Graeme Jones knew there was something atypical about the full-back who had joined him in signing on for a League Two season at Boston United. It was 2003 and winter was, for different reasons, drawing in on both men’s playing careers: Jones had been a prolific goalscorer in the lower divisions but was 33 and had half an eye on what was next; Graham Potter was five years younger and had never quite strung together a few consistent seasons in the top two tiers with Birmingham, Stoke, Southampton and West Bromwich Albion. There was a sense of disillusionment in Potter but there was more, too: a spark behind it all that, in 10 years as a professional, Jones had rarely seen in a team-mate.
“I knew he was different and that’s what attracted me to his personality,” Jones remembers. “Different as a boy, as a lad, and I enjoyed that as I was probably of a similar ilk. I liked his humour, I liked his intelligence and we really connected on that level.”
A close friendship developed and both men are a long way from York Street now. Jones will patrol touchlines in Russia next summer as assistant to Roberto Martínez with Belgium. It is Potter, though, whose star has risen to a degree that, on raw facts alone, defies comprehension. When he took over as manager of Ostersund in December 2010 he inherited a dysfunctional fourth-tier side from the north of Sweden; seven years on they are a win away from qualifying for the Europa League knockout stage and, since July, have taken the scalps of Galatasaray, PAOK and Hertha Berlin.
That is breathtaking in itself but Potter’s story is an example of what can happen when, with a happy confluence of time and place, talent is given the space to flourish. He had, in Jones’s words, “found the game, and management in particular, really, really frustrating” as a player, feeling his technical attributes were misunderstood, and retired two years after the pair met. Potter worked as football development manager at Hull and Leeds Metropolitan universities, completing a master’s in leadership and emotional intelligence at the latter. The occasional offer to play again held little appeal and had another chance friendship struck up by Jones not borne fruit, it is hard to imagine there would be a tale of this magnitude to relay.
At the heart of Ostersund is their irrepressible chairman, Daniel Kindberg, a former army battalion commander prone to seemingly fantastical statements that, unusually in a sport full of people eager to patent different shapes of wheel, keep on coming true. These days Kindberg says with a straight face that Ostersund can win this season’s Europa League and, after that, the Champions League; there were more mundane priorities when, in the summer of 2006, he asked the Premier League for three academy coaches to work with the club’s young players.
Jones, by now looking after Middlesbrough’s under-14s, was one of them and quickly became a close confidant. Players and coaches from his contacts book soon started coming over to this outpost of 50,000 inhabitants, based in an area far better known for winter sports. Kindberg trusted his judgment but hesitated in 2009 when a callow Potter was put forward for the manager’s job. “Daniel met him and wasn’t sure,” Jones says. “But they got relegated that season and he said to me: ‘What do you think now?’ I replied: ‘I told you the best person for the job was Graham Potter.’”
Jones feared Potter would need some persuading to sit down with Kindberg again; fortunately Potter did not demur and now in a better place himself having completed his studies and become a father, this time a quick agreement was reached.
With hindsight you wonder how Kindberg could ever have hesitated. Ostersund, who quickly won three promotions under Potter and are the current cup holders, play the kind of constructive, flexible football their manager had pined for while traipsing around the English leagues. Equally noteworthy are the resources Potter has used to achieve his end: his methods are centred on a willingness to revitalise players others had long since consigned to the scrapheap. That nous for emotional intelligence has come in especially handy and it does not take conversations of undue length with some of his players to discern heartfelt feeling about the turnarounds, personal and professional, Potter has wrought.
Ostersund’s captain, Brwa Nouri, had been blacklisted by Swedish clubs after a number of infractions but is now a driving force in their European campaign and has described Potter as “one of the best men I’ve ever met in my life”. Other success stories include Curtis Edwards, a wing-back who had, by his own admission, “not conducted myself right” while coming through at Middlesbrough. Edwards’s was a tale of the usual vices – nightclubs, alcohol, gaming, girls – and by the age of 20 he was working on building sites for his father while playing Northern League Division Two football with Thornaby. Potter found him trying to make some sort of living in Sweden’s fifth division with Ytterhogdals IK 18 months ago; Edwards is now 23 and scored a superb half-volley in the 2-2 Europa League draw with Athletic Bilbao last month.
The point is that, just as players aged between 18 and 21 have plenty to learn in football terms, they are also incomplete people. It seems obvious enough but Potter’s approach is far removed from the norm in England, where the cutting loose of talent in that age bracket frequently causes heads to shake on the continent. Jamie Hopcutt, a 25-year-old winger who was released by York City in 2010, was one of Ostersund’s matchwinners against Galatasaray in the second qualifying round and had last been playing for Tadcaster Albion when Potter caught what others had missed.
Having come this far, Edwards is honest enough to say Ostersund represent a shop window. “It’d be nice to go back to England, but if it didn’t happen it wouldn’t feel like I’d failed,” he says. “I’m happy where I am but obviously want to progress, whether there or somewhere else.” He is far from the only player to have attracted interest; the vultures will circle as soon as the European run ends but a more complicated question surrounds the future of Ostersund’s prize asset.
It is, depending on your perspective, either scarcely credible or grimly predictable that Potter has attracted next to no serious attention in discussions around the recent vacancies at Everton, West Ham and Sunderland. His selling points hardly need spelling out; sadly, nor does the fear of the little-known that pervades Premier League and Championship boardrooms. Kindberg has fielded interested phone calls in the past but it speaks volumes that no odds are readily available on Potter for any current roles in England.
“I know for a fact that he can go to the very top,” Jones says. “The problem is that he’s got such job security at Ostersund: he’s allowed to work, Daniel trusts him and you can’t really measure how important that is.”
The adage, per Sir Alex Ferguson, that you pick a chairman rather than a club has particular mileage here. Would Potter be able to thrive at a chaotic Stadium of Light, for example? He may feel tempted to ponder anew when Ostersund exit the Europa League; that will not be until in the new year if Zorya Luhansk are beaten at the Jämtkraft Arena on 23 November and, having narrowly missed out on guaranteed qualification for next season’s competition after a fifth-placed finish in the 2017 Allsvenskan, a new challenge could be a logical next step.
“I speak to Graham all the time: we’ve always got football issues to speak about, as well as having a giggle and a laugh as friends,” Jones says. They can reflect on the wonders that were born on a training pitch in Lincolnshire; the question now is whether anyone closer to home will trust Potter – and, if so, whether Potter should really trust them.
The Guardian Sport