A question was asked recently in The Local “who is the most successful English football manager of recent years?” We should forgive those knowledgeable fans who attend games at the pub if their thoughts immediately gravitated to managers currently plying their trade in the English Premier league (EPL). However, the highest placed English manager in the EPL last season was Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe and they finished in eighth position. Occasionally, we should look in unlikely places. Trying to kind a successful English manager is similar to looking for a needle in a field of haystacks. That being said, our man could just be found in Sweden. Graham Potter is his name and he is arguably the most successful English manager working abroad.
Graham Potter was a professional football player for 13 years. He made 307 appearances in the English football league where he played for 11 different clubs, mainly in the fullback position. It would appear that his most successful period was from 1993 to 2000 when he played for Stoke City, Southampton and West Bromwich Albion in succession.
One of the highlights of Potter’s playing career was featuring in Southampton’s 6-3 win over Manchester United on 26 October 1996. United only lost 5 games during that season and they went on to win the Premiership title. That same year Potter gained a solitary cap for England at the under 21 level. Potter retired as a player aged 30 when he decided to take a master’s degree and work as a Football Development Manager at the University of Hull; he then he moved to Leeds Metropolitan University to perform the same role.
In December 2010, Potter signed a three-year contract as coach of Östersunds FK, who at that time was playing in the fourth tier of Swedish football. It was always going to be a tough first coaching position for Potter. Ostersunds, with a population of only 45,000, is a six hour drive north of Stockholm and the challenges were very apparent from the beginning. “When I arrived and told people I was working for the football club, they would say ‘what are you doing-they’re rubbish! This is an ice hockey town!’” chuckles Potter when recalling his arrival six years ago. “We’ve had to do it from the bottom up. The first six months were tough. It was a step into the unknown.”
Since those early days, Potter and his coaching team have taken Östersunds FK from the fourth tier of Swedish football into Europe, thanks in large part to an excellent club spirit and then placing football at the center of their community. To give an indication of the challenges facing Potter, the average attendances for home games in 2011 was 783. It would be easy to laugh that figure away; however, take a more serious view upon learning that the average attendance in 2016 was 5,914. Granted, hardly Old Trafford, The Emirates or San Siro but impressive nonetheless.
In 2013, after two successive promotions, he prolonged his contract with the club for another three years. On 27 October 2015, Östersunds FK secured promotion to the Swedish top flight, Allsvenskan, for the first time in their history. In that first season the team finished in a credible 8th place. However, the story gets better. On the 13th April 2017 Graham Potter won his first title as a manager when Östersund FK won the Swedish Cup.
So what was Potter’s secret? Unlike his namesake there is nothing magical about the success. When he originally took the job in 2011, even the locals questioned his sanity. Why did a former journeyman football player leave a stable job working in higher education, relocate to another country and then take on a seemingly daunting challenge? Potter knew nothing about Swedish football when he arrived in Ostersunds. “The club was on its knees,” he now recalls. “There was a real negativity towards the club, even towards foreign players and coaches.” He did have however, two things in his favour. Firstly, a confidence that only 13 years playing processional football could produce and secondly, an ambitious chairman in Daniel Kindberg.
And it gets better. The cup success granted the team a place in the second qualifying round of the 2017-18 UEFA Europa League; marking their first presence in a European competition tournament. In their Europa League debut, in the second qualifying round, on 13 July 2017, Östersunds FK earned a shock 2–0 victory at home against Turkish giants Galatasaray and then eliminated them after a 1–1 draw in Instanbul in front of 34,000 supporters. Bigger and better known teams have and will continue to struggle in the Turkish capital.
This writer, a highly qualified rugby coach in a past life, holds to the belief that skill, and a large slice of luck, aided by spirit and harmony will carry any team further forward than perceived expectations. Potter highlighted the need for more involvement within the local community. “In the first couple of years it was impossible to get anybody from the south of Sweden to come to Ostersunds,” he says. “We had to look at the local area and foreign players who were the right people and characters. We need to create an identity where people were proud of playing for the club, and to build support from the local businesses and supporters again.”
Astute scouting and recruitment was vital to Potter’s vision. He used an extensive network of contacts from his playing days in England; this allowed him to build a formidable team spirit with many community projects at the heart.
Similar to the other more famous Potter, everything was thrown into a pot, stirred, fermented and allowed time to boil, the end result was a place in European football and a stunning victory over Galatasaray. Granted, there is a long way to go for this homily little club in Sweden and one swallow does not make a summer. However, optimism abounds.
Many from bigger and loftier football leagues are beginning to sit up and take notice of England’s most recent and successful managerial export. In recent months at least one English premier league club has been making tentative enquires about Potter’s future. It can only be a matter of time before we see Graham Potter making his presence felt in championship or premier league football.