Biting wind, a Blackpool team fighting for survival towards the foot of the table and a notoriously difficult pitch.
Tonight, at Bloomfield Road, Sheffield United will experience football in the raw.
Which, having started his career with former Highland League champions Cove Rangers, holds absolutely no fears for Paul Coutts.
“Playing there, playing with men when I was still a kid, left a lasting impression on me,” he said. “I came through the academy system at Aberdeen and then going to Cove really threw me in at the deep end. Those guys cared so much about winning and the biggest thing my time there showed me was that you’ve got to be ready to do whatever it takes. Do whatever you have to do to win. It was all about results and those made a material difference to how people lived their lives.”
Doing whatever it takes to win is an art United had perfected in recent weeks until Saturday’s draw with Swindon Town. Seldom pretty but usually effective, Nigel Adkins’ players make the journey to Lancashire searching for a sixth win in 10 outings but only their third at this stadium since 1988. Despite the importance of the game and less than hospitable conditions, Coutts is approaching United’s latest challenge with purpose and, following his spell at Allan Park, perspective too.
“Here, we’ll have a discussion about whether we we’re going to travel to games the night before. There, at Cove, we’d go to places like Wick on the bus. We’d set-off at 5.30am in the morning and then stop at a hotel for soup and sandwiches on the way up. That’s one hell of a trek, it took something like five or six hours, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I loved my time there, I really did.”
Coutts, speaking ahead of United’s meeting with Neil McDonald’s side, joined Cove after being released by his hometown club Aberdeen because, according to coaching staff at Pittodrie, he was too small to turn professional. Eleven years later, standing six feet tall and weighing just under the middleweight limit, he is now a pivotal figure in the team Adkins’ believes is capable of reaching the Championship next term. Having joined Peterborough soon after lifting the 2008 Highland League title, Coutts spent nearly two years at London Road before transferring to Preston North End. Controversially declared surplus to requirements by then manager Graham Westley, Adkins’ predecessor Nigel Clough spirited him to Derby County before signing Coutts again, this time for United, 12 months ago.
“I’ll never take anything for granted in this game,” Coutts, who used to combine his footballing duties at Cove with offshore work on the North Sea rigs, continued. “When I look back, I realise how lucky I am to be earning a living from doing something that I love.”
“We used to get, for a big game, something like 200 people coming to watch at Cove,” Coutts continued. “It’s a bit different now with over 20,000 inside the stadium but it’s still the same game isn’t it. It’s played on a pitch, it’s eleven versus eleven, one ball. The objective is still the same. Because the crowds were small, you’d hear everything that came out of the stands. Good and bad. But fans are always entitled to an opinion and we’re no different as footballers. If things aren’t going well then we’ll have a moan to ourselves about it. And when they are we’ll be happy and focused on trying to make sure it carries on.”
Coutts was still nursing the injury which hampered his performances towards the end of last season when Adkins took charge in June. But, after returning to action against Doncaster Rovers four months ago, the former Scotland under-21 international has cemented a place in United’s starting eleven, establishing an impressive partnership with close friend John Brayford along the right flank.
“When a new manager comes in, there’s always going to be a bit of doubt in your mind,” he admitted. “You always know that you’ve got to impress them and, in my own case, I was missing games. But he’s always been really positive with me and that was good. It definitely helped. Now I’m just enjoying being involved again and being able to contribute. Last season, I’d been injured for a while before I first came in. Then, it wasn’t ideal missing pre-season this year either. But I’ve had a run of games now and so that’s all good.”