âItâs a different kind of cold,â Graham Potter says as darkness spreads across Ãstersund and the temperature plummets to -20C. The inspirational manager of Ãstersund, who will reach the next stage of an incredible story when they host Arsenal in the first leg of their Europa League tie on Thursday, laughs when I say itâs hard to believe. Iâve felt colder on a wet February afternoon in Birmingham, not far from his old home in Solihull, than I do in this small town in remote northern Sweden.
âI know what you mean,â Potter agrees in his West Midlands accent. âThis is a dry cold and itâs not too bad, is it?â
Arsenal still face a very different experience against Ãstersund, at a snowy ground which holds only 9,000, and featuring a squad which Potter has galvanised through a variety of methods â from his players putting on a ballet production of Swan Lake for the town, singing on stage and writing a book together.
We take a bracing walk to his office where, over the last seven years, Potter has led the rise of this new club from the fourth tier of Swedish football to the European stage. This season Ãstersund have knocked out Galatasaray, beaten Hertha Berlin and drawn with Athletic Bilbao, on their way to the last 32 of the Europa League.
Potter is now the only Englishman still managing a club in European competition and he has achieved the feat with a squad of Swedish players mixed with footballers rejected or lost in countries stretching from Iraq to England to Ghana. Ãstersund, both as a town and a club, is agog at the prospect of facing Arsenal.
Potter takes off his jacket and grins. âI thought it was either going to be AC Milan or Arsenal. I remember sitting here as the draw happened and smiling. It felt like an amazing reward for what weâd done in 2017. We finished fifth [their highest-ever position in the top division] and won the Swedish Cup. The result of all that is weâve got Arsenal in the Europa League. Itâs incredible, Wenger has been at Arsenal longer than we have been in existence as a club.â
Ãstersund were formed on 31 October 1996 â five weeks after Wenger had been announced as Arsenalâs manager. âArsenal are a wonderful club, an institution, and to go to the Emirates for the second leg is fantastic and crazy â because they have more people [60,000] in their stadium than we have in our whole town. Weâre going to take 5,000 fans, which is mind-blowing when only 50,000 people live in Ãstersund. So hopefully Iâve shown thereâs another path for English managers.â
Potter played 10 first-team games in the top flight for Southampton and, as well as assorted loans, he was also at Birmingham, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion, York, Boston and Macclesfield. He was often frustrated by the English game. âWhen I first started, English football was coming from the dark ages, after the European ban. I played football because I loved the game â but I didnât enjoy the focus on not making mistakes and the culture being essentially one of blame and a little fear.â
Higher education re-shaped Potter. He began his first social sciences degree while playing for Southampton and eventually completed his masters. Luck then played its part. Graham Jones, Roberto MartÃnezâs assistant coach, had played with Potter at Boston and they were old friends. When Jones and MartÃnez were at Swansea they often played pre-season friendlies in Ãstersund. Jones forged a bond with Daniel Kindberg, their ambitious chairman. He convinced Kindberg that Potter should be offered the job as manager when the club were watched by just 500 fans and languishing in the bottom division.
When he arrived in Sweden in 2011, Potter immersed himself in his new role but his wife, Rachel, struggled. âThatâs the biggest thing when I look back,â Potter says, âand why Iâm proud of what weâve achieved. I had the football opportunity but she had to give up her business sheâd built up for 10 years. We had an 11âmonth old baby and were away from the grandparents. Rachel told me afterwards she cried every day for six months. She wouldnât show me when I came home as she was trying to be positive. But she missed her family, her home. It was not straightforward.â
Potterâs conviction, however, was clear. Even before one promotion followed another, and the rise to the top division was sealed in 2015, Potter was convinced he would succeed. âYou have to believe that. When you make this sort of move, with these sacrifices, youâve got to make it work. But it was consuming. The first two years there was no video so Iâd drive nine hours to scout a player. Rachel thought I was insane. There were moments of doubt when you think weâve got no chance because we havenât got the finances, the history, anything. But it was just fleeting. I believed.â
Ãstersund apparently plan to build a statue of Potter. âThere were rumours,â he says, âbut I tried to poo-poo that idea. I was used to football supporters hammering me and I thought my name was Graham Potter-Boo at one point. So itâs been different, and I remember the fans holding up a banner thanking Rachel. Iâd done an interview describing the big sacrifices sheâd made. The supporters recognised that and it was a really nice gesture.â
Success on the pitch has been accompanied by an embrace of culture as a way of developing players as people first. âIt was a combination of many conversations between myself and Daniel,â Potter says. âWeâd speak about holistic development and it was his idea to come up with the culture academy. I thought it was a great idea to develop the depth of a person.â
Whether singing or dancing in public, Potter ensured that every staff member performed alongside the players. âItâs so powerful to develop that trust and empathy. Our first theatre production was sold out to 500 people and we were uncomfortable and vulnerable. But dealing with it is a great way of developing self-awareness and responsibility.â
One of their more recent productions celebrated the indigenous SÃ¡pmi tribe, also known as Laplanders, with a local hip-hop artist. âThe first part is to get to know the culture and we had to learn about reindeer husbandry. Part of it was lassoing the reindeer so she said: âWho wants to have a go?â She had a pair of antlers and said: âPut them on your head.â I did while they got the lasso out. Only in Sweden.â
Potter laughs but he is soon serious again when asked which cultural event was the most meaningful. âTwo stand out. Swan Lake â because the crowd was so proud of the team and we got such a great reception. It was a real challenge collectively. And then the following year we did a gala of solidarity with refugees. To hear the stories and see the response, singing in front of 1,600 people, was powerful. I had to open it by singing the Lapland national anthem in a local dialect. It was incredibly nerve-racking singing in front of the players sober. You really work with your vulnerabilities but I managed to get through it. This year weâre working with a nice music group and a few of them have cognitive disabilities. Itâs fascinating.â
Potterâs success means that he has begun to be linked with jobs in England â most recently at Stoke before Paul Lambert succeeded Mark Hughes. Would such techniques work in English football? âYou have to respect and understand the environment. So I donât think itâs a case of taking anything from Ãstersund and transferring it to somewhere else. But concepts around how a team functions, the importance of the relationship between football and the person, how you develop both, are always valid.â
Before the Swedish Cup final last year, Potter thought it would be nice for the lads to get letters from their families expressing how proud they are. âEach player got two letters on the morning of the game. One was from me about them as people and the second was this wonderful letter from their family. It helped them understand this game was a special opportunity. That game stands out with the PAOK Thessaloniki qualification home match. We were 3-1 down from the first leg and won 2-0 at home. The implications of getting into the Europa League for a small club were huge.â
Ãstersund had won two earlier ties â and defeated a giant in Galatasaray seven months ago. âTheyâre a club with huge tradition and importance within world football. To have them visit us was an event. It was really intense and we beat them 2-0 at home, so of course their supporters made it very hostile in Turkey. We had enough about us to be organised and scored the first goal. We were good with the ball, we attacked well, created some good chances â but then you have to defend and be resilient. Afterwards we were worried because season tickets were getting thrown. But we went over to our supporters and all the Galatasary fans started to clap us. It was wonderful, a goosebumps moment.â
Arsenal will present a more complex challenge at the end of Ãstersundâs winter break. âWe understand where we are in the hierarchy and we need to play really well and they need to play really badly,â Potter says as we walk back out into the dark and the cold. The snow glistens under the small stadiumâs floodlights and Potter sounds full of hope. âIn football you can dream and weâll do our best. Itâs a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Weâll approach it as a gift, as a chance for us to find out more about ourselves and to grow and improve.â