Östersunds FK, 2018-2020
For the last three years of Graham Potter’s reign at Östersunds, a big question had hung over the club.
“What’s going to happen when Graham leaves?” Everyone was asking the same question.
Graham had taken Östersunds from the fourth tier to the Allsvenskan, the top league in Sweden. He took them into Europe. He’d been there for seven years, so there was a really big question mark from supporters, players, staff and the media over what was going to happen when he left for Swansea.
I’d been in Norway for five years when the Östersunds job became available in the summer of 2018, and the club flew me over for a chat.
I think they knew Graham (above) and I had similar coaching backgrounds – we are both English, we both arrived in Östersunds when we were 35, and we both had experience coaching in university football prior to that – so they thought I could provide a degree of continuity. They offered me the job.
But our similarities also meant there were a lot of comparisons being made. I was very conscious of that – and, while I respected the work Graham had done there, I wanted to be myself. I didn’t want to copy anybody.
“The club had had a bit of a hangover after that Europa League run – it was an opportunity for me to make a statement”
When I arrived, I found a very anxious squad. They were worried about where the club was going. Some key players had been sold, and some others were on their way out. A lot of the staff had gone, too. There was a lot of uncertainty.
I was apprehensive about how the players would receive me. Sometimes a new manager comes in and says: “This is my way.” I didn’t want that to be the case.
The first thing I did was reassure the players that everything they had built wasn’t just going to get ripped up.
I did a lot of research into why Östersunds had been so successful, so I knew what things to make sure I kept. I focused on things I could add, rather than what I could take away.
When I joined, the league was on a break because of the World Cup, so I had a bit of time with the squad before our first game – against Hammarby. They’d started the season really well and were top of the league. Östersunds hadn’t. The club had had a bit of a hangover from the run to the Europa League round of 32, which had ended against Arsenal in February 2018 (above). It was a great opportunity for me to make a statement to the players.
I took the squad to Denmark for a week away together. It was very important that I built up some sort of rapport with the players in that time – talk to them, learn about them, understand them a bit better.
I also wanted to set out some initial things I felt like I could immediately have an impact on. I knew the team was very good at controlling games; they were very comfortable in possession, but I wanted to push the players in their reaction to a loss of possession. I wanted my Östersunds team to counter-press aggressively and focus on fast transitions.
“The moment Graham left and someone else took over would be a defining moment”
During that week in Denmark, we bonded as a group, and I tried to introduce the new ideas. We played two of the country’s top teams and tried out different systems, different formations. This gave the players exposure to different situations and an insight into how I wanted to develop them as a team.
Most of this was with the Hammarby game in mind.
A lot of people were saying it was one of the most important games in the club’s history.
Östersunds had had some huge games in the Europa League, but the fact that Graham had been there for so long meant that some people felt the moment he left and someone else took over would be a defining moment.
So, I was well aware that there was huge importance on starting well, if only to convince those comparing me with Graham that I could take the team forward.
We prepared very, very well for the game at Hammarby. We did a lot of research on them, and went deep into how we could approach the match.
After the Denmark trip, we had a week to lead into the game. When I have a full week like that, I like to start off by showing the team some examples of how the opposition play, and use it to show the players what they need to be aware of in the week.
Then I try not to be too specific with the sessions, but retain an overriding theme that will lead the team in the direction we want to go for the weekend.
“Curtis Edwards had been a key player for Graham, but he had overslept. Suddenly, I had a decision to make”
As the week goes on, we move more into the specifics of the game, and at the end of the week we look at tactical work, team shape and how we’re going to set up.
But, of course, you need to keep an open mind as a coach because your game plan can be thrown out the window by something out of your hands. That is exactly what happened to me on the day of my first game as Östersunds manager – one of the most important in the club’s history.
Curtis Edwards (above) had been a really key player for Graham’s team, and he was integral to my plan for the game to gain some control in midfield.
On the day of the game, he missed the team breakfast and didn’t make it in time for the bus either. He’d overslept, and had to meet us at the airport for the flight to Stockholm.
Suddenly, I had a decision to make. Do I keep a player in the team who was very important to our plan to win the game, or drop him and maintain the values that we wanted everyone to adhere to?
It didn’t take me long to decide. The team was more important than the individual, so we left Curtis out.
The players wanted the best players out there because they wanted to win, but they also understood my decision. As a coach you have to allow players to make mistakes, but they have to live by them as well.
