From Swan Lake to Swansea, from the darkness of the Swedish winter to Brighton, it has been the path less travelled. Graham Potter heads to Brighton & Hove Albion’s next manager with a unique CV. If there is a suspicion that most of the Brits appointed by Premier League clubs are the same faces with ever fewer ideas and still less ambitious brands of football, Potter appears the exception.
Having coached at Hull and Leeds Metropolitan Universities and managed Ostersunds, some 300 kilometres from the Arctic Circle, where winter temperatures can be around minus 25°C, he represents the curiosity who has become coveted. His departure from Swansea City, where he has been hugely popular with supporters, should extricate a predictable Brighton team from a straitjacket. He promises to be the antithesis of his predecessor.
The sacked Chris Hughton did an admirable job, but within parameters. Potter's career path shows he has not limited himself. The dismissed Brighton manager's last point came in a draw at the Emirates Stadium. Remarkably, Potter beat Arsenal there with Ostersunds, the club he inherited when they were in Sweden's fourth tier and after being recommended by Graeme Jones, Roberto Martinez's long-time assistant.
If he was obscured to British audiences for much of his eight years in Scandinavia, a solitary season in the Football League has rendered him hot property. Early impressions helped convince Swansea fans that wizardry was not confined to another Potter. The substitute Yan Dhanda scored the opening-day winner at Sheffield United with his first touch in professional football. Last season, only Lyon, Chelsea and Swansea went 2-0 up against Manchester City which, even in defeat, indicated how ambitious their football was.
Not all of Potter’s schemes worked – the slight No 10 Bersant Celina did not prosper as a deep-lying playmaker against a robust Birmingham City side, for instance – but he showed a refreshing willingness to experiment that marked him out as an original thinker. Few managers have deployed a 4-2-2-2 formation in the Championship but Potter has been that rarity.
Yet while the most eye-catching details of his time in Sweden – getting his players to perform Swan Lake in front of fans – could suggest an eccentric with a litany of leftfield schemes, Swansea did nothing of the kind, suggesting Potter can adapt to circumstances, and that there is method to the supposed madness.
Swansea’s 10th-place finish may look underwhelming for a club that had been playing in the Premier League the previous year. It was the context that rendered it impressive. Potter prospered amid chaos and cutbacks, excelling with understudies and unknowns. A fire sale followed relegation. When the summer transfer window closed, Potter was left with an unbalanced squad: Swansea only owned one senior centre-back, Mike van der Hoorn, and a solitary fit striker, Oli McBurnie. But Potter made the most of what he had: McBurnie scored a career-best 24 goals.
A second clearout in January left a still more slender squad; some 17 players left over the two windows, with a further five going at the end of this season. For those who have not seen Swansea since their Premier League days, the team is unrecognisable. Yet that is also a compliment to Potter; the exodus of the established created a blank canvas and a manager who once put on an art exhibition in Sweden used it to paint a picture of his vision of football.
McBurnie and Daniel James, the breakout star who is now wanted by Manchester United, were the flagship successes for his policy of trusting the up and coming and his skills as coach who can conjure more from his players. Four young Swans have got Wales call-ups this season and that capacity to mould and improve the emerging should suit Dan Ashworth, Brighton’s director of football, who is fully aware of the young talent coming through England’s age-group teams.
Whereas only Watford and Chelsea named older sides than Brighton, whose oldest group averaged out at 29.4, Potter picked the youngest group in the Championship, at just 23.5. While Brighton had the fourth lowest share of possession in the Premier League, Swansea had the third most in the lower division. It is that progressiveness, of both principle and personnel, that gives Potter such appeal.