Johnny Nic eulogises over a special one, a different one – Brighton’s empathiser-in-chief Graham Potter…
Who’s this then?
Graham Stephen Potter is a 6’ 1” former left-back from Solihull who is now manager of Brighton and Hove Albion. His playing career started in 1992 at Birmingham City for whom he played a season and a bit, before going on loan to Wycombe Wanderers and then being transferred to Stoke City for three seasons. He played eight games for Southampton in the Premier League and got an Under-21 cap while there before being sold to WBA where he stayed for four seasons but playing just 47 games. After that it was loans to Reading and Northampton before settling at York City for three full seasons in what was then called the Third Division, but which was really the fourth. He then played 15 games at Boston United, was then loaned to Shrewsbury. His final club was Macclesfield for whom he played 64 games, scoring eight times in what was by then called League Two which was really also the fourth division. He retired aged just 30 not because of injury but because he was bored with playing and found little satisfaction in it. He sensed that there had to be more to football and life than this.
After 377 games across 11 clubs, he now began to educate himself and with support from the Professional Footballers’ Association, he achieved an Open University degree in December 2005 in Social Sciences. He worked as a football development manager for the University of Hull and as technical director for the Ghana women’s team at the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup. He became assistant coach for the England Universities Squad (did you even know such a thing existed?) before joining Leeds Metropolitan University in a similar role; while at Leeds, he completed a master’s in leadership and emotional intelligence. All of which is a bit different from being the ex-player who waits for a big managerial gig at a club that ‘matches my ambition’.
His first managerial gig began in December 2010, when he signed a three-year contract as coach of Östersund in Sweden. At the time they were in the fourth tier. Four years and three promotions later, they were in the top flight. They finished 8th in their first ever season at that level. He went on to win the Svenska Cup, get them into the Europa League, qualify out of their group and beat Arsenal 2-1 at the Emirates, all on a tiny budget. While the Gunners eventually knocked them out, it was clear that Potter was something special, not one out of the bottle. What he achieved at Östersund was little short of incredible and once he left in 2018, they immediately declined, getting relegated in 2021.
Graham meanwhile had moved to newly relegated Swansea City. He got them to the quarter final of the cup then got beaten by Manchester City despite having a two-goal lead going into the last 20 minutes. They made the most passes in the league that year. Swansea finished 10th but by May 2019 he was off to Brighton where he’s been ever since.
Since he’s been there, his win ratio is only 27% which sounds poor, however, he has drawn a lot of games, 38 so far, and in fact has lost just 37 out of 103 games, which for a small club in the Premier League isn’t bad at all. He’s lost just three this season and drawn eight and the club desperately needs a goalscorer. He remains one of the league’s most interesting coaches with talk of him being an England manager at some point.
Why the love?
His managerial career to date has been marked by great man-management skills. He really knows how to get people to work for him. His career matches the growth of new managerial thinking, and a move away from older, now out-dated methods. The fact he has studied something as anti-Proper Football Man as ‘emotional intelligence’ is emblematic of that huge difference in approach. The old way to deal with emotional intelligence was to have a bottle of brandy and a good cry in your bedroom and then swallow it all down again.
It is significant that as Östersund manager, he turned players that had been rejected by other clubs into title winners. You can only do that by gaining an understanding of their mentality and motivations and he seems to have gained that, not through the usual route of doing UEFA coaching badges, but via university education. He says of his masters degree that it taught him:
“Self-awareness. Empathy. Responsibility. Motivation. Relationship-building.”
“You need to know about football to coach, but you need to know about people, too. Sometimes that can be the difference. It’s about how you bring a team together. How you communicate as a team. How you understand each other. And, ultimately, how you unite the group for a common cause.”
Now, some managers might say this as a principle but never put it into practice, but Potter had to in Sweden. He had little or no resources and so had to make the best with what was at his disposal. While Brighton is a different financial prospect altogether, he seems to be keeping the same principles in place.
An absolutely fascinating fella to read and listen to, he says things that I don’t hear anyone else say in football management.
“I sometimes think we’re in this hierarchical culture that says ‘I’m the coach and I have all the answers and I’m perfect’ and I’m totally not.