We also realised this might actually help us out, because Curtis gave us a great attacking option from the bench.
He was embarrassed by what had happened when I spoke to him, and respected that I had left him out. He was extremely apologetic. But I also made it clear he had a big part to play from the bench. He understood what he had to do to rectify his mistake.
It was an incredible atmosphere that day. Hammarby have a fantastic fan base and regularly get 25-30,000 in at the Tele2 Arena. It’s a brilliant occasion every time, but it’s also a notoriously difficult place to play.
The first half was good in some respects, but we went a goal down late on, and we could see that some elements weren’t going to improve if we left it as it was. So, I decided to change the shape of the team.
With the noise of the crowd, it was unbelievably difficult to communicate what you wanted to the players, so we had to use the half-time break well. I gave the players a couple of points to focus on, then asked members of my staff to deliver instructions to individual players.
Then, with around 30 minutes to play, we brought Curtis on. We ended up winning the match 2-1.
“There had been doubts about me – I really wanted to succeed and prove myself”
I think players enjoy a level of discipline and adhering to a team culture and values that come before everything else, so that episode with Curtis helped us set the tone for our time at Östersunds. We showed what the culture was going to be like.
Nobody was late on a matchday again, and Curtis was first at breakfast every single morning after that. He’s gone on to win the league with Djurgardens, so maybe it was just a little wake-up call that has helped him – and it certainly helped the team going forwards.
There had been a lot of doubts about me, about what kind of state Östersunds would be in when Graham left. After a pretty brutal time at Viking, with all manner of financial problems, I’d had a period out of the game – and I really wanted to show what I could do. I really wanted to succeed and prove myself. Having not had a playing career, I’d taken a long route to get to where I was.
So, to win there (above) in my first game at Östersunds in the way we did – Curtis getting dropped, changing the tactics at half-time, coming from behind in front of a huge home crowd – was massive. It put me in a good place straight away, both with the supporters and the press.
You plan the ‘what ifs’ before a game as much as you can: what if we’re 1-0 up? What if we’re a goal down? So you are as prepared as possible. But there’s an art in coaching that is sensing the game, sensing where the momentum is and what you need to change.
Rarely will your initial game plan work for the full 90 minutes, so you have to be ready to adapt – and information from all the staff helps to make collective decisions. When you make the call to make a change and it works – like it did in that Hammarby game – it’s great. It shows the whole staff are making a contribution as a group.
It was huge to get the momentum early on from that win. To go away to top of the league and win from behind was amazing.
“I went to Scandinavia as a 29-year-old with a very idealistic way of how the game should be played. I’ve learned to be more flexible”
When I’d first joined, I’d got out of doing an initiation song, so after the Hammarby win I agreed to do one. So the celebrations in the changing room were mainly just me singing, much to the players’ amusement.
We drew away to Malmö in our next game – another really tough match – and then won four in a row. I think for me, personally, winning five of the first six and drawing one put a lot of the fans at ease. It gave me platform to say: “Just relax. There’s been a lot of changes within the club, a lot of question marks about where we’re going, but we’re here to develop this team and we’re going to work together to do that.”
The start we enjoyed got the press and the fans on side, and it provided the foundations for a successful time in Sweden.
I stayed at Östersunds for two years. We finished the first season sixth, one point behind the club-record points total that had been set under Graham – we would have beaten it but for conceding a 92nd-minute penalty on the final day of the season!
It was almost eight years that I was away from England in total – more than five years in Norway and more than two more in Sweden. It’s been a wonderful experience, but in the end my family decided it was time to move back and start a new challenge.
I went to Scandinavia as a 29-year-old, with a very idealistic way of how the game should be played. I was pretty uncompromising with those views.
I’ve learned to be more flexible as I’ve faced different problems, seen different situations and had different players. I’m now much more adaptable on a tactical level.
And, on a more personal level, I think I’ve come to better understand the value of a player as a person. I think, before, because I didn’t have a career as a professional player, I always just thought players must just love to be players – that it must be the best thing in the world.
I have seen what kind of emotional things players go through, and I’ve developed more empathy towards them and a better way of managing individuals.
I’ve learned and adapted a lot. I try to put myself in the players’ shoes every time I put a session on.
And I left the club in a very good place. Considering some people had thought Östersunds were finished when I’d started out there, it’s a pleasing way to look back on my time there.