Our man in Sweden

By: League Managers Association

While many routes into management are well trodden there are also plenty of coaches who break the mould. Relatively few managers, for example, can count not only a degree but a masters degree among their achievements. Fewer still, perhaps, can claim to have turned around the fortunes of a failing club in their very first club management role. To do so in another country, meanwhile, must be an even more incredible feat.

When Graham Potter took his first management role at Östersunds he had not yet coached a UK club side, but that doesn’t mean he was bereft of experience. Towards the tail end of his 13-year playing career, which included stints at West Brom, York City and Macclesfield Town, and sensing that his enthusiasm and club prospects were waning, he began an Open University degree in social sciences.

“Rather than wait for football to chew me up and spit me out I decided to be more proactive,” he says, “and when my career on the field finally ended, my immediate priority was to finish my studies with a view to possibly working in a teaching or coaching capacity.”

Although Potter says he’s not sure how much of the content of the degree has been of use, or indeed retained, it’s likely that the various skills he learned while studying – the commitment to learning, the intense focus, the people skills and attention to detail – will have played an important part in his development as a coach.

“It was of great benefit while I was playing as well,” he adds, “because it gave me something else to focus on and another reason to feel good about myself. Football is such an up and down life, whereas with studies if you put the work in you should get results.”

UNIVERSITY CHALLENGE

The very presence of the degree on his CV also meant he was qualified to apply for his first job off the field, as football development manager at the University of Hull. It was a two-sided role, the first of which was to coach the students, says Potter, who also completed his A-Licence while working at Hull.

“It was a great environment in which to coach because the students were there to enjoy themselves and I had enough scope to apply trial and error to my coaching methods,” he adds. “It was also great to be in a university setting, surrounded by experts in their fields.

“The flipside of the role was to use the university’s football facilities to promote the sport and the university out in the local community. So I worked with a diverse range of people, from five-year old kids to disabled groups, to men’s and women’s teams.”

A subsequent move to Leeds Metropolitan University followed in July 2008, where Potter acted as football coaching manager for three years, primarily focused on improving the performance of the student sides. While there, he also found the time and energy to complete a masters degree.

“The whole period was a fantastic learning experience in which I acquired so many skills, everything from organising a group to adapting training sessions to building relationships with people, and it all proved to be very valuable when I got the opportunity to manage,” he says. “It was important to me to gain formal qualifications, but I quickly learned that qualifications don’t make you a coach; you need to practice. You have to get as many experiences under your belt as possible and make and learn from as many mistakes as you can in those early years. I was fortunate to be able to do that in a nice, safe environment. I think that often when players fall into coaching jobs too quickly it doesn’t lead to the kind of long-term success that they want or need.”

FOUR TO ONE

Potter’s first taste of club management came in January 2011, when he became coach of Swedish Allsvenskan club Östersunds FK, which had just been relegated to the fourth tier. The club had built stronger ties with English football during the previous decade and thanks to a friendship between its director of football and then Swansea manager Roberto Martínez, the two clubs had started a player loan arrangement.

“Following Östersunds’ relegation, the chairman was looking for a young coach to develop the players and help to grow the team,” says Potter. “I knew Martínez’s assistant manager, Graeme Jones, and he saw my potential and suggested that I be a contender for the role.

“I was at the point where I had finished all my studies and was keen to put my skills and knowledge to the test in a club environment and to get back into football properly,” he says. “When this opportunity came up, my family and I knew it was a major decision and a big risk, but it was one we wanted to take.”

The challenge of such an opportunity, when a club is in a lacklustre position and needs to be turned around, can be part of the appeal, but Potter is unduly modest when he says, “The only way was up.” When teams have lost all sense of direction, motivation and self-belief, they are usually capable of plumbing even greater depths.

But although it was an uphill challenge the novice manager rose to it and somehow effected a turnaround that would see the club not just clamber out of the fourth division but make a steady climb to the top tier, the Allsvenskan. However, if three promotions in five years sounds like a swift assent, Potter says actually it started with small steps.

“Before you can do anything else you have to gain a proper understanding of what the situation is, what people want and what they can do,” he says. “In my first year with the club I found that everyone inside and outside of it was just used to losing and struggling and people weren’t really enjoying the football anymore. My first priority, therefore, was to try to change that, to get people enjoying the club again and to restore some pride and belief in it. I also had to develop trust with the players, because they had seen a cycle of managers, changing every year. I spent a lot of time developing relationships with the players and driving around Sweden trying to understand the football culture, the people and the country better.”

CLIMATE CHANGE

The first major difference to hit Potter and his young family on touching down in Sweden was the weather; as they left the plane the air stewardesses were urging them to wrap up their 11-month-old, who was dressed for the British winter and not for the -30º chill outside the cabin. Then there was the remoteness of his new home; while the nearest town is home to 60,000 people it’s two-and-a-half hours away.

Culturally, meanwhile, he found the Swedish people to be, in general, very methodical, organised and calm. “They prefer to avoid confrontation,” he says, “and even in football the culture is a little more reserved and perhaps less aggressively passionate than it is in England.”

Passion, though, does course through the game, there’s still pressure for managers to get results, and although it’s less vociferous the media is still a scrutinising presence. “But when I first arrived at Östersunds the fiercest pressure I felt wasn’t from the media or the supporters, it was from myself to make a go of it,” says Potter. “We’d made such a big move to come out here that I needed to make it work.”

GROWING AS A TEAM

And work it did. Following plenty of graft and some shrewd signings, the second tier beckoned, but it took more than 18 months to shake off the negativity that had shrouded the club and it was only when Potter pulled off a second promotion that momentum really started to build.

Potter is, as we speak, in the middle of guiding the club through its first ever season in the Allsvenskan, which he admits has been a challenge. “Because of Euro 2016 the games in the first half of the season have been crammed together, so we’ve played 12 matches in eight weeks. That might not sound much by English standards, but it’s a lot for us, especially given that we’ve come up a level. We also have to handle a lot of travel because we’re based so far from everyone else.”

Despite all of this, Potter’s side has enjoyed some good results and, sitting as it is halfway up the table, it shows no sign of being out of its depth. “We now need to focus on taking all the information we can from the first half of the season and see how we can use it to move forward in the second half,” he says.

If the change in Östersunds has been dramatic, no less can be said about its manager who, after all, left English shores relatively inexperienced and, should he choose to return at some point, will do so an accomplished and proven leader.

“I was 36 when I came to Sweden and, like anyone starting something new, I probably thought I knew more than I did,” he says. “I had to learn quickly and adapt and that meant learning about myself as well, about how I deal with pressure and with family upheaval. I’m fortunate, though, in that learning is one of the core values of this club, so I’ve been supported along the way. As I’ve grown I’ve seen the club and its support base grow around me.”

Given that Potter puts such a premium on self-improvement it’s perhaps unsurprising that asked what’s next in his career, he replies, “I’m open to anything,” yet he’s in no rush to jump from a ship that he’s sailed to the high seas.

“There’s still so much to do here in establishing the club, trying to get into Europe and challenge at the higher end of the table,” he says. “I’ve also been in football for long enough to know that you can’t necessarily plot out your career path – you just have to do the very best you can in each job that you have.”