Kick-off might be 48 hours away but the Steel City derby has already claimed its first casualty.
“I’ve just found out my window cleaner is an Owls fan,” Paul Coutts explains. “If I’d have known, he wouldn’t have been doing them. Now I do, that’s something to sort out. He’s a nice guy but his job has gone.”
Before he begins drafting P45’s or shopping for chamois leathers, Coutts has a much more pressing matter at hand. Sunday’s meeting between Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday. A fixture which, following a five year hiatus, is back on the agenda with a mighty big bang.
Despite acknowledging its significance, Coutts cuts a remarkably relaxed figure as he discusses the 128th instalment of this great footballing rivalry. Seated behind a desk inside Bramall Lane’s media suite, the Scot laughs and jokes his way through our conversation, even cracking a smile when the subject of his recent brush with suspension is raised.
“I didn’t really hear about it,” Coutts, who has since being cleared of improper conduct during last weekend’s game against Norwich City, says. “The first I did was when my dad rang and asked if I was banned. I didn’t really know what it was all about because it was a bit of a nothing incident. I put my arm out and their lad ran into it. He sprung to his feet about two seconds later so I’d have been disappointed to get punished for that. I’m just happy the whole thing has been put to bed and that common sense has prevailed. I can concentrate on the game now.”
Wilder, the United manager, is overjoyed too. With injury threatening to rob him of five centre forwards, losing one of his most influential midfielders would have been almost impossible to bear. A driving force behind United’s recent renaissance, Coutts is one of those players who simply must perform if the visitors are to prevail at Hillsborough.
“We spoke a lot last season about the grounds we wanted to go to,” he continues, “And that was a big motivating factor. Fortunately we were able to finish the job off and we’ve been able to carry on the momentum. That’s why I don’t think occasions like this are anything to fear. On the contrary, they’re things you should be looking forward too.”
After cruising to the League One title last season, United have quickly adapted to life back in the Championship. Nevertheless, despite preparing for this weekend’s contest ranked sixth in the table, there in an acceptance the division changed beyond all recognition during their six years away. Lacking the financial resources enjoyed by many of his counterparts, not least Wednesday’s Carlos Carvahal, Wilder, who like captain Billy Sharp is a lifelong United supporter, has built a squad on attitude, character and respect for United’s history rather than cold, hard cash.
“The skipper and the manager are both fans and local guys,” Coutts says. “They leave everyone in no doubt what a big game this is, what this club means and is all about.”
Despite being born and bred in North-East Scotland, Coutts has embraced Wilder’s homespun philosophy. To such an extent that, previously of Peterborough, Derby County and Preston North End, he excommunicated compatriots Ross Wallace and Barry Bannan following Wednesday’s failure to gain promotion last term.
“I know Barry from the Scotland youth set-ups and Ross from Preston. But they’re at Wednesday, I don’t socialise with the opposition. As a Blades man, of course I was pleased they lost in the play-offs so the derby could return. Once the whistle blows, we can leave the talking, get down to football and hopefully get a positive result.”
With Caolan Lavery and James Hanson already ruled-out of the fixture, Coutts’ partnership with John Fleck will become even more pivotal if Sharp, Clayton Donaldson and Leon Clarke are also declared unfit. With Fleck starting his career at Ibrox, it is arguably the first time Rangers and Aberdeen have worked together in perfect harmony.
“I’ve let the Rangers thing slide with Flecky,” Coutts grins. “We get on great and I think that shows on the pitch. We’ve got a good relationship but everyone is mates. If something needs to be said, it will be. Nobody takes anything to heart and that’s brilliant. It’s big for the group.”
Coutts enjoyed a spell on the books at Pittodrie before moving to England but it was at Cove Rangers, of the Highland League, where he first made his name. With the likes of Mark Duffy, Jake Wright and Chris Basham also starting their careers in semi-professional football or enjoying spells with non-league clubs, Coutts believes United possess the hunger and determination to unsettle Carvahal’s side.
“There’s a lot of the boys come right through from the bottom and worked their way up. Even the manager did it locally and now he’s got the big job. I do think it gives you that drive, that appreciation of where you are and desire not to lose it. You’ve got to keep progressing for that to be the case. You’ve got to have a bit of ability to get a shot at it. I’d like to think so anyway. But there’s lot of players with ability who come through but don’t have that drive and then fall away.”