. For the first three weeks, I was just sat on the sofa. We’ve got twins at home and they were running riot so I reckoned it was time I got back in among the lads. I think the missus had had enough of me as well.”
Although the cast on his leg has prevented Coutts from watching United in person, he is scheduled to attend the game against Sunderland on Boxing Day. It will, he admitted, provide an opportunity to personally thank many of those who have supported him over the past four weeks.
“The response I’ve had from everyone at the club has been brilliant,” he said, “And the amount of letters has been incredible. All of the lads have been trying to play me at pool now because I can’t get around the table.”
Burton’s John Brayford, his former team mate at both United and Derby County, has been a source of encouragement too.
“Bray came to the hospital with me after it happened,” Coutts explained. “I’d had some pretty strong pain killers so I don’t remember much but fair play to him, that was a really good touch. Everyone at Burton was spot on; the physio, the coaching staff and obviously the gaffer there (Nigel Clough).
“I’ve had injuries before, more complicated ones than this, and that makes it easier,” he added. “I’ve got a clear path in my head of when I’ll be back and what I need.”