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20 May 2019

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Graham Potter.

New Albion manager Graham Potter’s career path is a matter of record – a so-so playing career as a left back with Stoke, Southampton and West Brom, among others, followed by spells coaching at university level and then with Östersunds FK.

After leading the Swedish club from fourth tier to first and a place in the Europa League, in which they beat Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, he took over at Swansea City a year ago following their relegation from the Premier League. He guided the Swans to a top-half finish last season despite the departures of Federico Fernandez, Alfie Mawson, Lukasz Fabianski and more than a dozen others.

But what about Graham Potter the man? Speak to those who know him and you soon get a picture of an impressive, innovative and modern coach. “Honest,” “positive” and “intelligent” are words that you hear again and again. If his record at his two previous clubs is any guide, Albion fans can expect to see something rather different from the football they have been used to – although the mood in the technical area will remain calm.

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Niclas Lidstrom was a sports journalist when Potter arrived at Östersunds and is now part of the club’s media department. “We were and still are a small club and the players didn’t know how to react to this new coach from England,” he said.

“It was a struggle at the beginning but after a time they could see that his methods were working. And they continued to work – we went from the fourth to the first division.

“He is very relaxed, he knows what he wants from the players and knows how they will react. He has a degree in psychology and he works on that side of football a lot with the players. He tries to understand them and help them understand what’s happening during a game and more generally. He talks to individuals and says ‘I will do this because of that’.

“Sometimes he leaves out a really big player because of his idea of how we should play in one game and I think it was really important for him to explain that to the players. If the players know why he has taken them out of the starting team for one or two games, they can say: ‘Okay, I understand that’ and we move on.”

And that was not a rare occurrence. “During the time I’ve watched the team and then travelled with them, you never know which team he will put out, which players. As a journalist, I was really confused about why he had benched certain players who had been good in the previous match and I couldn’t understand it.

“He changed the team a lot, and even changes tactics during a game. The players had to adapt to that and it wasn’t so easy at the beginning. They weren’t used to it. But after a while they accepted it and thought: ‘Okay, let’s play it like Graham wants and see what happens.’ And it was really good.”

Potter’s psychological approach emphasises the positive. “In the seven years he was here, I never heard him complain about referees, never,” Niclas says. “I think that was why the referees gave him their coach of the year award!

“That [positivity] was one of the key things at the club. If a player does something wrong on the pitch, hey, forget it and do it right next time. The club way was never to complain or say something was anyone else’s fault, for example to say you missed a goal because you got a bad pass.

“The media loved him every step of the way. He told us what he was thinking and when you’re always winning and going up the divisions, you can’t complain.”

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The tightly-knit team that followed Potter to Swansea and will rejoin him at Lancing - Billy Reid, Bjorn Hamberg and Kyle Macaulay - was formed in Sweden. “Bjorn is a local guy from Östersund,” Niclas says. “He was assistant coach when Graham arrived. Billy Reid came after three years, Graham knew him earlier. Kyle could find players that no-one else wanted to have.”

That was important at Swansea, their next destination, where post-relegation wage cuts meant the departure of 16 players last summer and more in January. Further sales are expected at the Liberty Stadium in the present transfer window.

Ian Mitchelmore of Wales Online covered the Swans last season and was impressed with the way the new coaching team picked up the pieces. “After two years of damage limitation under Paul Clement and Carlos Carvalhal in the Premier League, the style he implemented was a return to The Swansea Way, as we call it, as played under Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers.

“He brought that philosophy back, passing the ball and playing out of defence. It felt like a year of great work. They had the highest number of passes and accurate passes in the Championship last season, which shows how far-reaching the changes were.

“That belief in passing can be risky and it cost them a couple of times but they also had some phenomenal results. If he can do the same with better and more experienced players who buy into it quickly, then the football could be very good to watch at Brighton this season.”

The Swansea player sales forced Potter to give young players a chance. “It was down to necessity but he has shown that he is willing to put them in and let them prove that, with a bit of coaching, they are talented players,” Ian says.

