How midfielder Paul Coutts made journey from the Highland League to sign for Derby County
PAUL Coutts is unlikely to forget his first day training at Derby County following his move from Preston North End.
The stamina of the players was tested to the full with a running session in driving rain at a muddy Markeaton Park.
It was a cold, wet, miserable morning. Not the July weather that usually greets footballers as they prepare for a new season.
"Yes, it was tough, but that is what you expect in pre-season," said Coutts, who wore the type of smile you see on a player's face once the running is over for the day.
But the 23-year-old midfielder is no stranger to long, tough days, having combined part-time football with a full-time job earlier in his career.
He was a schoolboy player at his home-town club, Aberdeen, from 10 to 16 before they released him because he was too small.
"It was a big blow to be told by Aberdeen that I wouldn't be getting a contract but it was also a blessing in disguise," said Coutts, who signed for Highland League club Cove Rangers.
He also landed a job working in the oil industry. He worked on-shore in a warehouse cleaning and repairing oil tools which were sent back out to the rigs in the North Sea.
"I didn't go on the rigs but I probably would have done if I hadn't made it as a footballer," said Coutts.
"It was hard work doing a full-time job and then dashing off to training a couple of nights a week or for midweek games.
"Combining the two things can be pretty tiring. I did it for about a year and it was quite a tough time but I was about 17 or 18 and full of energy.
"Looking back, it was a good learning curve for me."
Coutts blossomed at Cove Rangers.
The club are based in Cove Bay, a suburb of Aberdeen, and play at Allan Park which has a capacity of 2,500 (200 seated). There are plans to move to a new 1,000 seater stadium.
Other clubs in the League include Buckie Thistle, Wick Academy, Clachnacuddin, Brora Rangers and Fort William.
Coutts played in front of average crowds of around 750 and helped Cove win the title in 2007-08. He was also named the league's player of the year in the same season.
"I had a good time at Cove," Coutts recalled.
"I got my confidence back, grew, filled out a bit and everything came together at the same time.
"I got the chance to play first-team football and it was a chance to get used to winning games and actually playing for something.
"It was a brilliant experience for me and it ended up working out really well."
Cove Rangers chairman, Keith Moorhouse remembers Coutts arriving at the club and the impact made by the young player.
"Paul came to us as a kid who was smarting a bit having been let go by his home-town club," said Moorhouse.
"His first year with us, he did well in central midfield but more so towards the end of that season as he gained in confidence playing against men.
"The Highland League is what you would expect, a tough league with some decent players, many of whom have been released by Scottish clubs.
"Paul's second season with us he was absolutely outstanding, head and shoulders the best player in the league.
"He worked really hard on his upper-body strength and started to boss games."
Coutts' development and performances caught the eye of interested clubs and Peterborough United signed him for a nominal fee in the summer of 2008.
He made 37 League appearances in his first season at London Road as Peterborough won promotion to the Championship. International recognition also came his way and he won the first of his Scotland Under-21 caps, against Northern Ireland.
"I came from playing non-league in Scotland to winning promotion at Peterborough in one season, so that was probably the biggest jump for me so far," said Coutts.
He signed for Preston in 2010 and linked up again with former Peterborough boss Darren Ferguson, who had been installed as manager at Deepdale.
Now, Coutts is a Derby player and he is looking forward to the challenge ahead.
"This is a big move for me," he said. "I have had a few big moves along the way in terms of stepping up, and this is another one.
"Hopefully, I can take it in my stride.
"I have played in the Championship for a few seasons, so I know what it's about. It is a big step but I feel I am at a stage in my career where I can deal with it and the lads here at Derby have been great. They have made me feel welcome."
Coutts says working his way back up the football ladder by playing part-time and holding down a job has made him more hungry and more grateful.
"When I look back, it certainly makes me appreciate how lucky I am to be playing football professionally and I will never take it for granted," he said.
"When you have seen the other side of it, and what you could be doing, you are grateful to have the chance to go into work every day and play football."
Cove Rangers continue to follow Coutts' progress closely.
"We are extremely proud of what he has achieved," said Moorhouse.
"We are also very happy that we have played a small part in helping him to get to where he is.
"We always knew the lad would go on and play full-time. It was just a matter of when, where and at what level.
"He has gone from strength to strength and, hopefully, he can go on and do well for Derby County, which is a massive club.
"We wish him well."
Kevin Tindal was Cove's captain and centre-half when Coutts played and he is now the manager.
He said it was clear from early on that Coutts was a guy with a lot of talent.
"Aberdeen deemed him to be too small and although the Highland League is hard and physical, his quick feet got him out of trouble," Tindal added.
"He had a good head on his shoulders. He listened to the senior players and the manager but he also had confidence in his own ability.
"As centre-half at the time, Paul played in front of me and it was a joy to just give him the ball.
"We knew he would get a chance in the professional game and credit to Peterborough and Darren Ferguson, who gave him that chance, but it was not a gamble because he soon showed he has the quality."
Cove Rangers' ambition is to progress to the Scottish Football League.
They were pipped for a place by Annan Athletic a few years ago but the club's ambition still burns brightly and they hope moving to a new ground will boost their chances.
For now, they are still at Allan Park. It is a ground Coutts knows and he still watches Cove when he gets the chance.