In the confused gaggle of bibbed players, he instantly stood out. A shock of blond floppy hair charging tirelessly up and down the left wing. With silent, dark determination, he seemed to be taking the seven aside practice match more seriously than his jokey, lackadaisical teammates. Not once did he deviate from his position on that parched, yellowed flank of grass, like a craftsman determined to master his material. It was a young man doggedly making a position his own.
It was the first time I’d seen Graham Potter in the flesh. It was a glowing hot August afternoon in 1995 and a kind, elderly member of the Victoria Ground ground-staff had allowed me a quick peek at the Stoke squad taking part in a practice match. Potter’s commitment that afternoon impressed me as 14 year old and I made a mental note to look out for the young left back in the new season.
Sure enough, Potter finally broke into the first team that season, playing further up field as a left winger as Stoke narrowly missed out to Leicester City in the playoffs. If the club would then have to wait another 13 years to finally reach the top flight, Potter didn’t have to wait long, with his performances earning him a summer transfer to Graeme Souness’ Premiership Southampton.
Although his career never really took off at the Dell, he went on to gain two England under-21 caps at his next club West Brom, before accumulating a total of 320 football appearances in a career that included stints at Birmingham, Stoke, West Brom, Southampton ,York City, Boston United and Macclesfield .
Fast forward to today and Potter is now in his third full season as first team coach of Östersunds FK and so far his short career in Sweden has been a remarkable success. In his first two seasons, his first ever as a full-time coach, he led the club to successive promotions, finishing as champions in both seasons. Now, in the Superettan, the second tier of Swedish football, the club from the Jämtkraft Arena are daring to dream of an historic, first-ever promotion to the Allsvenskan, the Swedish premier league.
It’s been quite a rise for 38 year old, Solihull-born Potter and yet it’s clear to see that the same dogged determination and focus Potter displayed that hot afternoon in 1995 has also characterised his fledgling coaching career.
Indeed, Potter’s coaching trajectory has been gradual and deliberate. It has been a patient, unglamorous journey, defined by a steely commitment to continual, on-going learning and development. After graduating from the Open University in December 2006 with a degree in Social Sciences (studied for whilst playing), he worked as a Football Development Manager for the University of Hull, providing training and development programmes for teachers, students and coaches, and as assistant coach for the England Universities Squad. Whilst working at Hull, Potter took on the position of Technical Director of the Ghanaian women’s football team, the Black Queens, coaching the side at the women’s World Cup in China in 2007, becoming the first person from outside Ghana to join the side’s technical team.
In July 2008 Potter moved on again, joining Leeds Metropolitan University as Football Coaching Manager. By January 2011 OFK’s Director of Football, Daniel Kindberg, had signed Potter up on a three year contract.
Kindberg certainly isn’t a fool when it comes to recognising coaching talent. A close friend of Roberto Martinez, he implemented a cooperation with Martinez’s Swansea City in 2007 during the first of Kindberg’s two spells at the club. The partnership enabled Östersunds FK to loan players from Swansea and it was the South Wales club who provided the opposition for Östersunds FK in the inauguration game at the club’s newly built stadium the same year. It was following Östersunds FK’s relegation to the fourth tier in 2010 that Kindberg returned for his second spell at the club, gaining the financial backing of a number of local companies which in turn enabled the club to hire Potter on a full-time contract.
On arrival, Potter boldly pledged to formulate a new, unique identity for the club, setting a blueprint inspired by his early coaching experience in England. Potter’s Östersunds FK would play a fluid passing game, with players empowered to take responsibility for their own decisions on the field. In short, coaching would not seek to create robots, rather, thoughtful, assertive individuals. And this has been achieved, with an expansive, attacking style of play based around a flexible 4-3-3 template that often adapts to 3-5-2, and the utilisation of overlapping wingbacks and a sweeper.
Potter’s philosophy was perhaps a reaction to his own experience as a professional footballer in England, an experience he has half-jokingly recalled as a “displeasure”. Having experienced at first hand the deficiencies of traditional English coaching, where a player’s individual perspective is often limited to the functional requirements of a single position, Potter has sought to develop his players’ individual skillsets, whilst ensuring that the key ingredient to playing football is always maintained- enjoyment.
Looking back at his short time as a player at Stoke, Potter frequently cut a frustrated figure, patently unappreciated by a home support who frequently saw any thoughtful dalliance on the ball as an unnecessary embellishment. Get the ball forward and be quick about it. Expression and enjoyment? Come on, get serious. It was an environment which Potter struggled to enjoy and was no doubt keen to escape when Souness came calling the following summer.
Aligned with articulate player coaching, Potter has also demonstrated an astute use of the international transfer market, recruiting a collection of overseas players that have added depth and variety to the squad. Currently, the club includes four Englishmen, three Ghanaians, a Mexican, a Spaniard and a South Korean.
This season, Potter’s third, has undoubtedly been his toughest yet. After eleven games, Östersunds FK have accrued only ten points, including a mere two victories. Clearly acclimatising to the Allsvenskan is a significant moment in Potter’s learning curve- a critical assessment of the young coach’s temperament and his commitment to his footballing ideals. Yet these are the realities of club management and clearly Potter and Kindberg were prepared for a bump in the road at some point in their relationship. It’s worth bearing in mind that Roy Hodgson, that English doyen of Swedish football, never experienced a completely flawless time in Sweden. The current England coach suffered relegation with Division 2 side IK Oddevold in 1982.
Nonetheless, Potter’s progress has been impressive and the signs are that he and Kindberg are determined to steer Östersunds FK back on track. Despite being relatively unknown and unremembered in his own homeland, Potter represents a new breed of coaching which English football must now surely begin to look at- coaches who have spent the requisite time learning their trade, experimenting with strategies and tactics, acquiring fresh, new ideas and abandoning the tried, tested and known. Coaches, who, by dint of sheer coal-face experience, have forged unique, imaginative football identities that can be carried into the future.
That stolen view of fiery individual commitment and determination, now some 18 years ago, has stayed with me, despite seeing so many more skilful, celebrated players since. I knew that what I had witnessed that day was one young man’s battle against his own limitation. A defiant struggle against the inevitable truth: ability. Despite a solitary season in the Premiership with Southampton, it was a career that could only ever go so far.
Yet now, Potter’s career has taken an intelligent turn. He has entered another footballing world where diligence and commitment to self-development really can reap future reward. Where other aspiring coaches have leap-frogged and been ‘over-promoted’ by virtue of more successful playing careers, Potter has made his own way, earning his success by virtue of painstaking application. It is a journey that should surely be applauded and one can only hope that he soon receives the credit he is due.
Follow John on Twitter @JohnPorterSport.