We all like a fairy story; it appeals to the child in all of us, and long may it remain so. Regular readers of the modest and occasional archaic ramblings of this correspondent will be aware that he and The Local last season “adopted” the fortunes of the English football manager Graham Potter and his Swedish football “minnows” Ostersund FK in the Europa League. In previous posts this writer highlighted the work done in Sweden by arguably England’s most successful managerial export of recent years. The story and the magic finally came to an end in last season’s Europa League when Arsenal overcame the Swedish team 4-2 on aggregate. Or so we thought.
Recently Graham Potter was appointed manager at Swansea City in the English Championship and it’s worth recapping the events that brought him to this point. Born in Solihull, Potter began his playing career at Birmingham City; he spent time at Stoke City and Southampton where he played in the 6–3 win over Manchester United in 1996. While a Southampton player, he was capped for England U21s in a European Championship qualifier against Moldova. He joined West Bromwich Albion in 1997, and after three-and-a-half years, he signed for York City. Potter moved from York City to Boston United in the summer of 2003. He joined Shrewsbury Town on loan in November 2003. In 2004, he moved on a free transfer to Macclesfield Town, where he finished his senior playing career. He played a total of 320 games in the English Leagues and scored 16 goals. Then it all got exciting.
In December 2010, Potter signed a three-year contract as coach of Ostersunds FK, then playing in the fourth tier of Swedish football. Average crowds at that time hovered around 650. The town is located 6 hours’ drive north of the Swedish capital, Stockholm. In 2013, after two successive promotions, Potter extended his contract with the club for another three years. The story took on magical proportions, ones that JK Rowling could not envisage. On 27 October 2015, Östersund secured promotion to the Swedish top flight, Allsvenskan, for the first time in their history. They finished their debut season in a credible eighth place.
On 13 April 2017, Potter’s Östersund team won the Svenska Cupen, the Swedish cup, beating Norrkoping 4–1 in the final. The atmosphere became even more rarefied when the club was granted a place in the second qualifying round of the 2017-18 UEFA Europa League, Europe’s second largest club competition, where they defeated the famous Turkish club Galatasaray 3–1 on aggregate. In the third round they defeated Fola Esch also 3–1 on aggregate and in the play-offs they knocked out PAOK Athens (3–3 on aggregate with more away goals), thus securing a historic entry into the Europa League group stage. Then it got even better. They finished second in their group, level on points with the Spanish giants Athletico Bilbao. It was then that Geoffrey Chaucer’s proverb, from his poem in the 1380s, “All good things must come to an end”, came to fruition. Despite beating Arsenal 2–1 in London, Ostersunds were eliminated from the competition after losing 4–2 on aggregate. They finished their domestic league season in fifth place. Average crowds for the team had risen to 12,000. It was a heart-warming experience for this small club, and their young manager, in Sweden
Potter has been recognized for his “progressive” and “unconventional” coaching methods. At Östersund, he encouraged his players and staff to engage in community activities, such as performing in theatre and music productions. Not only did this take them out of their comfort zone it connected the team to the local population. Potter describes his teams as “tactically flexible, attacking, and possession-based”. At Östersunds, he was noted for his flexible style of play which focuses on ball retention, at the same time he allowed his players to express themselves. Former Celtic, Barcelona and Swedish international player Henrik Larsson commented on Potter’s pattern of play, stating he “played all different kinds of systems, starting off a match one way, and then halfway through they started playing a different system, and then they ended up with a third system. And all the players knew exactly what they were doing.”
Swansea City was relegated last season from the English Premier League and during the close season they lost 13 players to transfers and retirement and they start their championship season with a much changed squad. The club’s new manager, for all his positive and engaging approach, will realize that success in taking a small team, with little expectation, to lofty heights is far different to revitalizing a club with aspirations of a quick return to English football’s premier competition. Whatever the new season throws at Graham Potter and Swansea City, there is a quiet sense of optimism in South Wales. Success may not come quickly to Potter and his new team, there have been too many changes within the club for that, and patience could be the watchword for the coming season.
In the space of a few months significant changes took place at the board level. The coaching staff was also transformed, a new scouting policy was instigated; all this leads to a big shift in the philosophy within the club. Potter’s approach is significantly different from recent managers at Swansea. The team had a reputation for a negative, defensive approach to the game. Graham Potter had a reputation for free-flowing, entertaining football in Sweden and while success may not come quick for the patient Swansea fans they may at least see a more exciting brand of football. With a revamped recruitment policy in place, all of the clubs summer signings are teenagers or in their 20’s, and a new manager in place, it may take time for the club to “find its feet” again. Your correspondent and The Local will continue to follow the fortunes of Graham Potter and his new club. We wish them both well.