“Daniel James had been loaned out to Shrewsbury but couldn’t get a game and came back after three weeks. Matt Grimes was on loan to Northampton, Oli McBurnie had had a spell on loan at Barnsley but got relegated there, Connor Roberts went to Middlesbrough but was called back early after four games.

“These were young players who had had really tough experiences but he trusted them and made them better. Now Roberts is first-choice right back for Wales, McBurnie scored 22 goals in the league last season, and Grimes was voted player of the season against tough competition. James is going this summer for big money – it’s just a question of where.”

And, like the players at Östersunds, the Swansea youngsters were handed some challenges. “He was tactically very innovative and certainly in the first half of the season he made a lot of team changes. After Christmas the team was easier to predict, but even then in the FA Cup tie at home to Manchester City he picked a radically different side.

“He wanted to play out from the back and he knew that City weren’t going to be direct and there wouldn’t be a threat from a big man. So he moved central defender Cameron Carter-Vickers to left-back and brought Grimes back from midfield into the back four alongside Mike van der Hoorn.

“And it worked, certainly for the first hour, because Swansea went 2-0 up and only lost 3-2 to an offside goal.” In other words, don’t be surprised to see Yves Bissouma at centre half and Lewis Dunk in the Bernardo role!

Ian is sorry to see Potter go but can understand that the likelihood of further departures did not make staying an attractive option. “He had that in two transfer windows and if he hasn’t had assurances that it isn’t going to happen on a wider scale then you can understand it. But he was excellent with the press, even if he didn’t always give you the answer you wanted or expected, very honest and direct, straight as an arrow. I can’t speak highly enough of him.”

The Swansea players were impressed by Potter’s man management. “He was the reason I signed a new contract,” McBurnie told The Independent last season. “For me personally he has had a massive impact, on the field and off the field.

“And the one thing that really sticks out with me about this manager compared to other managers I’ve had is how much he cares about you as a person. So for me and for a lot of the younger boys he has been incredible. I can’t thank him enough.

“He just fills us with confidence, and tells us how good we are as players. It was one of the main things he brought in when he came here. It was all about that attitude, and wanting to play for each other, and work hard for each other. And I think that’s the main thing. Teams with good spirit have done a lot of things in football.

“I spoke to the manager the first day we came back [for pre-season] when it was all a bit up in the air. And he said everything I wanted to hear. He said the way we wanted to play, he said what he wanted to from me, where he saw me fitting in the team and the way he sets his teams out. It was like music to my ears.”
But how does a neutral think Potter will handle the Premier League? Justin Allen is The Sun’s main Championship reporter but has also covered hundreds of top-flight games. He saw a lot of Swansea last season, interviewed Potter on a couple of occasions and gives him a ringing vote of confidence.

“He is relaxed and chilled-out and he’s a very intelligent bloke with a clear philosophy,” Justin says. “He will build something. He will start from basics and it will be very interesting to see how he gets on if he is given time. The Premier League is very unforgiving and who knows what will happen if he starts badly? But I don’t think he will, and I don’t think Brighton will be relegated.

“He had got Swansea playing attractive football, very easy on the eye. They had lost their identity in the last few seasons in the Premier League and he rediscovered it. And he did it with young players from the academy, playing week-in, week-out along with a few shrewd signings.

“He found a way at Swansea when they could easily have gone down again. Brighton will be a big challenge but he had to take it. If he had stayed at Swansea, the squad would probably have become weaker and they could have finished lower than this season and then his reputation takes a hit.”

It was Potter’s over-achievement with that depleted squad that Justin says has been most impressive. “A few weeks ago I did my column on the EFL Awards and I listed my alternatives and I made him manager of the year.

“How do you compare degrees of success? Daniel Farke at Norwich and Chris Wilder at Sheffield United have done brilliant jobs to win promotion but Graham Potter went into a club that really could have got relegated and had them competing for the play-offs. And they came very close to beating Manchester City in the FA Cup quarter-finals.

“Daniel Farke, in fact, said that Swansea were the best team they had played all season after a game at Carrow Road. Swansea were the better side for long periods, even though Norwich won.

“I think it’s a good appointment. Short of Eddie Howe, he is the best English coach Brighton could have got.”

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