Graham Potter: ‘The Dalai Lama Is Quite a Clever Guy, Isn’t He?’
Upstairs at Brighton & Hove Albion’s striking Y-shaped training pavilion, Graham Potter is talking through how he came to lend his copy of the Dalai Lama’s Ancient Wisdom, Modern World to one of his former players at Östersund a couple of years ago. Curtis Edwards was at home watching Netflix when, around 8pm, the manager called asking whether he was busy. Kyle Macaulay, the scout who has followed Potter from Sweden to Swansea and now Brighton, drove Edwards to the Jämtkraft Arena and for the next hour and a half Potter and he spoke openly about almost everything but football.
“We were just chatting and chatting and we got on to reading,” explains Potter. “In the end, I just said: ‘Have a read of that.’ Curtis was one of those guys that whenever he made a mistake, he beat himself up a lot and it was just trying to change how he thought. I showed him games where his head was up in the air when he had made a mistake and actually he should have been reacting to what’s happening rather than worrying and beating himself up about making a mistake. The Dalai Lama is quite a clever guy, isn’t he? He puts things into perspective a little bit, and I just thought: ‘Why not?’”
It is that kind of mentality that makes Potter, who has a master’s in leadership and emotional intelligence, so refreshing. An absorbing character, he finished his playing days at Macclesfield Town aged 30 and worked as a technical director for Ghana at the 2007 Women’s World Cup before taking his first managerial post in the Swedish fourth division. Potter is all smiles but there were serious messages in the blue book he handed over in his office that evening, and he stresses that the same approach may not chime with another player.
“We are our own worst enemies and as a coach you can help people recognise that, raise their self-awareness and then see if they change or do anything about it. That is actually a very rewarding thing about the job because you are actually helping people’s lives in a way. People think that coaching is about winning football matches – which, of course, it is – but throughout my career it has also been about helping people become better, more able to deal with life and be more successful in their lives, on and off the football pitch. That is also quite powerful and it actually allows you to be consistent in your work as well if you have that as a reference.
“If you just pin yourself to a result, it is a bit of a rollercoaster. You cannot win all the time and, often, we don’t win that much. You have to have something and I think if we can create an environment where people genuinely think that we are trying to help them, trying to improve them and make them better, then OK, maybe they will try a bit harder, and do a bit better for the team and the club. I have to remind myself of that a lot, especially if we’ve got beat. It takes me probably 24-48 hours to come out of that darkness of defeat.”
The more Potter speaks, the more it feels as if the 44-year-old will be a brilliant addition to the Premier League. When Swansea played Manchester City in the FA Cup last season, Potter asked his players in the pre-match meeting: “How do you want to die?” The result of that question was a belting performance and left Brian Kidd, Pep Guardiola’s assistant coach, gushing.
Giving players responsibility and taking them out of their comfort zone is something Potter has been passionate about for some time. There are the stories of the end-of-season “cultural projects” at Östersund, whereby Potter and his squad would put on a show in front of their fans: rapping, reindeer husbandry and everything in between. Then there was the Swan Lake ballet production, but kickstarting one of the concerts with the Lapland national anthem sticks in the memory.
“I had to sing the first bit pretty much a capella,” Potter says, smiling. “It was not Rod Stewart, put it that way. You had that buzz of feeling like a rock star, that feeling of playing to a crowd. But also the process of it. It sounds great – well, it doesn’t – but the rehearsal process, the time you have to put into it, is challenging. There are bits when the lads don’t really want to do it; you have to try and manage that as a team, as a club, and the coming together of it all was really good.”
There have been no such performances since succeeding Chris Hughton at Brighton just over two months ago, only initiations – Potter jokes they could not get his assistant, Billy Reid, off the mic in Austria over pre-season – but he firmly believes there is a real value attached to stepping into the unknown. “I just think it’s the only way you can get better, ultimately. As soon as you stay comfortable, I think you’re the on the way down. I remember doing my first coaching sessions at Macclesfield, when I was still playing, and I was just terrible. I felt really uncomfortable standing in front of people, and it felt very odd. It was not something I was naturally comfortable with at all. It was the same with your peers, when you’re doing those coaching badges, but you realise that if you want to do something and grow that’s just normal.”
Leandro Trossard has arrived for a club-record £18m, eclipsing the fee that weighed heavily on the shoulders of Alireza Jahanbakhsh last season. The Iranian winger, as well as Jürgen Locadia and Florin Andone, are among the signings yet to truly impress but there is room to grow. “You hope there are a lot of players here that are yet to reach their peak and there is more to come. That is always the exciting part of the job, so we are looking forward to that. The guys have been really responsive, very hard-working and now we have to make sure we are competitive and ready.”
After 14 years of work to get here, Potter’s stock is sky-high, his appointment regarded as a coup by Dan Ashworth, the technical director, and Tony Bloom, the owner, but he is in no doubt that he must deliver. “In my position you cannot use time as an excuse,” he says. “Of course, we want to be better, improve, and we will do. You can talk philosophy, identity, all these nice words – but you have to think in the short term as well. We are in a results game and you have to try and do your best to win.”
The Brighton squad have bought into his progressive, punchy playing style – wing-backs and a three-man defence, led by the home-grown captain Lewis Dunk, are likely to start at Watford a week on Saturday – and Potter, who has moved to Hove with his wife, Rachel, and three young children, including four-year-old twins, is beginning to settle in. “It has been a bit manic but I’ve been walking about, getting a feel for the place and it’s lovely. But we’re here to try and get a team on the pitch that is competitive and can win football matches.”
The Guardian Sport