On the up at Ostersunds: interview with English boss Graham Potter

“It’s never lost time to meet new people or experience new things, and Ostersunds was one of those things for me,” says Graham Potter.

“Before I took the job, I’d already been over here and knew a bit about the club but, like anything, you don’t know 100% what you’re getting into. Now this is my home and I know people all over the city.”

They may have started as strangers, but now the names Potter and Ostersunds go hand in hand. To those in the know anyway.

Since taking charge of the small provincial club in northern Sweden five years ago, former England Under-21 international Potter has transformed their fortunes.

Thanks to a run of three promotions in five seasons, Ostersunds now compete in Allsvenskan, Swedish football’s top tier, alongside heavyweights Gothenburg and Malmo. It’s a level they, or any other club from that part of inland Sweden, have never competed at before.

“When I started, we got attendances of 500 – now we’re playing in front of 30,000 at Hammarby and beating Gothenburg, who have competed in the Champions League before,” explains Potter, with the same West Midlands twang he took to Scandinavia in 2011.

“It’s some difference to where we were a few years ago. On one level it’s something to be proud of but, at the same time, the nature of football is that you can’t afford to look back and rest on what you’ve done. You always need to keep moving forward.”

While more and more British coaches are jetting off across the globe to find their big break, just how did a managerial novice – whose 300-plus career appearances all came in England – arrive at the heart of a Scandinavian fairy tale?

Before packing his thermals and snow boots for the sub-zero temperatures that have earned the city of Ostersund the nickname Vinterstaden (or Winter City in English), Potter’s only previous coaching assignments had been at Hull and Leeds Metropolitan universities.

But Potter’s novel methods and can-do attitude made him stand out from the rest. And when his friend Graeme Jones, then assistant manager at Swansea City, mentioned a managerial vacancy at a club in the Swedish lower leagues that the South Wales side had links with, Potter emerged as a leading candidate.

Since then, he hasn’t looked back, leading Ostersunds to unprecedented new heights with a collection of players from all over the globe.

In the five seasons he’s been in charge at the Jamtkraft Arena, representatives from Korea, Comoros and Ethiopia have all pulled on Ostersunds’ red shirt – among a host of other nationalities.

Encouraging players to make the move to one of Europe’s most remote outposts is a challenge, particularly at first. Although success has made the task decidedly easier.

“It takes a certain type of person to move here because it’s a small community,” says Potter, whose family joined him in Sweden when he took the Ostersunds hot seat.

“We spend a lot of time and resources on making players feel comfortable in this environment. After all, players play football for a couple of hours a day and are human beings the rest of the time.

“From a football and person perspective, it’s about learning, trying to improve and making a difference in this small part of the world. If players are open-minded enough, it’s a really good opportunity for them. When we sign players, we’re looking for an attitude that says ‘I want to improve every day’.”

Any new signings that do pass Potter’s criteria shouldn’t arrive expecting an ordinary football club. If living in a place where the fierce winter conditions cause the city’s great Lake Storsjon to freeze so firm that cars can drive across it isn’t enough, Ostersunds’ social activities are sure to send a shiver down players’ spines.

Forget the tales of nerve-wrecking initiations at other clubs – Ostersunds’ players have to face a new challenge every year, regardless of when they signed.

From performing Swan Lake in front of hundreds of fans to putting on an art exhibition made up of their own masterpieces, Potter and his players are used to taking part in galling exercises that would have most professional footballers feeling queasy.

Months of painstaking preparation goes into each activity, which are selected by chairman Daniel Kindberg at the beginning of each campaign.

“When you finish a show and people are clapping, it’s comparable to winning a match,” Potter admits. “You’ve done it as a group and you feel a real buzz.

“We’re trying to grow individuals holistically as well as from a football perspective. I’m not sure how well some of the activities would go down in some clubs in England though.

“Ostersunds is a unique and fantastic club – nobody has left here happily. We do stuff as people, not just as footballers and I’m proud to be part of it.”

Moving on is part and parcel of football and, although Potter is too modest to admit it, he has attracted some attention from other prospective employers who have been impressed by his achievements at Ostersunds.

In December last year, Potter was strongly linked with the vacant Swansea job after Garry Monk’s departure and has drawn comparisons with outgoing England boss Roy Hodgson, who started his own managerial career in Sweden.

But Potter remains focused on his job at Ostersunds and, after seeing his role develop over the years, he would encourage other British coaches to try their hand abroad if they get the opportunity.

“It’s not a straightforward choice to make, as there is always family to consider and other sacrifices you have to make,” adds Potter.

“I get a fantastic buzz from being here and I’ve loved every minute of it. The role has changed and become bigger as the club has grown, and I wouldn’t swap the experience for the world.

“I just do my job over here and, as the story has grown, more people have taken more notice back home. But as a football manager, all you can do is focus on the team and the job.”

One thing’s for sure; together, Ostersunds and Potter aren’t strangers to success anymore.

On the up at Ostersunds: interview with English boss Graham Potter
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