From coaching in Sweden’s fourth division nine years ago to hosting last season’s Champions League finalists on Saturday, it’s been well documented that Graham Potter has taken an unorthodox path back to the Premier League.
While illustrious ex-top-flight players like Ryan Giggs, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard made their first steps into management in the upper tiers or national teams, Potter’s options were far less glamorous.
But crucially, the new Brighton & Hove Albion boss does not identify as a former Premier League player despite eight appearances with Southampton during the 1996/97 season.
“I wouldn’t class myself as a Premier League footballer, that’s the first thing!” admits Potter, speaking exclusively to BT Sport ahead of Brighton’s home clash with Tottenham in Saturday’s early kick-off.
“I was only there [Southampton] for a couple of games but I was fortunate to have a career for 13 years and I’m proud of that.
“The career stopped at 30. I had five years in the university sector, eight years in Sweden and then I arrived back in the UK so I suppose I took a different path, yes.”
Different path is an understatement. Potter did his coaching badges while still playing and after hanging up his boots, he began studying and graduated from the Open University with a degree in social science.
Potter undertook jobs in football at the University of Hull, the Ghana women’s national team, the England Universities Squad and eventually Leeds Metropolitan University, where he studied a master’s degree.
“The master’s was on leadership and the foundation of the course was around emotional intelligence,” Potter adds. “At the time I just thought: that sounds interesting.”
“I was studying with surgeons and military personnel, learning about dealing with high-pressure situations and how that was the key to success.
“That was relative to me for football but it wasn’t part of any grand master plan… I just sort of grew into these opportunities organically.”
Eventually one of those opportunities arose through a chance connection in 2010.
Potter’s friend Graeme Jones was assistant to Roberto Martinez at Swansea City. The Welsh side faced Swedish fourth-tier outfit Ostersunds - who happened to be on the lookout for a new coach - in a pre-season friendly.
“I’d met the chairman [Daniel Kindberg] already,” Potter says. “They were a club who wanted to do something different and wanted to think outside the box.
“The level was quite low but you have to start at the bottom and that’s what it was - an opportunity for me. It was a great experience, a chance to experience life in a different place, a different culture.”
Different weather, too. Located eight hours north of Stockholm in inland Sweden and on the shores of the lake Storsjon in the Arctic Circle, Potter had to contend with freezing conditions in Ostersunds.
“The first day it was -25C," he remembers.
"We had to cancel training because the footballs freeze. Lads were getting sweat icicles on their face. If you have a session plan and it involves too much standing around, you have to change it!"
“The club had ambitions to be in the top level in Sweden and play in Europe,” Potter continues.
“When you’re in the fourth tier that sounds crazy… we didn’t have the finances, the tradition or the culture to compete so we had to think differently.”
Thinking differently involved employing some unconventional methods. With the buy-in of the club’s ownership, players were soon painting, dancing, singing, taking lessons in reindeer history and performing renditions of Swan Lake as part of the club’s “cultural academy”.
“It was about putting the team in situations that were out of their comfort zone, to try and create braver thinking," Potter says.
"The chairman used football as a way of exposing them to things they didn’t really want to.
“You can imagine football players and coaches singing. It was a great experiment because you do stuff you’ve never done before and probably won’t do again. But it was part of our identity, part of what we did.”
It worked spectacularly. Potter led Ostersunds to three promotions in five seasons, lifting them to the top flight for the first time in their history.
Ostersunds won the Swedish Cup and were handed a place in the Europa League second qualifying round. Potter’s achievements began gaining attention outside of Sweden.
The newcomers defeated Galatasaray and PAOK in the qualifying rounds and in the group stage finished level on points with Athletic Bilbao, ahead of Hertha Berlin and Zorya Luhansk, to progress to the knockout stages.
Ostersunds lost to Arsenal 4-2 on aggregate in the last 32 but secured a remarkable 2-1 win at the Emirates in the second leg. It represented the pinnacle of Potter’s achievements in Sweden and with the increase in media attention, English clubs began taking notice.
“In the end I probably ended up with the equivalent of 12 or 13 years managerial experience [from the seven years at Ostersunds]," he says.
“The experience you get in the Europa League, winning cups in Sweden and all the games, all the management issues you have… it stands you in good stead when you come back to a higher level.”
Swansea, newly relegated from the Premier League, were the club to offer Potter a path back.
“I felt it was a really good fit for me from a philosophical point of view," he says. "They had an identity, they’d lost it in the Premier League and they wanted to get it back.”
Despite a season of asset-stripping in south Wales, Potter guided Swansea to tenth in the Championship. Impressed by what he’d done under difficult circumstances, Brighton came calling and Potter’s path back to the Premier League was compete.
Under Chris Hughton, Brighton had stabilised following their long overdue promotion back to the big time. They survived twice but never thrived and the style of football at the Amex was hardly winning them any admirers.
Chairman Tony Bloom, who made his money in online poker, gambled and appointed Potter with the hope of making Brighton a more attractive side for the supporters to watch.
“A lot of good happened before. Promotion and then two years of stabilising in the Premier League, Chris had done a lot of fantastic work there so there was a good foundation and a great group," says Potter.
“But the club had identified a need to change and that means doing something a little different.”
And different is a word that has followed Potter around throughout his coaching career.
“The club doesn’t want to stand still, they want to move forward and that’s not necessarily a straight line," the 44-year-old continues.
"There’s going to be some challenges and bumps in the road.
“But like helping people improve and influencing people’s careers in a positive way, that’s fundamentally why we do the job. Of course you want to win but to see players, clubs and teams improve is really satisfying.”
Those bumps in the road have seen Brighton stall after a stunning 3-0 win at Vicarage Road on the opening day of the season. The Seagulls have drawn three and lost three since then, scoring just twice in the process.
“I’m convinced and I’m confident [that this is the right style for Brighton],” Potter says. “It’s not necessarily about styles. Football is a balance between defence and attack.
“I’ve been working and trying to play football in the way we’ve been playing. It doesn’t make sense to get to this point and not be that.
“My challenge as a coach is to convince but it’s always collaborative. The players have to feel it makes sense and that it helps their careers and so far they’ve been great.”
On the challenges of coaching in the Premier League, Potter adds: “It’s the most competitive league in the world so along the way it’s a process. The big challenge in our competition is results.
“Sometimes results aren’t what you want against top opposition but you have to keep strong with how you want to work and keep convincing the players, keep working with the players.”
Now Brighton welcome Tottenham in BT Sport’s early kick-off this Saturday looking to claim just their second victory of the season.
It’s a daunting test on paper but their opponents look vulnerable heading into the clash. Tottenham were thrashed 7-2 by Bayern Munich on Tuesday evening and were dumped out of the Carabao Cup by League Two Colchester the week before.
No Premier League team has lost more games in 2019 than Tottenham’s 16. The only team who have totalled the same amount? Brighton, albeit mostly under Potter’s predecessor Hughton.
“They were obviously on the end of a result against a very clinical Bayern side but not it’s the Premier League,” Potter adds.
“We’re us and we have to try to play well at home in front of our own supporters. We’re looking forward to it. It feels like we haven’t been at home for a while so we want to be as positive as we can and enjoy the game.”
Will the pre-match preparations involve singing with the players? Something with centre-backs Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy perhaps?
“I would like to see that!” Potter laughs. “If I do, I’ll let you know and we’ll sell some tickets. But we’ve got no imminent plans, no!”
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