“I like developing, I like seeing people improve. The fact that you can impact someone’s life in a positive way – not solely because of me – but because of the environment you create, can have a positive influence and stay with people for the rest of their lives, I think that’s the most important thing.”
Famously in Sweden he developed a ‘culture academy’ which saw players exhibiting their art and taking part in ballet. The narrow-minded restrictions of maleness being what they are we can only imagine how awkward this would initially have made many feel. However, once those initial self-conscious issues fell away, players really got a lot out of it. Potter seems to understand that to liberate talent you have to be an enabler who creates an open and welcoming environment and not some sort of hell hole of banter and bullying that has been football, indeed, the alpha male’s culture more widely, for so long.
With this enabling culture, Graham is in the same groove as Gareth Southgate. Much of England’s development from aggregate of disparate talents into a strong team is down to the psychological approach the manager took and is still taking.
Recently he’s spoken really well in relation to the Rainbow Laces campaign.
“It’s vital, as a game, we should welcome everybody regardless of who they love.
“It’s an issue we speak about a lot regardless of sexuality, the colour of skin, religion, it should be a game for everyone.
“We’ve taken some steps but not enough. Historically and culturally it’s a very masculine, heterosexual environment. Thankfully the world is changing and people feel freer to be who they are regardless of their sexuality, but it’s not easy.”
It’s hard to imagine some, possibly most, managers speaking like this. He has an easy, thoughtful manner about him and the lockdown sea captain’s beard really suits him. He’s got a touch of the Icelandic whaler who has just returned to shore after three years in the Arctic Ocean.
Three great moments
Östersunds’ victory over Arsenal…
One for students of the game. This detailed explanation of his tactics is exemplary…
Here, our intrepid Polar explorer explains the 1-1 draw with Southampton…
What the people say
– He’s an anti-PFM, someone who went abroad to develop himself as a coach, he has ambitions beyond his current station but sees the best way to realise them is to make Brighton as good as possible.
– There are lots of managers – particularly British, particularly in non-league, but elsewhere too – who come across in interviews as thinking their current job is beneath them and they’re only with this club until a better one comes calling. Potter doesn’t seem like that.
– Also follows Chris Hughton as Brighton manager’s Palace fans can’t really bring themselves to dislike beyond the obvious pantomime, because they both seem like thoroughly decent men.
The job he did at Swansea – where promises about incomings were not kept & several senior pros sold off in his first summer for less than their true market value – deserves to be lauded for its brilliance. He very nearly made the play offs despite zero support. Brilliant coach.
— Gary The No-Trash Cougar (@notrashcougar) December 10, 2021
– He’s humble and normal
– He has one of the finest beards in the Premier League, I’m 100% convinced since he grew the beard that is why Brighton have started scoring goals, The Samson of Beards
If Brighton can find a goalscorer or two in January, there’s no reason why the Seagulls can’t stay in the European places and make good progress next year in the Europa or Conference League, which, I think we can assume given his experience in Sweden, he will not be sneering or patronising about, as though it is somehow beneath the glorious Premier League team to compete in them.
As a man, he doesn’t seem driven by the usual shallow ambitions of money and status. He seems more keen on developing a club than merely taking over a successful, expensive one and buying his way to the top. I sense that would hold little interest for him. That alone marks him out as different. Earlier this year he was asked if he’d like to have more money to spend on players.
“’More money, more problems” I think that’s the saying. I don’t look at anyone else and think I wish I was this or that. I understand my club, the club I’m at, and that I’m very fortunate to have what I do and try to make the most of what we have. It’s being thankful and appreciative of that. That’s what we do.’
I love that he’s not in thrall to big money and isn’t impressed by it. In that way, perhaps he is similar to Southgate. Both are men of integrity, not likely to brag about their achievements while sinking a pint of wine. Southgate has shown that to be a good international manager, you don’t have to have a string of honours at club level. When he’s finished his term in charge, England could do much worse than get GP in as the next manager, if he wants it, to carry on the good work and keep the team spirit together.
I don’t see him as a manager of one of the big brands, that’s not his way. And there are few who we could say that about in 2021. His presence in the Premier League is a civilising influence in a world of selfish venality. Long may it continue.
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